Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research recently published their 2023 Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers, revealing academic leaders’ current outlook on the state of higher education in the U.S. The survey gleans insights from responses from 401 provosts/chief academic officers representing 201 public, 172 private, and 5 for-profit institutions.

Respondents provided their thoughts on an array of topics related to their experiences and institutions, including academic quality; institutional financial health; academic program priorities; faculty engagement, satisfaction, burnout, and mental health; and tenure and other employment policies and roles.

The survey results highlighted the following important areas that provosts are navigating and focusing on in 2023:

Academic Quality

Nearly all provosts (98%) surveyed believe their institution provides a quality undergraduate education, and the majority (84%) rank their institution’s academic quality as “good” or “excellent.” 

Most academic leaders (61%) rate the academic quality of their institution as “good” and do not think changes made during the pandemic over the last two years have negatively impacted academic quality. 

Despite resounding positive sentiment over current academic institutional health, just 19% of respondents indicated that their institution very effectively recruits and retains talented faculty. This underscores their concern over the potential for decline in academic health.

Academic Program Priorities

Most provosts (74%) indicate that politicians and board members are prioritizing STEM and professional programs over general education. However, most (85%) also agree that high-quality undergraduate education requires healthy departments in fields beyond STEM such as English, history, political science, and other liberal arts fields. 

Provosts indicate that there is a general lack of understanding of the utility of both general education and liberal arts. Fewer than one-third (29%) agree that students at their institution understand the purpose of general education, and the majority (88%) believe that the concept of a liberal arts education is not well understood in the U.S.

Higher Ed Financial Health 

Forty-seven percent of those surveyed believe the financial situation of their institution has not improved over the last year, while 37% agree that it has. In a time marked by inflation, most provosts (85%) agree that inflation will limit budget growth at their institution. 

Although provosts tend to report that budgets are a concern at their institution, only about 32% of provosts report that their institution needs to reduce the numbers of academic programs it offers by the end of the 2022-23 academic year. Approximately one-third of provosts (33%) agree that the number of students majoring in a program is an appropriate way to determine which departments to cut.

Additionally, an overwhelming majority of provosts (87%) indicate that financial concerns are prevalent in their discussions of launching new academic programs. Seventy percent agree that most new funds their institutions will have to spend on academic programs will come from reallocation rather than new revenues.

Faculty Recruitment and Retention

Only 19% of provosts surveyed indicate that their institution very effectively recruits and retains talented faculty. This may have something to do with overall faculty satisfaction: more than half of provosts say faculty feel at least very engaged with their work, but the majority does not believe that faculty feel supported by or connected to the administration. Fewer than a quarter (23%) report that faculty feel at least “very supported” and a smaller fraction (12%) feel “very connected” to administration Yet, nearly three-quarters (73%) believe that faculty at their institution are likely to say they have the right resources and tools to help them feel supported, engaged, and connected. 

About half (49%) of provosts polled say that their institution believes supporting faculty and staff mental health is at least “very important.” However, just one-third of respondents report that their institution has formal plans to address the mental health needs of faculty and staff members.

Tenure and Considerations for New Models

Provosts are split when considering a system of long-term contracts over the established higher ed tenure system: 52% indicate they would favor and 48% indicate they would oppose such a new system. Most provosts agree that tenure remains important and viable at their institution. Still, more than three-quarters report that their institution relies significantly on nontenure track faculty for instruction, with no signs of this reliance changing in the future. 

About two-thirds of provosts (66%) say that in the future, their institution will be as reliant as it is today on nontenure track faculty members; 27% believe their institution will be more reliant on nontenure track faculty. 

Provosts indicate that their higher ed institution is least likely to consider new job titles as a new faculty model (43%) and most likely to give voting rights to (54%) and employ multiple-year contracts (48%) for nontenure track faculty.

For Provosts, Remaining Competitive Requires Continued Diligence

Generally, provosts’ responses show they are focused on maintaining institutional competitiveness as inflation and financial concerns loom. 

Respondents overall indicate that their institutions are providing quality academics and have managed well over the last two years in weathering impact brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. No provosts report that their academic health is failing and more than half say that their institution is “very effective” at providing a quality undergraduate education. 

Their survey responses also indicate some kinks in the armor that have potential to diminish academic quality—for example, not effectively recruiting and retaining talented faculty or effectively providing them the support they need. Survey results underscore that faculty feel somewhat disconnected with and unsupported by administration; are facing burnout; and have inadequate mental health programs. 

Provosts indicate that the “Great Resignation” has had a somewhat significant effect on faculty (40%), administration (40%), and staff (74%) departures. Results highlight the need for more effective strategies to attract and hold onto the precious resources who play a critical role in institutional and student success. 

Interested to read the full research report?