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Jack Schuster and Marty Finkelstein's 2006 book The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers contains a wealth of data that supports their view of the uncertain future of higher education in the 21st Century. Both authors have been researching and writing about the American faculty for several decades. Based on their research and their new book, they have contributed an article aimed especially at NEA higher ed members for the 2006 issue of the NEA Thought and Action.

NEA Organizational Specialist Chris Maitland, a former student of Schuster asked him a couple of questions about the article he and Finkelstein wrote for Thought and Action.

Interview with Jack Schuster

Q1 – What do you want readers to take from this article and the book?

There are several key points that I believe are crucial for us to understand. First, is the extent to which very important, though barely visible changes are reshaping higher education. The most salient example [delete: of this change] is the swift and radical redistribution of full-time faculty appointments to contingent, that is term appointments. And, of course, this change is in addition to the large number of part-time faculty that have for decades been an important feature of higher education.

The second lesson is that the implication of these types of appointments is widespread. They affect many aspects of higher education, and yet those consequences have not been adequately examined and communicated. In the article, Marty Finkelstein and I summarized the consequences (benefits and costs) of the ongoing academic restructuring in Table 1. There are many fallouts, some positive and some negative.

A third major point here is the centrality of the faculty to higher education’s capacity to accomplish its stated mission. On the one hand, this is obvious; you can’t have a college or university without faculty. But on the other hand, this is an era in which so much attention has been focused on student learning—and for understandable reasons—that it sometimes obscures the faculty factor. The preoccupations with assessment and accountability seem to me to have swept aside the key reality that student learning is absolutely dependent on having faculty members who are competent and engaged in these tasks.

Accordingly, the redistribution of types of faculty appointments is redefining the relationship of faculty members to their institutions. And surely this seismic shift vitally affects student learning. And so, we urgently need to understand better what are the consequences of this “faculty makeover.”

Further, let me mention that one of the scary implications is the extent to which tenure is now being circumvented. In recent decades, only rarely has tenure been challenged frontally by governing boards or presidents. And yet, year after year for the past dozen years the majority of all new full-time appointments have been off the tenure track. Or, to say that differently, massive numbers of faculty members not only do not have the protection of tenure, they are not tenurable. And so, once more, the composition of the faculty is undergoing sweeping changes, the results of which are not yet very clear but are, to me, very troubling.

Q2 - What does this transformation signal for the quality of education?

There are some early indicators that the temptation to rely on contingency faculty is not producing comparable quality in the classroom. All of this indicates that more systematic effort should be made to examine the actual consequences of this faculty makeover. That is, instead of relaying on claims about what positive results may ensue with a sharp redistribution of types of appointments, we need to examine this empirically.

Q3 - What can faculty do?

There is yet another dimension of these changes that should be clearly understood. This transformation is not being dictated from on-high. Indeed, in the radically decentralized American non-system of higher education, for the most part these kinds of decisions are made campus by campus. The corollary of that reality is that at each campus, the faculty members are—or surely should be--crucial players. Often in my experience, faculty members don’t fully appreciate how much influence they can exert on such profound policy decisions. But often they can do a lot more, and this includes that faculty press vigorously for examining the results of these policy changes on the ground and in detail before plunging further in this direction. To do so would be both refreshing and would constitute a vital step towards reasserting the faculty’s legitimate role in governance. To the extent that faculty members are reluctant to participate fully in governance opportunities—even though much committee work admittedly is not the most gratifying or immediately rewarding—then faculty members are indifferent or worse about taking on these pivotal issues. And it follows that they are forfeiting their ability to shape their own future and, in general, that of higher education.

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