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Findings from a Recent Analysis of Relationships Between Fiscal Stress and Faculty Appointments and Workload

The dean's Connections column for September 2008

monk.jpg(September 2008)

It was my privilege this summer to be a keynote speaker at an international conference on the economics of education that took place in Athens, Greece. When the invitation reached me (over a year ago), my first reaction was to think I wouldn’t have time to do the original research that would be necessary for the role. I then realized I could reach out for help, and Mike Dooris, Penn State’s director for planning research and assessment, kindly agreed to be a co-author on the paper.

Mike is wonderfully knowledgeable about higher education, and together we decided to focus the paper on economic forces that are driving decisions about faculty recruitment, faculty retention, and faculty workload. It turns out that Mike has been working closely with Rod Erickson on these issues, particularly as they apply to Penn State, and we invited Rod to sign on as an author as well. He agreed, and we’ve been working ever since on preparing the paper.

The topic is huge and quite unwieldy, partly because there is little consistency in the data across institutions. For example, something seemingly simple, like counts of faculty members on fixed-term contracts, is difficult to obtain since institutions count in different ways. The topic is also politically sensitive and universities can be reluctant to share some of the more relevant and interesting information.

We ended up relying most heavily on Penn State data, on the grounds that (1) Penn State is a good example of a public research university; (2) Penn State has an excellent database data base; and (3) We could gain access to Penn State data. It’s common to grumble about the data warehouse at Penn State, but the data here really are quite good. It also helps to have a data master like Mike Dooris on the research team. Mike can make miracles happen with finding the relevant data.

The topic is also quite relevant for us here in the College of Education, and I use the balance of my column to share some findings.

Fiscal Stress

In the early 1970s, Penn State’s appropriation from the Commonwealth comprised more than 60% of the University’s general funds budget. In 2007–2008, the percentage was down to 22% (which translates into less than 10% of the University’s total budget). The percentage share represented by tuition and fees has increased from less than 40% to 72% during the same period.

For the nation, during the past 25 years, the budget shares coming from state appropriations fell from 78% to 64%, with the tuition share going up from 22% to 36%.

Faculty Appointments

Until recent decades, hiring full-time faculty off the tenure track was an exceptional rather than a common practice. Since 1993, the majority of new full-time faculty hires at Penn State as well at our peer institutions each year have been in non-tenure-track appointments. As a consequence, the proportion of the faculty on fixed-term appointments has risen. At Penn State, between 1993 and 2006, the proportion of fixed-term appointments rose from 35 to 43 percent; the parallel change for our peer institutions was from 27 to 37 percent.

Faculty Workload

Given these hiring trends, it is not surprising to learn that the percentage of resident student credit hours being delivered by tenure-line faculty members at Penn State has been declining. In 1999, the percentage was 48; by 2006, the percentage was 40. During the same period, the annual research activity as measured by externally funded grants and contracts (and mainly generated by tenure-line faculty) increased from $393 to $657 million.

Our thesis is that various aspects of fiscal stress are related to these trends. We go on to speculate that higher education may be moving away from the traditional conception of the triple-threat tenure-line faculty member who is expected to contribute significantly to teaching, research, and service. Higher education, in contrast, may be moving toward employing a faculty with more differentiated and specialized roles. In particular, we may be entering a world where more and more of the teaching is handled by faculty members on fixed-term contracts who specialize in this kind of work.

We do not take a position in the paper about whether this is a good or a bad thing. Our goal is more modest, and we think it’s important to call attention to the trends and to stimulate debate. We argue that if the academy is moving in this direction, it will be important to make sure that the more specialized roles are intellectually stimulating and satisfying to the incumbents. It is essential for all members of the faculty to feel fully engaged in the pursuit of a unit’s academic goals. There is logic and coherence to the traditional triple-threat model; we assert a need to achieve something comparable with the emerging new roles.

The paper stimulated quite a bit of discussion at the conference, and it became clear that there are concerns about the desirability of shifting toward a more differentiated and specialized set of faculty roles.

I have touched on just a few of the findings here, and Mike, Rod, and I are working on revisions. The complete conference version of the paper is available here (pdf). We welcome comments. Many thanks.

David H. Monk