Engaging faculty throughout their careers

Universities use flexible career programs to attract and retain faculty

How many members of your faculty would enjoy teaching the same courses, day in and day out, throughout a 30-, 40- or even 50-year career? Not many.

Staying motivated and intellectually challenged is not always possible at schools where promotions or lateral career moves are rare. Faculty may find themselves disengaged, even downright bored, teaching the same classes year after year. 

Many higher education institutions that researched the topic over the past decade have reached a similar conclusion—flexible career pathways often lead to job satisfaction.

Last summer, the American Council on Education (ACE) launched the National Challenge for Higher Education campaign to encourage colleges and universities to create flexible opportunities for faculty, says Claire Van Ummersen, senior advisor for the leadership program at ACE in Washington, D.C.

Flexible career policies motivate faculty to develop fresh skills, broaden career paths, and re-energize their commitment to teaching. Just as important is that they serve as an effective magnet for recruiting and retaining quality talent.

Running start

Roughly 10 years ago, ACE began working with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to raise awareness, among IHEs nationwide, about the importance of establishing policies that support career flexibility.

Van Ummersen jokingly compares the campaign’s infrastructure to a pyramid scheme. She says ACE handpicked 10 university presidents—five male and five female—at four-year institutions and medical schools to serve as the face of the campaign. Each president was tasked with recruiting at least five additional presidents who would then recruit another five presidents, and so forth.

So far, university presidents have attracted more than 60 schools. By the end of 2014, ACE anticipates more than 200 presidents in the coalition.

Presidents are creating programs in-house while also promoting career flexibility programs to schools within their system and in surrounding communities.

“We’re asking them to embed (these programs) within their campus culture,” she says, explaining that presidents can’t sell such programs if their own schools don’t support such policies. “Our ultimate goal is for colleges and universities to have available to their faculty much more career flexibility than has been available in the past.”

The beauty of such programs is their versatility and sustainability, especially during the latter stages of a faculty career. Some faculty have the chance to prepare for active retirement. Others may be given time off to pursue new interests, start an encore career or design a new course they’re excited to teach.

While such programs have been successful within a university setting, community colleges are a different story. With more adjunct faculty than tenured faculty, turnover is high. “There’s so much in and out that it’s very hard on any day for the HR department to tell you how many [adjunct faculty] exist,” she explains.

“We’re trying to figure out how to work with them.

New opportunities, new programs

Back in 2008, the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., implemented a shared faculty appointment policy that enables faculty to share a full-time position with a spouse or partner qualified in the same discipline, says Kristine Bartanen, academic VP and dean.

For example, Puget Sound’s faculty code allows an English professor who has been increasingly involved in African studies to be one-third appointed in English and two-thirds appointed in African American studies.

“New programs, new courses, new opportunities for students come from the re-engagement or more energized engagement of faculty members,” Bartanen says. “We’ve seen expansion in strong coursework for students because faculty members got excited about directing a new program.”

She points to Puget Sound’s science technology in society and international political economy programs. Both are the results of faculty being moved into new appointments.

It can be daunting for faculty to face a career of 20 to 30 years, knowing they may never be able to test new skills or challenge their abilities along the way. “Some people find it hard to stay with that single focus for a long time,” Bartanen says.

“The concept of attending to faculty seasonal life is very important. It strengthens the professoriate in terms of teaching and scholarship.”

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer.


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