• October 22, 2014

How to Build a Faculty Culture of Change

From Armageddon to Innovation 1

Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

Organizations that successfully innovate do so because their core members are willing, even eager, to do things differently. In my new book, Checklist for Change, I argue that for more than 30 years, the absence of this willingness to do things differently has held us in check, trapping us in a cycle of thwarted innovations while exposing our inability to limit our costs in ways that might strengthen rather than diminish the quality of our institutions.

Four traps now account for what others have increasingly lamented as higher education's failures:

  • An increasingly fed­eralized market for undergraduate education, in which the federal government has become the principal third-party payer, has made the competition for new students the sine qua non of financial success.
  • A moribund accreditation system punishes those who try to do things differently.
  • A troublesome fractiousness holds sway on many campuses, with a take-no-prisoners rhetoric.
  • And a faculty, encamped just north of Armageddon, knows that change lies just over the horizon but is not yet convinced that change is either necessary or desirable.

Changing that last condition—in essence, rebuilding a faculty culture of change and innovation—will require forceful and, more important, collective action on our part as members of the faculty. As individuals we will have to abandon that sense of ourselves as independent actors and agents. The financial crisis of the new century has taught us that talking about "my money" or "my students" or even "my research" brings few benefits and no friends. We need to be frank about the need to share the money. We will have to understand that we neither own nor possess our students, though we have an important responsibility to ensure their successful learning. Hence my checklist for change begins with a more detailed understanding of just how much we professors must change, sooner rather than later.

My checklist calls for five changes:

Relearn the importance of collective action. I would start by having us relearn the importance of collective action—to talk less about shared governance, which too often has become a rhetorical sword to wield against an aggrandizing administration, and talk instead about sharing responsibility for the work to be done together. Already much of the research we do, we do with others—colleagues in our own departments and institutions as well as colleagues across the globe. Collaborative research, it turns out, is more productive, more efficient, and, most of the time, more intriguing as well as more fulfilling. Collaborative teaching confers the same benefits, provided there are both shared purposes and shared designs.

Put an end to rhetorical excess. Improved collaboration among faculty members, and between faculty and administrative units, will require de-escalating the rhetoric now too often employed to diminish and embarrass perceived opponents.

Faculty members who enjoy these battles will want to argue that strongly held opinions, particularly when the rights and autonomy of professors are at stake, require strong language that forcefully draws lines that no right-thinking member of the faculty will want to cross.

Instead, those faculty members who have better things to do mostly withdraw, leaving their more combative colleagues to duke it out either with one another or, as is more often the case, with the administration or the trustees or some misanthropic governor or state legislator. In this environment, sustained and idea-centered discussions become a rarity—we see too much shouting, too many arguments that become personal, and, as a consequence, too little listening as opposed to broadcasting.

Empower a different kind of faculty leader. The next battle we will have to fight is to make certain that we choose respected scholars to lead our faculty organizations. Forty-five years ago, when I started as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, the lions of the Faculty Senate dominated academic discussions across the campus. They were both experienced leaders and major scholars. Over time, Penn's senate, like similar bodies on many campuses, atrophied. In a world in which faculty members have become independent contractors in all but name, no one is much interested in mastering the discipline of herding cats. Service on an institution's budget-and-priorities committee (or its equivalent) still attracts top-name academics, but they act more like trustees exercising a watching brief over their institution than like active players in the development of policies and strategies.

Colleges with collective bargaining face a more complex challenge. Almost uniformly, faculty unions have made protection of the status quo the standard by which to judge success, along with their ability to win salary increases for their members—the tasks one expects a good, well-connected, well-organized union to undertake.

Recast the faculty-staffing table. No doubt the most serious structural change that the faculty faces is the need to redefine the tasks, responsibilities, and privileges assigned to teachers of differing ranks and qualifications.

At one time, the faculty's approach to this challenge was remarkably straightforward: Faculty of nearly every stripe and discipline declared that they sought more tenured or tenure-eligible faculty just like them—fully salaried, fully employed, fully engaged in the production of scholarship and the provision of instruction.

Today almost no institution has the resources to sustain a full-time faculty composed solely of tenured or tenure-eligible professors. Since the mid-1990s, one institution after another has drifted—some would say lurched—toward an academic work force that often has as many contingent workers as it has tenured and tenure-eligible faculty. The contingent side of the staffing table includes a host of titles—adjunct, clinical or practice professor, postdoctoral fellow, research professor, instructional staff—as well as a wide variety of compensation schemes. In general the contingent work force that serves undergraduate education is paid less, teaches more, and labors without a longer-term contract and often without benefits.

This situation begs to be rationalized in a manner that is more efficient for the institution and more stable, as well as equitable, for the members of the contingent work force.

Make the academic department the unit of instructional production. There is one more structural alteration on my list of changes that faculty members need to adopt to better lead what will most likely prove a tumultuous process of change. In pursuit of ensuring equity among all faculty in terms of what is expected of them, most colleges have made the number of courses taught by each member of the faculty—the teaching load—a single standard of production. This labor standard all but guarantees that faculty discharge their teaching responsibilities as independent agents.

The absurdity of this situation is probably best reflected in the machinations that faculty must go through if they want to jointly teach a course. The standard rule in such cases is that each faculty member receives a half-course credit even though he or she attends every class session. The course-load arithmetic, particularly at an institution with a collective-bargaining agreement that provides detailed rules for defining each faculty member's teaching load, further fractures the faculty's sense of collective responsibility by converting service assignments into course equivalents. Each job or service responsibility is separate, with its own course equivalent, separate stipend, or both.

The alternative is to make the department (or equivalent) rather than each faculty member the base production unit. Assign to the department a collective amount of instruction (courses plus other instructional activities) that must be provided, and then let the department decide how best to distribute those instructional activities among its members. Joint teaching then becomes immediately feasible. Individual faculty members could teach more during one semester and less the next. The department could decide when to give release time for course design and development. Service activities would not be converted into course equivalents. At the same time, the department would have to learn how best to work together, thus beginning the process of becoming an instructional cooperative instead of an industrialized production unit, principally composed of interchangeable members.

In the 20-some years since Bill Massy and I worked out the logic for the essay "The Lattice and the Ratchet," which was our attempt to explain the growth of administrative functions and diminished faculty responsibilities, most of my published research and commentary has been shaped by the conviction that higher education is the faculty's business. In the kind of perfect storm I have imagined, it is what we do and what we take responsibility for that will matter most. It is that sense of personal responsibility that will ensure purposeful change and innovation.

Robert Zemsky is a professor of higher-education management at the University of Pennsylvania and chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education. This essay was adapted from his book Checklist for Change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise (Rutgers University Press, 2013).

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