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Provosts stand firm in annual survey

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Most provosts say the academic health of their institution is good, and changes made during the pandemic have not negatively impacted academic quality. No provosts indicate that academic health is failing at their institutions, and 54 percent rate it as good.

That is a key result of the 2022 Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers, published today by Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research.

More on the Survey

Inside Higher Ed’s 2022 Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers was conducted by Hanover Research. The survey included 178 provosts from public, private nonprofit and for-profit institutions. A copy of the report can be downloaded here.

Inside Higher Ed regularly surveys key higher ed professionals on a range of topics.

On Wednesday, June 8, at 2 p.m. Eastern, Inside Higher Ed will present a free webcast to discuss the results of the survey. Please register here.

The Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers was made possible in part by support from Coursedog, APL nextED, Modern Campus, D2L, Interfolio and the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi.

Other results of the survey include:

  • Most provosts are satisfied with their institution’s general education program, and about half of provosts report that their institution recently evaluated the effectiveness of its general education requirements.
  • Most provosts (89 percent) have a positive view of liberal arts education and agree that liberal arts education is central to undergraduate and professional education. But 71 percent of provosts strongly or somewhat agree that they “expect to see the number of liberal arts colleges decline significantly over the next five years.”
  • Almost all provosts (86 percent) agree that healthy undergraduate education requires healthy liberal arts departments (such as English); yet most (69 percent) also agree that STEM and professional programs are being prioritized by politicians and board members.
  • Provosts are split on whether their institutions’ financial status has improved in the last year, and about 41 percent say that their institution used the economic downturn in 2020 to make changes in their academic budgets. Almost all provosts (87 percent) indicate that financial concerns are prevalent in their institution’s discussion about launching new academic programs.
  • Only 22 percent of provosts agree that their institution “very effectively” recruits and retains talented faculty.
  • Only 31 percent of provosts agree that their institution effectively controls rising prices for students and families.
  • More than half (59 percent) of provosts report that faculty currently feel very engaged with their work, but they have concerns that faculty do not feel supported or connected to the administration.
  • About half of provosts (51 percent) report that they neither agree nor disagree that their institution has taken concrete steps to address faculty burnout.
  • A little fewer than two-thirds of provosts agree that tenure remains important and viable at their institution. When considering a system of long-term contracts over the existing tenure system in higher education, about 60 percent of provosts indicate they would favor such an option, and 40 percent would oppose.

Academic Health

One of the issues that the provosts’ survey has always highlighted is academic health.

Most of the provosts saw their institution’s academic health as good or excellent—32 percent of provosts said excellent, 54 percent good, 12 percent fair and 2 percent poor.

They also disagreed with the statement “Changes made during the pandemic over the last two years have negatively impacted the academic quality of my institution,” although there was more of a split on that question than in previous years. Twenty-two percent strongly disagreed, 39 percent disagreed, 28 percent agreed and 12 percent strongly agreed.

The provosts said they were very effective at providing an undergraduate education, but they were less confident of their abilities to deliver specifics in undergraduate education.

Provosts Who Believe Their Institutions Are ‘Very Effective’ At …

Category % Who Answer ‘Very Effective’
Providing a quality undergraduate education 65%
Preparing students for the world of work 52%
Offering undergraduate support services 45%
Using data to inform campus decision making 32%
Identifying and assessing student outcomes 39%
Recruiting and retaining talented faculty 22%
Controlling rising prices for students and families 31%

General Education

The provosts overwhelmingly believe that general education is “a crucial part” of any college degree: 50 percent strongly agreed with that statement, and another 40 percent somewhat agreed.

But on some specific questions about general education, the provosts have some doubts. Only 29 percent of provosts strongly agreed that their college “recently evaluated the effectiveness of our general education requirements.”

And only 2 percent of provosts strongly agreed that “students at my college understand the purpose of our general education requirements.” Twenty-nine percent agreed somewhat, but 4 percent strongly disagreed and 34 percent somewhat disagreed.

This disconnect intrigued—and worried—Lynn Pasquerella, who is president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

“I was struck by the fact that 90 percent of the provosts surveyed agree that general education requirements are a crucial part of any college degree, yet only 31 percent agree that students at their institution understand the purpose of general education requirements,” she said. “Now, more than ever, we need to be transparent about why we are asking students to take general education courses and how the learning outcomes, skills and competencies embedded within these classes are not only connected but foundational to success in work, citizenship and life.”

She said these issues are particularly important for community colleges, which have lost enrollment during the pandemic.

“The biggest losses were among African American and Latinx males between the ages of 18 and 25,” she said. “As we confront the prospect of a lost generation of college students, there needs to be a focus on strategies for retention and completion. This includes ensuring that students understand the value of general education courses rather than merely viewing them as hoops to jump through.”

Liberal Arts

On the liberal arts, the provosts expressed strong support for the idea of liberal arts, but—as they have in past years—they did not seem optimistic about the role of liberal arts or liberal arts colleges.

And another challenge for the liberal arts comes into view with provosts’ priorities. They agree that high-quality programs are needed in liberal arts disciplines, and that the number of majors is not (generally) a way to pick departments to cut. But they also agree that “politicians and board members are prioritizing STEM and professional programs over those that support general education.”

Chart headed

And it also became clear in a statement of the provosts’ priorities:

Chart headed

Of those trends, Pasquerella said, “The prediction that professional programs will be prioritized and that the liberal arts and sciences will be the least prioritized is troubling at a time when the most urgent challenges we are confronting as a global community—climate change, a public health crisis in the form of a pandemic, the threat of an economic recession, persistent racial and social inequity, rising authoritarianism, and a war that carries the potential for the use of nuclear arms—cannot be addressed solely through science or narrow technical training. Instead, addressing these wicked problems requires applying the skills and competencies and habits of heart and mind at the basis of a liberal education. Leaders at all levels need to do a better job at explaining the value of liberal education, using examples that resonate with diverse groups and language that can be understood across differences.”

Mental Health

The mental health of everyone in higher education has suffered during the pandemic. Whether you are charged with caring for, or being aware of, the mental health problems of students, faculty members or other employees, the pressures have been enormous.

For provosts, the mental health problems of faculty members were something of which they were aware. Provosts are most likely to indicate that they are very aware of faculty mental health (65 percent), followed by the health of undergraduate students (53 percent), staff (44 percent) and graduate students (25 percent).

Chart headed

Although provosts tend to indicate that their institution prioritizes mental health (90 percent), a smaller proportion of provosts agree that their institution has formal plans to address mental health among faculty and staff (35 percent). Finally, while about half of provosts (49 percent) indicate that their institution provides trainings to leaders to support the mental health needs of their faculty and staff, 41 percent of those provosts also indicate that those trainings are optional.

Most provosts checked the middle choices on two important issues: What amount of importance does your institution place on supporting faculty and staff mental health? And to what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: “My institution has formal plans to address the mental health needs among faculty and staff”?

Chart headed

The provost’s priorities, of course, extend beyond mental health. The provosts were asked to list items that were priorities for them. Some of their priorities (such as cutting underperforming academic programs and dismissing underperforming faculty members) suggest areas of tension.

Priority % of Provosts
Increasing collaboration with other colleges and universities 87%
Expanding online programs and offerings 85%
Funding programs based on the alignment with our mission 81%
Cutting underperforming academic programs 72%
Dismissing underperforming faculty members 55%
Promoting retirement of older professors 36%
Increasing use of part-time faculty members 34%
Using outside providers to expand online programs 27%
Dismissing underperforming tenured faculty members 21%
Outsourcing some instructional services 18%
Increasing teaching loads for full-time faculty members 11%
Changing the academic mission of the institution 8%
Altering the tenure policy 8%
Cutting athletics programs 4%

For faculty, even low-priority items (such as altering the tenure policy or changing the academic mission, both of which attracted only 8 percent) may be controversial at those institutions with provosts who answered for those items.

That may explain a trend some provosts see: an increase in faculty and staff turnover. Nineteen percent of provosts reported that faculty members were leaving at significantly higher rates than in the past, and 60 percent said they were leaving at somewhat higher rates. For staff, the percentages were larger: 28 percent significantly and 45 percent somewhat higher.

On tenure, as in past years, provosts were supportive of both the current tenure system and alternatives.

Asked to respond to the statement “Tenure remains important and viable at my institution,” 30 percent of provosts strongly agreed, and another 30 percent agreed somewhat. Fifteen percent strongly disagreed.

But asked if they favor or oppose “a system of long-term contracts over the existing tenure system in higher education,” 60 percent said they favored such a system.

Almost three-quarters of provosts (73 percent) said their institution relies “significantly” on non-tenure-track faculty for instruction. And they don’t anticipate that changing. Seventy-two percent said that in the future, they anticipate being equally reliant on adjuncts, 19 percent said they would become more reliant and 9 percent said less reliant.

Faculty Roles

The provosts were also asked about teaching versus research and expressed a strong preference for teaching, with 47 percent saying teaching was much more important than research and 39 percent saying teaching was more important than research. Twelve percent said that teaching and research are equal, and 2 percent said research was more important than teaching.

On professional development, the provosts said they support training for faculty in a number of areas:

  • Ninety-three percent on teaching with technology.
  • Eighty-nine percent on promoting active teaching techniques.
  • Eighty-two percent on student success.
  • Seventy-four percent on using assessment systems.
  • Thirty-six percent on measuring the effectiveness of digital tools (although 47 percent said they would like to offer that).

Most provosts also said faculty at their institution were receptive to new changes to policies and practices, and their institution was quite comfortable making said changes. On average, 63 percent of provosts report that faculty at their institution are at least very receptive to changes.

Graduate Student Unions

Graduate student unions, which represent teaching assistants and research assistants at universities, have become more active in the last year, with some seeking recognition and others negotiating contracts. But provosts don’t like them.

Only 38 percent of provosts said that graduate students should be allowed to unionize. (The actual decision is controlled by the National Labor Relations Board for private colleges and by state laws, which vary, for public institutions.) Sixty-two percent of provosts oppose union rights.

The provosts who oppose unionization say it is not because of the financial costs. Rather, 96 percent of those who oppose unions says it is because of the principle that graduate students’ primary role is as a student, and their secondary role is as an employee.

How Faculty Feel

Irene T. Mulvey, national president of the American Association of University Professors and a professor of mathematics at Fairfield University, said it was “not surprising” that most provosts believed faculty members were very receptive to change in policies or practices on their campuses.

“This finding belies the common—though in my view incorrect—perception that faculty are reluctant to embrace change,” she said. “When change comes about thoughtfully, deliberately and with appropriate respect for shared governance and shared governance processes, my experience has been that faculty are willing and enthusiastic participants and partners in changes to support the mission of the institution.”

Mulvey was frustrated with the finding that nearly 90 percent of provosts consider teaching more important than research. Her frustration wasn’t with their answer to that question, but with their answers to the questions about non-tenure-track faculty members.

“Non-tenure-track faculty do the vast majority of teaching, teaching is of the highest importance, only 9 percent of provosts anticipate being less reliant on non-tenure-track faculty in the future, and yet many schools still do not provide non-tenure-track faculty with supports like voting rights, multiyear contracts and roles in governance,” she said.

She also said the provosts shouldn’t be surprised by more faculty members leaving.

“Faculty have been on the front lines in the classrooms with students these last two-plus years, and many faculty feel underappreciated and are genuinely burned out. Institutions would do well to address this in meaningful ways,” she said.

And Mulvey criticized those provosts who said they plan to increase efforts to dismiss “underperforming faculty members” and those who plan to increase the use of part-time faculty members.

“A gig economy is one thing, but forcing scholars who have spent years studying and becoming experts in a field into a gig economy is unconscionable,” she said.

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