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Institutional Blindspots Around Faculty Work

Faculty are your greatest investment—why are they going unsupported?

When it comes to faculty, most colleges and universities have a blindspot. Seeking to rectify budget issues by addressing the tenured faculty line item, institutions inadvertently impede their faculty’s success, which costs time, money, and research outcomes. Technological solutions exist for nearly every other segment of higher education, from student retention to alumni giving: so why not for faculty?

Your most valuable resource: going to waste?

Faculty are the most valuable asset at an institution of higher learning. The accomplishments of faculty drive not only the advancement of scholarly knowledge in their respective disciplines, but also the innovation that keeps your institution competitive in the wider landscape of higher education. Faculty also hold some of the most important decisions in their hands, like hiring, tenure, and curriculum. Unsurprisingly, then, faculty are also the most expensive asset at a college or university. Instruction, including faculty salaries and benefits, is the largest expense category at public and private nonprofit postsecondary institutions.1

“With such a large investment at stake—both scholarly and financially—how are institutions investing in their faculty body to assure that they are able to make best use of their considerable talents and limited time?”

Teaching, research, and email.

Although facile assumptions are often made about faculty productivity—long-held, erroneous assumptions about “summers off” still pervade public perception of the profession—in truth, very little research has gone into how faculty spend their time from day-to-day. A recent study at Boise State University uses time-tracking technology to gain a window into the work patterns of a small sample of scholars, showing that faculty do, indeed, work long days and weekends trying to fit it all in.

Initial findings indicate a striking misalignment between expectations of faculty life (that time will be spent primarily in teaching, writing, and research) and reality. When measuring time as a function of “topic” (that is, teaching, research, service, etc.) the faculty spent about 9.7% of weekday hours (around 10.3 hours) and 5.6% of weekend work hours (around 4.9 hours) on service work—that is, not on teaching or research.2

Using national salary averages to understand time as a percentage of investment, this equates to approximately $5,806 per Assistant Professor, $6,721 per Associate Professor, and $8,666 per full Professor spent on professional service every year.3

Perhaps more astounding, when assessing time as a function of activity (email, reading, meetings, etc.), faculty spent a full 30% of their time not engaged in teaching or research.4 A full third of faculty time, already at a premium, is being spent on administrative details around meetings and email.

How to help?

The high value of faculty coupled with their difficult-to-track workweek creates a potentially volatile situation, especially in light of the increasing financial scrutiny facing many institutions. A common response by institutions to mounting financial concerns has been to seek cost savings through reductions to expenditures on full-time and tenure-track salaries and benefits.

Research indicates that the effects of these measures are largely negative when it comes to student outcomes (specifically student GPAs, graduation, and retention rates), but what of the effect on the tenured and tenure-track faculty that remain?6

Shared governance—a vital element of decision-making in higher education and the foundation of academic freedom—relies on the collaboration of scholarly peers sitting on committees. Since contingent faculty are most often not eligible to participate on committees for hiring, tenure, curriculum, and department governance, the total service responsibility of the institution falls on the shoulders of a diminished core of full-time, tenure-track faculty. Unsurprising, then, that 30% of faculty time is spent purely on logistics related to service, like meetings and email.

“the total service responsibility of the institution falls on the shoulders of a diminished core of full-time, tenure-track faculty.”

Research, retention, and recruitment loss.

So what are the effects of this shift in hiring patterns on tenured and tenure-track faculty? Studies indicate that research, retention, and recruitment all suffer because tenured and tenure-track faculty are not supported in their service commitments. With fewer tenure-track faculty, service is disproportionately distributed to Associate Professors, who cover for both their senior colleges and their junior colleagues hustling to reach tenure. As a result, Associate Professors report feeling stretched thin and often end up failing to meet research expectations in a “mid-career gully.”⁷

Based on this unequal distribution of service, Associate Professors at four-year colleges and universities have lower job satisfaction based on service expectations (both equity of committee assignments and time spent on service), which leads to lower reported satisfaction with the department and institution as a whole.⁸ Finally, there has long been evidence that a paucity of tenured faculty makes it harder for institutions to recruit attractive, competitive prospective faculty.⁹ These research patterns gesture towards the futility of service—but isn’t service the basic, required mechanism for some of the most important decisions made in higher education?

Technology can fill the gap.

The cumulative effect of this information—the high financial investment made in faculty, their critical importance on campus, and the large time commitment of service and meetings—begs the question: how can institutions help? Well, shockingly, they often don’t: in 2014, higher education spent between $20-$25 billion on software that addressed nearly every aspect of an institution except faculty.10

While institutions took advantage of the boon of technology to assist with learning management, student information, development, and enrollment needs, they have, remarkably, left the work of faculty—especially the 30% of time not spent on teaching and research—almost entirely unsupported.

When faculty sit down for committee meetings, they have no tools to accommodate the distinctive, complex task before them. Vital decisions like hiring and tenure are often decided with no more technological support than a pen, paper, and photocopier. The secure management of documents and decisions rests within email inboxes and shared drives. Data is collected manually and then uploaded to a spreadsheet.

No wonder, then, that Gartner, a major higher education market research firm suggested that investments in software that assists faculty personnel administration, facilitates collaboration, and contains costs by collecting and documenting faculty workload contributions would have a startling financial impact. Their research concludes that “the lack of institutional support for tools that facilitate faculty collaboration hinders faculty impact and contribution, negatively impacting their satisfaction.” 11

Furthermore, recommendations include the implementation of “faculty information systems to manage and automate faculty personnel administration” and “technologies that enable the collection and analysis of faculty contribution and workload data.”12 How, then, can institutions meet their financial obligations and maximize their investment in faculty talent without sacrificing the beating heart of shared governance on campus? Clearly, there is value to be saved by investing in specifically faculty-oriented technology.

Protect your greatest investment.

Faculty are the most valuable asset at an institution, yet they are largely unsupported in a significant, indispensable area of their work. What’s worse, they are often caught in a cycle of decreasing productivity that results from the very choices made to keep an institution financially afloat—changes to hiring patterns only put more strain on the faculty who remain. With well-designed technology available for nearly every segment of higher education, why aren’t institutions seeking the tools necessary to help faculty? Why aren’t they saving the investment they’ve spent on faculty’s research, teaching, and service?

[1] In 2012-13, public institutions spent 27% of total expenses on instruction, and private nonprofit institutions spent as much as 33% of total expenses on instruction. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). The Condition of Education 2015 (NCES 2015-144), Expenses of Postsecondary Institutions.

[2] Time Allocation Workload Knowledge Study, John Ziker, Boise State University, 2014 (study ongoing)

[3] “Average Salaries of Tenured and Tenure-Track Faculty at 4-Year Colleges,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 17, 2014

[4] This 30% breaks down to 17% on meetings, including committee service—unsurprising to anyone who has sat through a committee meeting—and 13% on email. Time Allocation Workload Knowledge Study, John Ziker, Boise State University, 2014 (study ongoing)

[5] Across all nonprofit institutions, part-time or adjunct faculty represent 51.2% of instructional faculty, full-time nontenure-track are 19.2%, and tenured or tenure-track are 29.6%. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. (2013).

[6] Adapting by Design: Creating Faculty Roles and Defining Faculty Work to Ensure an Intentional Future for Colleges and Universities,” Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey, The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, Feb 2015

[7] “Midcareer Melancholy,” Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist, Inside Higher Ed, May 29, 2015. See also, “Standing Still: The Associate Professor Survey,” MLA, 2009

[8] “Benchmark Best Practices: Nature of Work: Service,” Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, Harvard University, 2014

[9] “The Future of Academic Tenure,” AGB Priorities, Richard P. Chair, Spring 1995.

[10] Eduventures, “Making Sense of the Higher Educational Technology Landscape,” September 2014

[11] Gartner, “Use Technology to Measure and Boost Faculty Productivity,” March 2015

[12] Ibid.