Can American higher education remain the global leader without a strong faculty?

In the half century after World War II, American higher education catapulted onto the global stage as the “new” and undisputed “gold standard” for scientific research and graduate education. This rise is a spectacular national achievement.  It is, I fear, increasingly fragile, nay even “at risk”.

American dominance as a global knowledge powerhouse reflects the concatenation of a few key ingredients at a unique historical moment. Implicit in our new book, The Faculty Factor, is the proposition that the unique “threads” (strands) of the American success story in higher education are increasingly fraying --- with significant “downside” long-term risk.

Primary among those key ingredients or threads is academic freedom – the freedom to pursue the truth wherever it might lead and whatever the risk to the established economic and political. It is that freedom that served as a magnet for the world’s leading scholars and scientists to flock to U.S. universities from Nazi Germany during World War II and from communist repression in the Soviet Union and China later in the 20th century.

To academic freedom, the American higher education experiment added two other key threads. The first was substantial funding for research at the federal level reflected in the establishment of the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation and the various agencies of the Defense department. A third key element –not entirely separable from the other two -- was a highly defined and predictable academic career structure – the infrastructure “at the ground level” for supporting academic freedom.

That unique combination of freedom, resources and career opportunity is now plainly at risk. Public funding of higher education at the state level and federal research funding, continue to decline. The ensuing “privatization’ and “commercialization” of the higher education enterprise threatens (or compromises) academic freedom and the transparency and “public” ownership of knowledge. Moreover, the opportunity structure for academic careers built over a century has in the space of barely two decades (a blip in academic time) been turned upside down. Most teaching faculty in American colleges and universities now work part-time; and an increasingly plurality of those who are full-time are now in fixed term rather than permanent appointments. Faculty are increasingly specializing in teaching, research or service; undermining the historic synergy between those three functions all assumed concurrently by the prototypical faculty member.

In short, the emergence of a world-class faculty playing broad institutional roles combining teaching and research  and providing overall academic leadership to the enterprise is plainly at risk --- one of the three legs of the metaphorical foundation that catapulted U.S. higher education to global pre-eminence.

Academic careers are indeed being re-structured; the data – the subject of this book -- conclusively demonstrate that. What is less clear is what the consequences of such a restructuring might be. To the extent that academic careers become less attractive to the “best and brightest “ of our youth, we pay a steep long-term price. To the extent that the centrality of the faculty role in shaping the academic enterprise is diminished – and universities operate as “knowledge businesses” not unlike Google without stockholders – the nature and effectiveness of the work conducted within their boundaries may change in profound ways. There is emerging evidence that our students and their educational experience are suffering – as our place in global research and development shrinks!

 The great irony here is that while the U.S. sputters, dithers, and blithely closes its eyes, the rest of the world is learning from – and heeding – the lessons of the American ascent. The nations of East Asia and Continental Europe are investing heavily in universities and their research and development infrastructures.; they are developing metrics to monitor the status of the enterprise. Moreover, they are focusing attention on the “care and feeding” of the national scientific workforce, including monitoring the status of the enterprise. Nations as diverse as Germany, China, Norway are seeking to develop the infrastructure for attractive and predictable academic and scientific careers, modeled on the American system of faculty tenure – although all, like the U.S.,  face severe resource constraints.

It’s not a matter of ignoring the distinctive challenges posed by America’s public policy commitment to expand access to higher education for ever larger swaths of the population. Moreover, I recognize – to use the contemporary jargon – that the very labor intensive business model of higher education centered on a single, full-time professor interacting face-to-face with a small group of students—is simply not “scaleable” to a greatly expanded mission for the enterprise. That said, we must strive to avoid “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Thus, my plea is not that we ignore the challenges of “massification,” as the Europeans call it,   but simply that we remember what got us to our enviable global position: placing the faculty at the center of the higher education enterprise. As we move forward, let us keep that in mind and involve that faculty -- the system’s production workers – in negotiating the road ahead – conscious of our unique advantages and the fragility of our recent success.


Martin J. Finkelstein is a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. He is the co-author of The Faculty Factor: Reassessing the American Academy in a Turbulent Era

The start of a new school year is upon us, and our authors have taken to the blog to discuss the past, present, and future of the education landscape in the United States and abroad. From administrative imperatives, to advice for parents, to student mental wellness, our authors will examine education from every angle. Check back with us for more from our JHU Press back-to-school series