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Author: Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti, MS

Curriculum planning and development
budget decisions - university academic programs

What do provosts think about the state of higher education in 2017? According to a survey by Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman, editors of Inside Higher Education (IHE), several issues are coming to the fore, and the perspectives of these chief academic officers are more important than ever as the nature of the university presidency is changing.

“It’s more common than it used to be for presidents to be career administrators,” says Jaschik. Although college presidents are still likely to come from the ranks of the faculty, many who ascend to the highest office have spent a substantial portion of their careers working in administrative jobs. This makes the perspectives of provosts particularly interesting, as they may be the layer of higher education leadership most in contact with faculty and student concerns.

A decline of liberal arts?

One of the top issues confronting institutions of higher education is the role that liberal arts plays in a student’s education, regardless of the program of study or the focus of the institution. “Liberal arts are a bit on the defensive, but provosts get the liberal arts, even at professional colleges,” Jaschik told AL. In fact, a full 90 percent of provosts surveyed feel a liberal arts education “is central to undergraduate education—even in professional programs.”

“Provosts are frustrated by a false dichotomy,” says Jaschik. Much of the national conversation on liberal arts in higher education places liberal arts as the opposite of career education. However, “it’s possible to be an English major and think about a career-boosting internship,” says Jaschik. Students studying traditional liberal arts fields may very well not expect or want to enter a career in academe, and many such programs are recognizing this, adding career-oriented experiences and coursework to their programs.

However, there is evidence from the study that the liberal arts are currently under siege. Over half of those surveyed agree with the idea that the number of liberal arts colleges will decline over the next five years. Even more worrying, some 60 percent think “politicians, presidents, and boards are increasingly unsympathetic to liberal arts educations.” About a third of those surveyed think liberal arts “has become too divorced from the career needs of students and graduates,” and a third also believe that liberal arts faculty members show a lack of interest in “the desire of parents and students for career preparation.”

“Provosts have to balance budgets,” Jaschik says. Balancing budgets means paying attention to market forces, and, for the time being, that may mean paying more attention to education that focuses on career preparation. It also presents an opportunity for institutions to communicate the value of the liberal arts side of their programs.

The role of adjuncts

Another issue gaining attention in higher education is the role of adjuncts. With recent data showing that at least half of all college faculty members are contingent, it appears that the adjunct professor is here to stay.

Indeed, that is the conclusion of the provosts in the IHE survey. Nearly two-thirds of all of those surveyed expect no change to the status quo, a proportion that holds nearly constant regardless of whether the provosts came from private, public, or community colleges. Still more interesting is the fact that a third of those surveyed at private institutions and community colleges expect to rely even more heavily on adjuncts in the future. Only at public institutions did a significant percentage (14 percent) of provosts expect to rely less on adjuncts.

The world of adjunct professors is split roughly into two types. One type is the professional who teaches the occasional course: the lawyer who teaches a night class on civil procedure, the writer who picks up a section of creative writing, or the doctor who teaches anatomy to prospective medical assistants. The other type—the instructor who cobbles together a full-time teaching schedule from gigs spread across multiple institutions—is the one most heavily affected by institutional treatment of adjuncts.

“Many adjuncts are excellent teachers,” Jaschik says. However, he notes that adjuncts are typically not invited to sit at several important tables, attenuating their contributions to the institutions and students they serve. For example, adjuncts typically are not involved in curriculum development, placing that power in the hands of a relative few who work full-time at the institution and muting the voices of those who teach part-time. Many adjuncts could also make great contributions as academic advisors, particularly those adjuncts who also work professionally in the discipline they teach, but few institutions have mechanisms or payment arrangements in place to encourage this involvement.

“Colleges seem unwilling to change,” says Jaschik. He notes several factors in play that make reliance on adjunct instruction an attractive budgeting move, not least of which is the ability to hire part-time faculty members who are not eligible for health insurance. For the foreseeable future, it appears that the institutions in the survey do not anticipate a change in adjunct strategy.

Hiring for diversity

Another issue Jaschik finds particularly significant is the mixed feelings on hiring goals as expressed by the provosts in the survey. While 31 percent of those surveyed believe they can meet diversity-related hiring goals, an equal 31 percent believe they cannot. More important, 35 percent of provosts believe their hiring targets are unrealistic, while only 29 percent believe they are realistic.

Jaschik notes that part of the problem facing institutions of higher education is a smaller pool of minority PhDs. Increasing the number of minority PhD-holders would help alleviate this problem, but it quickly becomes an issue of deciding where and how to boost the pipeline: more minority PhDs can only come from more minority master’s candidates, which is dependent on more minority college graduates, all the way back to ensuring minority student success in K–12. Since university hiring goals often set short time frames in which to see results—such as increasing the number of minority hires within five years—it may be less realistic to believe that fundamental underlying problems can be addressed in time to see results. For this reason, Jaschik notes, institutions are often raiding other institutions more than they are attracting new minority PhDs.

The chief academic officers have their fingers on the pulse of higher education, and they are identifying the issues that will confront the industry in the near and long term. There are as many concerns that have emerged from the IHE survey as there are opportunities.

  For more information on the Inside Higher Education 2017 Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers, visit https://www.insidehighered.com/news/survey/2017-inside-higher-ed-survey-chief-academic-officers.

 

 Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is the managing editor of Academic Leader and the chair of the 2017 Leadership in Higher Education Conference. She is the owner of Hilltop Communications (hilltopcommunications.net).