Adjuncts, harassment, finance, and technology: a look into the chief academic officer mind

What do American provosts and academic deans think is happening with their colleges and universities?  Administrators holding these crucial positions were surveyed recently by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup.  The results are fascinating and vital reading for anyone working or interested in higher education.

First, who is in the survey? 475 chief academic officers (CAOs) answered the call of Gallup.  They came from a range of colleges and universities: “257 public institutions, 207 private institutions and 11 institutions from the for-profit sector.”

Second, I’ll draw out some findings that stood out for me.  I strongly recommend reading the entire report, though.

Sexual harassment CAOs are confident in their institutions’ responses; they are also confident that there’s a lot of faculty sexual harassment.  Think about this one: “46 percent of chief academic officers say there have been allegations of sexual misconduct against faculty members at their institution in the past year.”  About one half of campuses saw allegations just in the past year.

At the same time, CAOs are committed to opposing harassment, and see their colleges and universities aligned accordingly:

Just 13 percent strongly agree or agree while 77 percent disagree, 50 percent strongly, that their institution has tolerated sexual harassment by faculty members for too long. Eighty-eight percent agree their college has clear policies in place to prevent sexual harassment by faculty members, and 89 percent say their institution responds effectively and fairly to allegations of sexual harassment…

Sustainability Surveyed officers are quite divided on their institution’s health.  For example, cutting academic programs is going on, but at fewer than one half of campuses: “Slightly more than one in three CAOs, 37 percent, report their college has cut majors or departments in the past two years, including close to half of community college chief academic officers (46 percent).”

Similarly, deans and provosts split on financials.  “By 44 percent to 37 percent, CAOs are more likely to agree than to disagree that the financial situation at their institution has improved in the past year…”

The survey’s authors detect a slight improvement: “The 44 percent of CAOs who report a better financial situation is higher than it has been in prior years, although not by a large margin, with prior readings between 36 percent and 42 percent.”

They also identify an important gap between private and public campuses:

Private college provosts are much more positive than public college peers, with 53 percent of the former and 39 percent of the latter agreeing their college’s finances are better.

The 2008 financial crash is still a negative driving force for nearly one half of American higher ed, even a decade later:

Ten years after the Great Recession, more CAOs still strongly disagree or disagree (46 percent) than strongly agree or agree (33 percent) that the economic downturn that occurred in 2008 is over at their institution. Still, the current attitudes represent an improvement over 2013 (when 58 percent disagreed and 23 percent agreed). Public and private CAOs have similar views on this matter.

Adjuncts Generally CAOs are open about how extensively they rely on part time faculty to staff classes.

Three-quarters of chief academic officers, 77 percent, say their college relies significantly on non-tenure track faculty for instruction. This is the highest percentage measured to date, and up from 65 percent in 2013.

Note the upward direction of that graph?  Looking ahead, “a greater percentage of provosts believe their college will become more reliant (26 percent) than less reliant (8 percent) [on adjuncts].”  Adjunctification is not just established, but growing.

There is some interesting awareness about the source of the adjunctification of American faculty: “CAOs are roughly twice as likely to agree (45 percent) as to disagree (24 percent) that graduate programs are admitting more Ph.D. students than they should, given the current job market.”  At the same time provosts and deans are divided, roughly, in support of a third option beyond adjuncthood and tenury: “One alternative to tenure is to give professors a series of long-term contracts. Academic officers are more inclined to favor (56 percent) than to oppose (44 percent) such an approach.”

Athletic budgets College sports remains incredibly healthy, at least in terms of CAO support.  Academic officers are least likely to say they will… [cut] athletic programs (6 percent).

Shared academics There is strong appetite for collaboration among deans: CAOs are most likely over the next year to emphasize increasing collaboration with other colleges and universities (90 percent)…”  It’s not clear from the study what they mean by collaboration, although the question appeared in the context of cost savings.

Open The OER revolution appears in some fascinating ways in this study.  To begin with, CAO support for OER seems to have grown, yet unevenly:

Academic officers are open to the idea of using open educational resources, at least in general education courses. Forty-nine percent agree and 19 percent disagree that free open educational resources are of sufficiently high quality that they should be used in most general education courses. Provosts at public institutions are much more positive about open education resources than are those at private institutions — 58 percent of public institution CAOs agree that open educational resources should be used, while 37 percent at private institutions share that view.

Note that nearly one-fifth of CAOs still think OER is inferior to non-open products.  Note, too, that huge gap between public and private campuses.

Even more striking is how CAOs think of OER in terms of faculty autonomy:

CAOs are also sympathetic to the idea of taking away some faculty member control over choosing course materials as a way of saving students money. Forty-six percent agree and 34 percent disagree that the need to save students money justifies some loss of faculty member control over course material selection. This represents a shift from a year ago, when CAOs were evenly divided in their views. Again, public college chief academic officers (51 percent) are more likely to favor this approach than are private college CAOs (36 percent)…

Yes, nearly one half of American academic deans (as represented in this survey) are willing to overrule faculty members in their choice of textbooks. Note, again, the gap between public and private CAOs. OER politics may heat up in the near future, with public institutions leading the way to an OER flip.

Competency-based education A majority of provosts and deans support CBE, more so than their institutions actually implement the practice.

79 percent [are] in favor of the approach. Support for competency-based education has been near 80 percent among CAOs for the past five years.

At the same time, only about half of academic officers (52 percent) indicate their institution awards academic credit based on demonstrated competence, though this is up from 44 percent in 2014.

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Implementation also varies strongly by institutional type:

Public institution academic officers (63 percent) are much more likely than private institution provosts (36 percent) to say their college offers competency-based education. Community college academic officers are especially likely to indicate students at their college can earn credits based on demonstrated competence, with 72 percent saying so.

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The survey also explores general education, liberal education, a sense of a campus’ overall academic health, assessment, inclusion, civic engagement, and more.

To some extent the results show uniformity, as with support for keeping sports alive, moving against sexual harassment, and collaborating with other schools.

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  Yet I’m struck by the picture this sketches of how different strata within American higher education are changing.  When it comes to faculty status, open education, and competency-based education, the public sector is the one changing more rapidly, especially community colleges.

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  Meanwhile, private colleges and universities tend to resemble more closely the kinds of campuses they were in the 20th century.  This is a gigantic generalization, of course.

Kudos to Inside Higher Ed and Gallup for conducting this careful and important work.  And thanks to Robert McGuire for the updated link.

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3 Responses to Adjuncts, harassment, finance, and technology: a look into the chief academic officer mind

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    US higher education has increasingly become a racket. Unaffordable to working-class students and their families, overuse of low wage labor, shady endowments, questionable marketing, wasteful moneyball sports, limited accountability.

    • Hyperbole notwithstanding, this may be true in many cases, although probably not all. Blanket statements devoid of nuance tend to be less than constructive, e.g. not particularly helpful in negotiating or initiating meaningful change.

  2. Joe Murphy says:

    That OER data is really interesting, and concerning. The “quality costs” argument in private institutions is a real danger for campus culture, relying as it does on incomplete ideas about who the “average” student is.

    (I wonder if it might reflect disciplinary biases among deans? Would a dean from an OA-friendly discipline like Physics be more likely to support OERs than, say, a literature scholar who can’t get good modern OER editions of texts and doesn’t agree that the out-of-copyright ones are adequate for undergrad use?)

    Regarding academic freedom, I do wonder if the rubber will ever meet the road. Sure, provosts like the idea of expanding their authority on a survey (who woudn’t?) but given every other battle they have to fight, I wonder if they’d really choose to pay the needed political capital. More likely, they’d do it slowly – find ways to incentivize OER use, or bless a couple of OER-first programs with high-profile attention, or start using metrics which include course content costs. With the real key being you bring in the student leaders and make sure they’re aware, and let the student body bring the pressure.

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