Academia

The Academic Graveyard Shift: The Bubble that Didn’t Burst

June 20, 2013
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At least a couple of decades ago, scholars began anticipating the retirement of baby boomers. It was to be a magnificent bursting of the bubble that was created when the U.S. population rapidly expanded in the years following World War II. Years went by, and we watched Dennis Hopper market Ameriprise retirement plans to boomers on TV, by greeting senior citizenship on his own rebellious terms (Mr. Easy Rider was not himself a boomer). We waited. We are still waiting. For those observing higher education faculty, we should go ahead and make ourselves comfortable. Fidelity Investments made headlines this week when it reported its findings from a recent survey on higher education faculty retirement planning, which included, “74 percent of these boomers plan to delay retirement past the age of 65, or never retire at all.”

The Fidelity survey only included benefits-eligible faculty members, which suggests that respondents were full-time faculty (about 40 percent of total U.S. faculty). Even then, without knowing more about how the sample was selected, it’s tough to know exactly what to make of the validity of the findings. However, these data seem to jibe with what many in higher education have observed anecdotally. The other findings from the survey seem similarly plausible: 1) 69 percent of faculty are not retiring for economic reasons; and 2) 81 percent are not retiring for professional reasons (the two groups have some overlap). I’ll take these one at a time:

  1. It is remarkable, but not surprising, that more than two-thirds of full-time faculty members may be feeling a lingering pinch in their wallets. Fidelity’s survey report finds that more than half of those citing economic reasons for holding off retirement (55 percent) are not sure they have enough savings for retirement. To begin with, full-time, inflation-adjusted faculty pay increased by an average of only 7.7 percent in private doctoral universities from 2001-2002 through 2011-2012. The public sector fared even worse where inflation-adjusted pay either decreased or increased by less than 1 percent across institutions during that period. Private master’s and baccalaureate institutions fared only slightly better than the public sector with 1.9 percent and 4.3 percent increases, respectively. Of course, accounts of faculty layoffs, furloughs, pay freezes, and other economically harmful measures at least indirectly related to the great recession of 2008-2009 continue today. Mix in the harrowing psychological experiences of many retirement-age faculty in watching their portfolios implode, and you have some understandable economic uncertainty.
     
  2. Fidelity’s finding that eight in ten full-time faculty are choosing not to retire for professional reasons may be more unexpected to some. It seems many senior faculty really like their work. This finding is not likely to surprise either of two groups, however: those who understand academic freedom is often not fully realized until promotion to full professor or, alternatively, those who believe the academy is rife with lazy faculty, whose job security is nearly absolute.

The glue that may bring these two seemingly incongruous views a bit closer to reconciliation is the acknowledgement that the character of faculty work often changes substantially over the course of a career, and faculty exercise greatest discretion over their own work once they achieve seniority. Some favor teaching to the detriment of research; some favor research to the detriment of teaching; some spend more time outside the university (e.g., consulting, service-learning, action research) to the detriment of commitments on campus; and some choose to pursue heavier university governance responsibilities to the detriment of other work. The point is, one’s notion of what kinds of faculty work are most important tend to color one’s sense of how productive faculty members are. This understanding may be particularly helpful to those criticizing the productivity of senior faculty on grand scale, or those who predict the glut of faculty choosing to push back retirement systemically threatens academic effectiveness.

These latest data suggest the faculty boomer bubble may not burst for some time. This should highlight the importance, now more than ever, of learning exactly how to motivate, support, and manage senior faculty. Just because senior faculty are responsible for a dizzying array of work does not mean all forms of work are strategically equal in importance. Nor does it mean universities can afford for all senior faculty to markedly shift focus away from teaching, away from research, or away from service roles by virtue of their own discretion alone. Key university agents, such as department chairs, deans, and provosts, should be deeply interested in maximizing some of their most valuable assets. They share responsibility with senior faculty themselves for ensuring aging in the profession occurs gracefully.

The Academic Graveyard Shift: IRS Provides Guidance on Identifying Institutional Peers

May 7, 2013
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“Do not pass go, do not collect $200,” the harsh cliché made ubiquitous by Monopoly, is essentially what the Internal Revenue Service told a group of universities recently. A special report from the IRS found several institutions had inflated their Baltic Avenue social statuses to Boardwalk for the purpose of setting executive compensation. Roughly 20 percent of the private, nonprofit subset of colleges and universities that were selected for inclusion in the report have been told they are not in compliance with statutes governing executive pay in charitable organizations. One result is that “the IRS plans to […] ensure, through education and examinations, that tax-exempt organizations are aware of the importance of using appropriate comparability data when setting compensation.” This statement constitutes a clear shot across the bow of universities locked into the never-ending game of reputational enhancement—often sacrificing important work for visible work and attempting to become cool-by-association (e.g., rank, “tier,” membership in exclusive groups). The implications for proliferation of the IRS-approved measures of comparability extend well beyond executive pay, and the potential for new precedent in reducing competitive perversities among universities is enormous.

The Academic Graveyard Shift: Staffing “State U Online”

April 24, 2013
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Yesterday, my colleague Rachel Fishman released a new policy paper, entitled State U Online. Besides synthesizing a progression of steps for building and sophisticating a public online education model,the paper provides a compelling look back at distance education in the U.S. as a nearly 300-year-old phenomenon, not a 20-year-old blip. This historic perspective strongly suggests the answer to a question skeptics of online education continue to pose: Is technology-based education yet another passing fad? While State U Online shows technology-based education is here to stay, one reason the question has persisted may be that faculty themselves are reticent to face the pursuant question, which is whether there will be a place for them in the academic workforce of the future. The answer is that it depends on the structure of faculty work and, in public institutions, what the state hopes to gain from it.

The Academic Graveyard Shift: The Costs of Declining Teaching Loads

March 29, 2013
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A new report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and Education Sector, “Selling Students Short: Declining Teaching Loads at Colleges and Universities,” assigns tenure-line university faculty a remarkable amount of blame for the high price of college. As the report states, bemoaning faculty labor costs is common practice among critics of the academy, who frequently assume the single largest university budget category (usually faculty compensation) holds the most fat. To his credit, author Andrew Gillen moves beyond that simplistic assumption and seeks evidence of ineffective faculty spending. In doing so, he tells a compelling and concerning narrative about university products and faculty priorities: the instructional mission of American higher education is being short-changed, particularly for students and taxpayers. Unfortunately, the report’s conclusions ultimately overreach and overshadow its main value—generating greater policy discussion around the costs and products associated with faculty work.

Gillen uses federal data to demonstrate reductions in tenured and tenure-track (TT) teaching loads across institution types, between academic years 1987-1988 and 2003-2004. He provides a cohesive synthesis of factors widely thought to contribute to this outcome, with some emphasis on Massy and Zemsky’s concept of “the academic ratchet.” The academic ratchet explains that as faculty seek reputational prestige and career mobility through increased attention to their research responsibilities, they must, and readily do, decrease attention to instruction and other responsibilities. The report neglects to mention the other half of this framework, (“the administrative lattice”), which explains how administrators enable faculty to restructure their work: they expand their ranks, also at added cost. Data show administrative growth, both in terms of expenditure and added employees, has been prodigious in recent years.

The Academic Graveyard Shift: Facere Magis Cum Minus (Do More With Less)

March 22, 2013

“Do more with less.” Many universities could emblazon their crests with this motto to reflect their 21st century operational—if not inspirational—ethos. With not one but two recessions to begin the new millennium, the economic environment has not exactly been conducive to rapid expansion. Yet, that is exactly what has taken place for colleges and universities across the United States. Between 2000 and 2010 degree production increased across most institutional types; likewise, spending increased even as subsidies from state and local governments decreased (students footed the bill). During roughly the same time period, the number of postsecondary instructional staff grew over 30% (by about 380,000 instructors). The lion’s share of these new instructor positions have taken the form of part-time and graduate appointments, which command far less compensation for their work than full-time faculty and are virtually all ineligible for tenure. This development of an underclass of university faculty is quickly approaching a boiling point, and the implications for effective faculty governance are troubling.

The Academic Graveyard Shift: A Thin-Crust Guy’s Faculty

February 20, 2013
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Starting in 2014, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandates that employers with more than 50 employees must provide health insurance to those working more than 30 hours per week. To prevent having to give their employees proper benefits, Papa John’s Pizza voiced intent to cut the hours of employees to fall just below the 30 hour threshold.  Customers expressed reprehension at the prospect of the pizza giant further limiting the earnings of its lowest income employees in the name of corporate revenue. The public backlash was so powerful that Papa John’s founder and CEO, John Schnatter walked back his loophole planning, but it remains to be seen whether universities—American cultural bastions of fairness and opportunity—will fare differently. The government has hedged on behalf of adjuncts, but the question of whether and to what degree universities will ultimately be allowed to implement similar plans to fudge compliance with the ACA remains unresolved.

The Academic Graveyard Shift

February 11, 2013
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In 1969, tenure track faculty constituted 78 percent of the academic workforce. Today, less than 25 percent of the academy is on the tenure track (TT). This means that in about forty years, faculty labor has turned completely upside down. Non-tenure track (NTT), contract-contingent faculty—otherwise known by the anesthetized (often pejorative) term adjuncts—now account for the vast majority of faculty appointments in the United States. Further, a recent survey of provosts affirmed that we have every reason to believe this reliance on adjuncts will continue its upward trajectory. While a good deal is known about the growth in NTT labor, very few people seem to realize that the traditional conception of a tenure-track faculty does not, by and large, apply to the modern academy.

Here’s some background on the status of adjunct labor. The community college sector accounted for the lion’s share of NTT growth between 1969 and 1998. Adjunct appointments in two-year colleges grew by more than 800 percent over that span. In the years that followed, data show that although community colleges still accounted for the greatest growth in real numbers, the most dynamic rate of growth in adjunct labor occurred at public and private, nonprofit comprehensive universities (four-year schools providing education through the master’s level). In addition, NTT appointments account for disproportionately high numbers of women and faculty of color.

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