Perhaps no one is more affected by the changes roiling higher education than faculty members. The professorship of old where the sage on the stage pontificated for hours on end has been replaced by the need to be flexible academically and adapt to the “audience.”

Faculty members have had to revise their curriculum to align it with future employers’ needs, learn to teach a diverse population as well as develop ways to manage online courses, and serve as a counselor to students who may be dealing with social issues as much as academic ones.

This blog – the 8th in the series – looks at the changing role of faculty members in relation to curriculum, instruction and assessment; involvement in strategic planning; and governance.

The Changing Nature of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment

The changing face of higher education – due to policy changes, generational shifts, technological advances and other societal trends — has resulted in massive changes in curriculum and instruction, some of which have been embraced and others which are being resisted, e.g., online/distance education. Faculty now are faced with students who attend college primarily for professional advancement; they want to know if what they are learning in the classroom is applicable in the real world, instead of the “all-around aspects” associated with traditional education.  Additionally, the pool of “traditional” students, i.e., those in the 18-24 age groups, is in the minority of college goers whereas the “non-traditional” students (those who are 24-70 years old) make up 70 percent of the college student population. This has resulted in the focus changing to preparing students specifically to be successful in the workforce, resulting in faculty needing to think about the following, both in what happens in the classroom and as part of the degree program:

  • The requirement that the student has a solid command of the basic knowledge of the degree that has been earned, as well as professional values and connections to stay current.
  • The need to prepare students to add value immediately when they start a job.
  • The expectation that the student will understand the dynamics of complex organizational structures and can build a solid and adaptive understanding of the organization using analytical skills and higher-order reasoning.
  • The requirement that the student will have superior communication skills and can effectively interact with a wide range of stakeholders.
  • The understanding that students will be able to use technology easily and comprehensively and can participate in a knowledge/data/information-based economy.
  • The demand that students know how to work effectively on diverse project teams, whether those teams meet in-person or virtually, in order to foster innovation.
  • The ability to think at an advanced level about what the organization is facing and explore new possibilities as markets change.

Traditionally, the “rule of thumb” for education has been that at the undergraduate level, faculty would train students how to think. At the master’s level, faculty would teach students how to be experts in their field, and then at the doctoral level, students would learn to bring new knowledge into the being.  For the graduate and doctoral level, this hasn’t changed as much; however, at the undergraduate level, employers (and students) are demanding more than teaching students how to think.They want them to be competent employees from the get-go.

Faculty also are seeing an increased emphasis on students pursuing interdisciplinary fields; in fact, the number of students who are majoring in these types of fields has increased by almost 40 percent since 2003. This has required the redesign of general education requirements. These requirements also have been influenced by societal pressures, such as the MeToo! and Black Lives Matter movements in that more courses are being offered that emphasize diverse perspectives.

Not surprisingly based on the changing demands on what students need to know, teaching also has evolved. Faculty must and are rethinking what exactly students need to learn and focusing on encouraging students to cultivate higher-order thinking skills. Students also need to learn how to apply, evaluate and create knowledge. This approach affects student assessment and is leading to increased emphasis on authentic assessments that ask students to develop solutions to real-world issues.

In traditional academia, faculty take the lead and are responsible for curricula development, teaching, and updating, and the majority of the updating has been based on academic research.  However, given the changing foci, faculty need to be more involved with what is actually going on in the business world to ensure that curricula is updated in the way that it is aligned with professional expectations.  This creates a conundrum. Accreditors (and the tenure process) require publications and research for faculty. However, higher education leaders and faculty need to ponder if this research focus is what is needed to effectively update curricula so that it is relevant and meaningful to students and their prospective employers.

Institutions have gone about this in multiple ways, including advisory boards of business people who give deans their perspectives on what is needed, use of adjuncts to do course development, and the program-review process by which external reviewers give their input on curricula.  However, there is no silver bullet in this, and each institution must figure out what works best to keep the curricula current.

Faculty Role in Strategic Planning

Societal challenges and changes are having seismic repercussions for colleges and universities. That requires an intentional effort to create a meaningful strategic planning process that is not met with faculty resistance when the plan is to be implemented. “When change reaches the basic elements of organizational life it forces us to rethink the very assumptions are needed,” Dr. Richard Morrill wrote in Peer Review. “More often than not, however, these forms of interactive leadership have a hard time emerging on campus, and issues of fundamental change are avoided because the conflicts are too deep and the conversations too painful.”

Collaborative involvement by faculty members is critical for higher education to successfully make the changes that are being required. Not surprisingly, faculty members increasingly are being asked to participate in strategic planning at the campus and institutional level, and are even being asked to sit on their institution’s Board of Trustees. Their involvement is important for several reasons. First, the faculty bring an understanding of what currently is happening in the classroom – and what should be happening. If they’re grounded in their discipline, they also should have a good idea of where the job market is going and how students should be prepared (but this is a big IF if their foci is primarily on research). Additionally, faculty members bring critical thinking skills that can help identify gaps, opportunities, and trends – all of which are critical in preparing a strategic plan.

There are downsides to faculty participation, in that many (most) faculty members are risk adverse and do not like change.  They have a strong opinion of the way things “should be” that often is very idealistic. And just as is the case in organizations outside of academe, the higher you are in the organization, the broader perspective you have on what is going on.  Because faculty do not necessarily have the deep understanding of what it takes to run a $4 billion organization, they may not understand the bigger picture and thus be resistant to change.

The strategic planning process if done properly can serve as an education process for faculty. They have the opportunity to see the big picture of what the university or college is dealing with. Their involvement puts them into a leadership position where they can influence their colleagues as to what changes need to happen – and why these are necessary.

The involvement of faculty in strategic planning also feeds into governance. “A strategic agenda may be a critical component of leadership, but it does not implement itself,” Morrill stated. “Rather, it frames a variety of ongoing and continuous board, administrative, and faculty deliberations and actions.”  Faculty participation in the planning process can allow governance to be more than a zero-sum game in which faculty primarily debate about their distinctive rights and powers. Instead, it can be the process through which an integrated set of collaborative decisions are made and implemented.

Taking on Bigger Issues in Governance

Over the years, many faculty members have opted to focus on their research and teaching instead of getting involved in governance. However, their involvement has never been more critical.

While the time has arrived to redefine what higher education is, it also is time to review the role of faculty in governance. A panel of three prominent university leaders discussed the role of the faculty senate in a time of shifting demographic, economic and political environments. The panel, which spoke at Stanford University, believes that the faculty senate should be responsible for a wider agenda than setting academic policy. Instead, their focus needs to broaden to larger questions facing the university and society. For example, Dr. Jonathan Jansen, a distinguished professor in the faculty of education at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and former vice chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State in South Africa, stated that the senate’s agenda should look at larger questions related to the curriculum the makeup of the faculty, student diversity, teaching and assessments.

Faculty also should weigh in on the discussion about the role and value of higher education. “What is a university for? What do we prepare our graduates to do? What counts as good research in various fields? Too often we take answers to such questions to be obvious, not something we need to worry about. But in today’s world, we cannot take the answers for granted,” said Dr. Nannerl Keohane, a visiting scholar at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Stanford Faculty Senate chair emerita and former president of Wellesley College and Duke University.

Wrapping Up

All of these points highlight the seismic changes currently happening in faculty roles. Faculty members are being forced outside their comfort zone, including changing what happens in the classroom in order to better meet industry’s, parents’, and students’ expectations and altering their own perspectives on how the institution of higher education functions. With that said, the new reality can be exceptionally positive. Faculty members now have the opportunity to step into true leadership roles and can serve as an important bridge between the institution and industry. If they can make these changes, they will not only deepen their own institutional value, but also help higher education gain a deeper level respect in their community, region, state and nation.