Conversations about what we need to know about higher education, both to rate college and university performance and to provide information to prospective students and their parents, leave one word largely unspoken: faculty.
A recent report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, \”Mapping the Postsecondary Data Domain,\” mentions faculty members only once—as users, not as subjects of data. And the report is only the latest in an effusion of discussions of higher-education data needs. The same neglect occurred at a daylong Department of Education symposium on the subject in February. While pondering what we need to know to improve and reform higher education, students, administrators, and researchers were mentioned repeatedly, but the faculty members who teach those students received only rare and fleeting attention.
The absence of any apparent interest in faculty members, crucial players in postsecondary education, seems remarkable if those efforts are intended to genuinely improve the quality of education for students and society.
At one level the absence of faculty members is understandable given today’s political imperatives. Driven by concerns about students’ access to a college education, and paired with fears about ever-rising levels of student debt, the focus is on assessing which colleges provide \”the best bang for the buck\” and related evidence about student outcomes.
The net effect of this narrowed perspective on the challenges of higher education is to suggest that the only factors affecting access to and successful completion of a college degree are the financial costs and the preparation of students. But starting from that perspective, without trying to understand what happens between admission and graduation, seems remarkably shortsighted. It ignores the systemic nature of higher education, and the fact that a majority of students do not choose a major until after they have come into significant contact with faculty members.
We realize that knowing the distribution of faculty members in the classroom, their teaching methods, and their morale will not tell us how a specific student may fare at a particular college. But any conversation about reforms in higher education is truncated without information about the faculty members who play such a vital part in the education and welfare of college students—not just as teachers in the classroom, but as advisers and mentors guiding students through their college experiences and providing recommendations that will advance subsequent careers.
Ample evidence shows that good teachers play a role in student success, so it matters whether today’s faculty members are satisfied with their career choices and are providing a model for future generations of their successors. Given the growing prevalence of part-time and contingent faculty members, it is in our interest to know where they are being used, why they choose to take those positions, and how much time they can devote to work with and for their students. If we are truly at a moment when employment is fundamentally changing at the postsecondary level, then we should be tracking those changes and providing guidance to the doctoral programs training future generations of academics for the classroom.
Consider some of the questions that are left out of those discussions: Who is teaching in the college classroom? What are their qualifications? How much time do faculty members spend interacting with students? What technologies are they using both in their pedagogy and in their interactions with students? Absent evidence, we have to resort to small-scale studies and anecdotes. Until 2004 the National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty asked and answered those questions. This survey was suspended by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2004, and there appear to be no plans to reinstitute it.
At the moment, the only substantive data about faculty members are drawn from institutions, and often offered only at levels that make them almost useless for detailed analysis. Take, for instance, the often-cited figure that well over half of all college and university faculty members today are employed in a part-time or adjunct capacity. Since those figures come from a head count at each institution, we do not know how many faculty members are double-counted because they teach at multiple institutions. We do not know how the ratio of full- to part-time faculty members varies across the different disciplines. We only know from the last survey that, at that time, a significant proportion of faculty members in adjunct positions lacked a doctoral degree, and that they devoted significantly less time to interacting with students outside the classroom.
Both of us have direct experience working with departments, assessing their programs and trying to carry out reforms. The best of those efforts start with a comparative analysis based in data about their own program and programs at similar institutions, assessing the relative size and distribution of their courses, the numbers of students taking those courses, and the number and type of faculty members teaching them. Information based in data, and disseminated in a way that allows comparisons as close as possible to the needs of those asking, greatly enriches those conversations, allowing the discussion to go forward in an informed and substantive way.
The lack of current data on postsecondary faculty members is a serious gap in efforts to develop the kind of systematic educational indicators the recent reform efforts by the Department of Education and the Institute for Higher Education Policy seem to be advocating. For those who truly care about the future of higher education, these are not trivial questions.
We are under no illusions that the development of a proper survey would be simple or cheap. Developing a proper sampling frame, generating contact information, and pursuing those responses is a significant amount of work. But the benefits to the current reform efforts, and to higher education more generally, would make this a worthwhile investment.
Norman M. Bradburn is a professor emeritus and former provost at the University of Chicago. Robert Townsend is director of the Washington office of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. They are principal investigators of the Humanities Indicators.