Who Will Fill Their Shoes? - Higher Education
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Who Will Fill Their Shoes?

by Michelle J. Nealy

Faculty, new and experienced, say the professoriate can be just as rewarding to a new generation of academics if teaching and research opportunities are opened for them.

Dr. Lorenzo Morris, chair of the political science department at Howard University, began his career in 1972 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was 25. Now after 36 years of authoring books, publishing papers and producing pertinent research, the tenured veteran of the academy still enjoys the rigors of the professoriate.

Dr. Robert Teranishi is on a similarly stellar trajectory, but he’s a rarity among younger members of the academy. The tenured 34- year-old is an associate professor of higher education at New York University. Serving as co-director for The National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, Teranishi has authored several groundbreaking reports including his most recent, “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders – Facts, not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight,” and is a faculty affiliate with The Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education.

Together, these two academics are involved in a vast generational shift expected to alter the landscape of higher education over the next 10 years. As many baby boomers like Morris prepare to retire in the next decade, there aren’t enough young junior faculty members like Teranishi in the professoriate to replace them, according to a recent study by the American Council on Education.

The faculty ranks have grown older as more than 54 percent of full-time faculty members in the United States in 2005 were older than 50, compared with just 22.5 percent in 1969, according to data collected by The New York Times.

The ACE report, “Too Many Rungs on the Ladder? Faculty Demographics and the Future of Leadership in Higher Education,” highlights demographic trends in the academy that suggest the traditional career ladder to top administrative jobs in higher education may be less appealing to 30- and 40-something academicians seeking tenured professorships.

The study reports that only 3 percent of faculty members who are at age 34 or younger hold the kinds of positions that typically lead to tenured or tenure-track jobs at four-year institutions. And women age 45 or younger in permanent positions make up only 5 percent of the faculty at four-year colleges.

Among the factors that contribute to the dearth of young adults at the bottom rungs of the higher education career ladder are the increased prevalence of postdoctoral appointments, students delaying graduate school in order to gain career experience, and the rising number of young female academics who take time away from their careers to care for young children, according to Dr. Jacqueline E. King, assistant vice president and director of ACE’s Center for Policy Analysis and author of the study. The increased use of contingent faculty, who are usually overworked and underpaid, has also sullied the profession.

With so few young professors entering the tenure-track ranks, how inspired will undergraduates be to pursue a career in academia?

Tarnishing the Profession

The increased use of contingent faculty may be compromising the viability of the professorship by painting a picture of inequity, experts say.

In 2003-04, part-time and nontenure tracked faculty constituted 48 percent of all faculty at four-year institutions. The vacillation of the nation’s economy between bad and worse, coupled with the hiring freezes sweeping academia, is expected to increase the numbers of part-time appointments.

“What we have is two classes of faculty, those who have tenure and everyone else,” says Dr. William Plater, executive vice chancellor and dean of the Faculties Emeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, adding that the number of contingent faculty has grown two-fold over the last 40 years.

Plater, who served as chief academic officer of IUPUI for 19 years, says that societal factors such as the increase in access to higher education coupled with diminished financial support from states have had the largest impact on the academy. “Universities, particularly public universities, are forced increasingly to rely on contingent faculty.”

“Faculty positions in higher education are projected to increase over the next decade according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but a lot of the new positions will be in community colleges or not on the tenure track in four-year colleges. People entering academia now are doing so as adjuncts and lecturers. That is tough,” says Teranishi, noting that such a lifestyle wouldn’t appeal to him and doesn’t appeal to others. “You’ve got a heavy teaching load, and the chances of your doing research are diminished.”

Data show that part-time faculty receive lower pay, often lack benefits and are ineligible for grants or travel money to assist with research endeavors. Because they lack benefits, security and the steady salary of their tenured colleagues, part-time faculty find other means to support their income. They frequently take part-time positions at multiple institutions to cobble together a livable income.

Teranishi, who was recently tenured, represents a small minority. In 2004, the median age of tenure-track assistant professors was 40; only 19 percent of them across all public and private four-year institutions were aged 34 or younger, according to ACE.

Considering the Alternative

For Dr. Nadya Mason, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, academia was one of her top choices. Her first inclination was to work at Lucent Spell Laboratories, better known as Bell Labs, where she had interned.

But by the time she’d finished her graduate work in the early 2000s, the basic research component of the laboratory had crumbled because of the lack of funding. “By the time I was ready to look for a job, there wasn’t a lot of pure research or even basic research laboratories I could turn to,” says Mason, a 36-year-old professor on the tenure track. Equipped with a doctorate from Stanford University and a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, Mason set her sights on the professoriate. She joined the faculty of UIUC in 2005.

Mason, a wife and a mother of two, juggles the demands of her job and her family with flair. She chose academia because it involved work that she enjoyed despite the challenges that came attached.

“It’s not easy to find a job where you want. I ended up far from home. The stress of trying to get tenure, the heavy workload and trying to balance everything can all be difficult, but this is my job,” says Mason. “People try to put academia in a special place that is different from any other job. If you compare academia to another high-powered professional jobs like a lawyer or medical doctor, academia compares favorably. It’s probably less stressful than those fields. The workload is probably equal, but your schedule is more flexible.”

When she is not meeting with students, hosting seminars, attending departmental meetings, writing papers or completing research, Mason is doing the part of the job that she likes the least — writing research grants. “It’s getting harder and harder to get the funding for research projects. I spend a lot of my time writing research grants and not getting them accepted,” Mason says.

NYU’s Teranishi was driven to the Ivory Tower by a desire to inform access to higher education through his research, which is broadly focused on investigating the complex relationship between race and ethnicity, the stratification of college opportunity, and the social mobility of racial and ethnic minorities in American society. He says the intellectual freedom offered by the academy is one of the most rewarding components of his job.

“What appealed to me most [about academia] was the academic freedom, being able to decide what problems I want to address in my research and bringing new perspectives to solutions through the process of inquiry,” Teranishi says.

Certainly, academia comes with frustrations, Teranishi says. “I find that being a professor can be both extremely rewarding, but also extremely challenging,” he says, adding that the job duties of the academy can be daunting. “Many faculty of color are engaged heavily in the community, which bears a lot of responsibility. This occurs both inside and outside the boundaries of the university. It can be difficult for faculty of color to balance different goals that are important to them, which is often the case for me. I live with a lot of stress and the constant feeling of being overcommitted.”

The academy is an industry like any other, but the rewards of academia far outweigh the rigors, says Dr. Monifa Love Asante, an associate professor and coordinator of the creative writing program at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

“The academy is wrought with all the things other industries are laden with: politics, ego, people who are afraid of the future. This is not to say that any of those things are easy. I don’t think that you teach at an HBCU [historically Black college or university] because it’s easy. I don’t think that you teach to become rich or to live a life of ease. For me, teaching at an HBCU is about mission,” says Asante.

Nearly two decades have past since Asante first began teaching at a collegiate level in her thirties, yet her passion for the craft only intensifies, particularly for the opportunity to educate students of color. “It was not my aim to be at an elite institution. It was to be at a place where you roll up your sleeves and really get in it.” When the pay, politics, research, publishing, stress and the work load are all considered, the academy is still a viable career option, Teranishi agrees.

“It could be a lot worse,” Teranishi says. “A lot of faculty of color are the first in their family to even go to college and grew up watching their family members struggle in their jobs. In my case both of my parents went to college, but a lot of our family members were farmers, which was a very tough job. Comparing that to what I do now … it is hard to complain about how hard I work or how much I get paid.”

Then and Now

Morris entered the academy in the late ’60s and early ’70s, during a huge expansion in higher education. The demands of the job, Morris says, have increased quantitatively as the demand for higher education has increased.

“The number of publications one must publish has increased, given the number of vehicles in, which one can publish has grown significantly. Professors now have to get more research funding, but the advantage is there is more funding in terms of interdisciplinary work,” Morris adds, noting that the fundraising pressures mentioned by Mason have increased the amount of stress associated with the job.

Plater, who began teaching in 1968 as a graduate assistant at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says the expectations faculty have increased dramatically as there is now pressure to publish more.

“Thirty years ago an assistant professor might be expected to publish an article every other year. At a research university, the norm is two published articles a year and half of them need to be in highly regarded journals in order to win promotion and tenure. That expectation keeps going up,” Plater says.

The greatest changes to the professoriate, says Plater, have emerged in teaching. “There has been a profound shift away from the teacher as being the focus to the student as being the focus of the classroom.”

To address the pending shortage of university professors, Morris recommends more outreach. “When the baby boomers retire, there is going to be a clear lack of adequate faculty. Current faculty need to have greater outreach to junior faculty and students to bring them into the profession,” Morris says. “We can’t do what communities of scholars used to do and what larger universities sometimes do, which is bring in a number of research fellows (without the intent of hiring them). Let them do the research, then hire them.”

Morris won tenure at Howard University six years into his career. While part-time professors pervade the halls of higher education, Morris is not convinced tenure has become more difficult to attain in recent years.

He says, “In terms of the absolute number of years from Ph.D. to tenure, it is probably longer. But in terms of pursuing tenure at a single institution, the [process] is probably shorter.”

With retirement at least another decade a way, Morris is still committed to his profession. In January, he will assume the Fulbright- Tocqueville Distinguished Chair, at the University of Paris for the semester.

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