Review: The Faculty Factor


The Faculty FactorMartin J. Finkelstein, Valerie Martin Conley, and Jack H. Schuster. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

Summary: A data-rich study of the profile, experience, and influence of university faculty in the turbulent and rapidly changing landscape of higher education institutions in the United States.

Every commentator on higher education will tell you that the higher education world is going through a season of dramatic change that puts pressures on faculty and administrators. Among these are economic pressures and the use of business models for academic planning, postponements of retirement of tenured faculty, technology changes affecting both content and delivery of education, a focus on STEM fields, and the increasing diversity of the general populace and the expectation of seeing this in the academic workforce.

This data rich study seeks to provide a quantitative basis for assessing changes in “the faculty factor”–their influence, the character of their work, their career paths including both entry and departure, and the demographic make up of the faculty. This book builds on an earlier work, The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers, by Schuster and Finkelstein and charts the impact of the Great Recession of 2008 on faculty.

The work is broken into five parts. The first is an overview of the history of faculty in America and some recent change dynamics and how these affect different contexts. The second focuses on career paths–entry, progress, and exit. The third looks at the nature of work and specialization, cultural changes, and compensation. Part four compares American faculty and their institutional influence with faculty around the world. Finally, part five sums up the changes that have taken place and recommendations for strengthening “the faculty factor.”

This is a massive and fine-grained analysis showing detailed experiences of faculty by types of institutions, gender and ethnicity, career and age stage, and academic discipline. It’s not possible to capture all the insights into change going on but several key findings are the following:

  • affiliation in terms of tenure or tenure track varies widely by type of institution, maintaining its greatest strength in the research context, and weakest at the associate degree level institutions. There is also wide variation by academic disciplines, with STEM faculty enjoying higher levels of tenure.
  • there are more diverse career pathways, and variation between men and women remains significant. As many have noted, there are many more remaining in adjunct or non-tenured contract positions.
  • functions of teaching, research, and service are becoming more highly specialized, whereas at one time they were all a part of any faculty person’s work life.
  • the faculty is more diverse, although this diversity is not always equally reflected in differing types of institutions, and in those holding tenure or tenure track positions.
  • one of the factors affecting career paths, shaped in part by the Recession as well as longevity and changes in employment law are the increasing number of aging tenured faculty who continue to work, and retire at later ages, often past 70.
  • faculty influence, especially beyond their own departments is greatly waning as increased managerialism by non-academic university leaders replaces faculty governance.

I would commend this for several groups of people. While it is a lengthy read, prospective graduate students contemplating academic careers would do well to understand current trends and how these may shape their career aspirations. Likewise, this would be worthwhile for graduate students considering their career path and what kind of institution they want to work in to weigh. Faculty, particularly those in their early careers can benefit from this analysis, especially if they care about university governance.

There is one final group for whom this is of value, and particularly they may find it helpful in distilling so much research into a single work, and that is university planners, boards of regents, and political leaders exercising oversight over research funding and higher education. What this study highlights for me, and should be considered by them, is that for many serving the educational mission of colleges and universities, these are increasingly unsustainable careers, and I would think, at some point, higher education may find itself critically short-handed, as people figure this out and pursue more remunerative careers.

The authors recognize that the “faculty factor” is the critical factor in American pre-eminence in higher education. Other countries are rapidly overtaking us and both governmental and institutional factors are weakening the influence of this key group. The question I’m left with after reading this book is, will we wake up in time and renew our efforts?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: The Faculty Factor

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: February 2017 | Bob on Books

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