A Call to Change the Truths of Faculty Life

The following post comes from Lucy English, Managing Director of Institutional Research at Horizons Workforce Consulting.

I recently read that Harvard researcher Cathy A. Trower is stepping down from her post in the Graduate School of Education. Dr. Trower is one of the voices who have brought the challenges of academic faculty life to light in recent years.

No doubt, academic life is challenging. The junior faculty members I've talked with in interviews are completely overwhelmed by their work and family responsibilities and unsure to what degree their research, teaching, and service will meet the criteria for tenure.

I myself understand these challenges. I left a faculty position to join the corporate world some years ago. And I've watched academia with interest in the decade since. For me, the change from university life was for the better. But I've continued to make academia a focus of interest, looking in from the outside both as a consultant to colleges and universities and as a researcher on work and family in higher education.

The Need for Clarity & Support

The challenges for academia are clear. Dr. Trower's research pointed to common concerns, such as the lack of clarity that junior faculty felt in regard to the expectations for earning tenure. A typical refrain is that you have to do service, but it really doesn't count toward tenure. I haven't seen substantial change in this area, although there is more awareness and certainly some efforts toward clarity in some places.

And this is having serious repercussions. In our 2012 study of full-time faculty we found that 65 percent of respondents had seriously considered leaving their institution within the previous year, and 78 percent of them cited "to find a more supportive work environment" as a reason. A more supportive work environment is one that supports faculty both in terms of their careers and their family and personal commitments. It is a place that offers a dependable career track, where success genuinely works in a person's favor, and good work can be counted upon to lead them to the next level.

Missed Opportunity or Call for Change?

Academia continues to be a nest of talented, committed people. In all the colleges and universities I visit, there remains a core of motivated, caring, and giving faculty who nurture one another as well as each cohort of students.

Yet academia will have to do some work to capitalize on these talented people. There are many ways they are behind the corporate world as employers and it will take work to catch up.

But I believe it can be done. If my organization can support employees at work and beyond, so can colleges and universities. For those who want to give it a try, I'll be happy to help.