Academics Peer Into the Private Sector

Academics Peer Into the Private Sector

Long-term tenured professors must be surveying the higher education landscape and wondering just what has happened to their once-predictable lives.

It’s not just small liberal arts colleges that are shedding  academic programs and tenured teaching positions – Medaille College, Guilford College, Marian University and Keuka College are but a few mentioned in this article in the Wall Street Journal.

This month, Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia announced their intention with the neighboring University of the Sciences to “evaluate the impact of a merger and develop an agreement”. These latest two are not the small liberal arts colleges that enroll 1,500 students. The combined merger of these universities would affect 9,200 students.

Over the last fifty years, the percentage of tenured faculty on the average campus has dropped from 70% to 30%. Driven by the need to reduce costs and to increase control over all elements of their operation, colleges have been forced to convert tenured faculty costs to contingent variable costs.

Fully half of all college courses nationally are now taught by adjunct faculty – paid a pittance per course, no benefits, and no commitment beyond the current semester. Most of these adjuncts are working professionals who wish to share their knowledge with students and broaden their own professional experiences. As a result, academic cutbacks are of almost no real concern to them.

Occupying a position in between the tenured and adjunct faculty are the 20-25% of faculty operating on short-term 3-5 year contracts. Many of these aspire to tenure track positions, and are committed to academic life. For them, faculty headcount reductions are a real concern.

Now add in the Coronavirus pandemic, which is adding to the stress. More and more colleges are announcing that they are shutting their doors, merging or otherwise seeking partners that will help them survive the threats now facing them — too few students coming out of high school, costs that are too high, the unattractiveness of virtual learning, lack of sports and social life – and an increased public skepticism over the value of many degrees. 

This is being accompanied by the previously almost unthinkable – elimination of tenured faculty at an increasing rate, as entire academic departments are shut down.

There are positive aspects to all of this, of course. Fresh blood is always good for any organization, and contingent faculty are constantly challenged to always be on top of their game. This also gives administrators increased flexibility in how they construct and modify their faculty to meet changing market conditions.

But who will speak to exiting faculty, as they explore options in that new world off campus? Having spent decades in both the private and academic sectors, perhaps I can offer a perspective on the primary differences between them. To the surprise of no one, they are significant.

Outcomes Assessment  

On campus, outcomes are hard to define and take years to assess. A college can measure a student’s grade in a course, a graduating GPA, and the like. But what is much harder to measure is the impact that the college experience has on a student’s true understanding of life, as well as the development of a career track that provides meaning to society and a positive impact on the lives of others. 

Fortunately, social media allows faculty to stay in touch with many students, and I have enjoyed watching them mature and develop their personal and professional lives. Without a doubt, this is the most gratifying aspect of faculty life, much more satisfying and worthwhile than anything in business could be.

In the private sector, outcomes are measurable, immediate, and objective. Revenue, profit, cash flow, market share, and innovation are but a few of the outcomes that face every member of the organization, no matter what functional role they play.

Performance Management

Performance management in the academic and the private sectors mirrors the emphasis on outcomes in each.

For faculty, performance management appeared to me to be predicated to some degree on the student course evaluations of their instructors, and beyond that on other performance metrics that the department chair and the academic dean might rely upon.

Other than the student evaluations, which were assigned a number rating, the balance of the performance evaluation seemed quite qualitative. Although college admissions and development personnel had specific targets to be measured against each year, the faculty generally had no such rigorous benchmarks.

In the private sector, performance appraisals are frequent and rigorous. Often conducted as 360-degree exercises, they measure an employee’s performance against defined areas of responsibility, as well as against the “stretch” objectives mutually agreed upon by the employee and supervisor for the year. Objective setting and performance measurement have absolutely everything to do with an employee’s compensation.

Compensation 

On campus, compensation increases generally depend upon promotions through the faculty ranks, from associate professor, to assistant professor, and finally to (tenured) professor. Other than that, campus-wide salary pools are modest and set for the year. Faculty pretty much share in those merit/cost of living increases to the same degree.

In the private sector, compensation increases depend almost completely on the employee’s performance against the position’s basic areas of responsibility, as well as the employee performance measured against  the specific “stretch” objectives for the year. Mid-term evaluations are common at quarterly or semi-annual intervals, to avoid surprises at the end of the year, and deficiencies would have a chance to be remedied as the year goes on.

If employees do well on a consistent basis, they are eligible for promotions to higher salary grade levels (thus getting “promotional” salary increases), and the higher salary grades come with total compensation tied more closely to performance against the “stretch” objectives. These bonus payments might start at a targeted rate of 10% of compensation, and increase to as much as 60% of total compensation at the executive levels. It’s easy to see how personal compensation is increasingly tied to organizational performance, and every employee has these thoughts in front of mind, every day. Failure to perform against set measurements will lead to position downgrades, probation and, often enough, dismissal.

Stress and Time

The private sector is relentless, since modern communications tools make everybody accessible all the time. Dealing with time zones around the world results in employees on conference calls late at night, early in the morning, in the office or at home, weekends and holidays. People are simply expected to be engaged, all the time. 

Vacations are nice, but I know of nobody who has ever unplugged totally for a week or two, with contact at the office at least once a day the norm for most employees.

Faculty life, of course, is quite different. Compensation may be lower (and often much lower) than in the private sector, but personal time is much greater.

Most faculty I knew taught three sections of a course each semester, and two of those sections were usually of the same course – hence the need to actually prepare content for only two courses each semester. Because faculty teach the same courses over time, updating the content is a relatively easy task. I know, I’ve done it.

Each course section would meet for 3-4 hours per week, so actual class time totaled approximately 12 hours per week. Once I had prepared a course for the first time, it could be updated each semester fairly easily, and I generally found myself devoting about the same amount of time to course prep and grading as time spent in class. Toss in student and faculty meetings, and I’d venture that a “full” teaching load would require somewhere around 30 hours of time each week.

Faculty are expected to do research, of course, and publish, but there is more than ample time set aside for this. Semesters typically run 15 weeks each, so figure 30 weeks per year tied up in class related work, at about 30 hours per week.

Summer breaks run from mid-May to mid-August, and the “winter break” is another month.   In addition to the amount of time available, it is the quality of that time that counts. Faculty are almost totally unplugged for those stretches of time, with plenty of time for professional or personal pursuits.

Travel

Once the current pandemic is behind us, I expect business travel to return fairly quickly to pre-pandemic levels. In interviewing candidates for virtually any commercial position at the company where I worked, I would tell them that – on average – they should plan to be away from home at least one night per week, and often two. These were averages, so the actual experience may see a week of no business travel followed by a week in Europe or 10-12 days in Asia. 

In addition to being physically tiring, travel is tough on families. Missed family events, and the general shouldering of parental burdens by one parent for a period of time, can be wearing.

On the other hand, business travel afforded me the opportunity to visit marvelous places around the world, and to meet wonderful people of different cultures, so there is a positive aspect to it.

Faculty seldom travel on business, unless to the occasional professional conference or to assist the admission department with some targeted recruiting. More time and less stress – these are the primary benefits of academic life that exiting faculty will not find in the private sector.

Job Security

In the private sector, there is no job security. Business downturns, loss of market share to competitors, and negative performance evaluations can all lead to job losses. When I started in business, employees tended to stay with one organization for life. That is certainly no longer the case, and we all know people that are “in transition”.

The academic life has traditionally offered the opportunity for job security through achieving tenure. As we see now, even this is no longer secure. Colleges are driving costs from fixed to variable, and a tenured professor’s salary is not variable by any stretch. I would agree that job security is more prevalent on campus, but not to the degree it formerly was.

Where to from here?

For faculty who are being downsized, many positions in the private sector make sense as the next chapter of their professional stories. Organizations employee legions of scientists, engineers, accountants, marketing, advertising and human resource professionals, to name but just a few functions. Faculty with energy and good communications skills will find a place in this new environment.

But things will be different. Not necessarily worse, just different, and they should be prepared for the change.

For colleges, I envision the continued move to more variable faculty resources to be both positive and negative. While the ability to shape and re-shape faculty will allow schools to be more adaptive, there are issues regarding the traditional tenured faculty role of institutional governance that need to be re-thought. 

Change is always good, though, for the person and the organization. Fresh ideas and new challenges are the lifeblood of innovation.

Vic Brown is a writer and author of the book “Welcome to College- Your Career Starts Now!”

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