Assessing the Silent Revolution
How Changing Demographics Are Reshaping the Academic Profession
By Martin J. Finkelstein and Jack H. Schuster

From the October 2001 AAHE Bulletin


The American faculty has been undergoing dramatic changes in who it is, what it does, and the career trajectory of its members. While many of the changes — especially the demographic ones — have been evident for years, other key dimensions of the faculty’s transformation have been far less visible. Taken together, these elements constitute, in effect, a silent revolution.

To describe the transformation, we draw on our multiyear Project on the Future of the American Faculty. The first two volumes derived from this endeavor focused on the new generation of faculty members. (For more on this research, see our books, with Robert K. Seal, The New Academic Generation: A Profession in Transition, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998; and New Entrants to the Full-Time Faculty of Higher Education Institutions, National Center for Education Statistics, 1998.) This project, supported by several foundations, is now nearing completion.

Our presentation at AAHE’s 2001 Conference on Faculty Roles & Rewards enabled us to preview several important aspects of our work:

  • Who makes up the new faculty? 

  • What do they do on the job? 

  • What are the longer-term policy implications of this new academic workforce?

To depict the transformation of the academic profession, we have focused on the new generation of faculty members, for within that cohort can be seen the most dramatic manifestations of change. We highlight their distinctive characteristics and the nature of their work by making two comparisons: first, to their contemporary, more senior colleagues, and, second, to their historical counterparts from several past decades.

To delineate the uniqueness of the current new entrants, our project has drawn on the major national faculty surveys conducted over the past three decades, beginning with the landmark 1969 Carnegie Commission National Survey of Faculty. The other major surveys span four subsequent Carnegie surveys, three sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (the 1988, 1993, and the recently released 1999 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty), four conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles’s Higher Education Research Institute, and several others, including surveys by the National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning (1988) and TIAA-CREF (1999).

We believe that our analysis is the most extensive — and arguably the most foolhardy! — undertaken to scrutinize and synthesize oceans of often disparate data derived from these varied faculty databases. Nonetheless, we believe that only then can the extent of the changes still under way be adequately understood.

The Demographic Morph
The most elemental observation to be made about the new academic generation is that it is very substantial in size. Given the common perception that the academic marketplace has been more static than dynamic for many years, many observers are surprised to learn that fully one-third (33.5 percent) of the full-time faculty in two- and four-year institutions in 1992 were in the first seven years of a full-time academic career and that in 1998, the proportion of such new entrants was 22.4 percent. Although the new faculty cohort that had transformed American colleges and universities in the late 1960s, during the last great era of expansion and substantial hiring, was very large — constituting about half of all full-time faculty members — the more recent junior cohorts have been impressively sizeable and, accordingly, will shape who the faculty are and what they do for years to come.

Our second observation centers on the new cohort’s increasing diversity, as encapsulated in Figure 1. Consider that white males, especially native-born, historically have comprised the dominant core of the profession. Yet by 1992 they no longer constituted even a majority (43.2 percent) among the new faculty cohort, dropping further to 36.5 percent in 1998. Indeed, to further dramatize the faculty’s transformation, if we add a variable to capture the ever-growing tilt toward professional/ career fields, we find that by 1992 only one in five (20.5 percent) recently hired full-time faculty was a native-born white male teaching in a liberal arts field, a proportion that shrank further to 18.6 percent by 1998. In other words, it can be said, with only slight hyperbole, that the prototypical faculty member of a mere few decades ago (the native-born white male based in the liberal arts) may now be approaching endangered status!

The extent of this demographic revolution can be seen vividly when we compare the gender profiles among faculty generations in 1969, 1992, and 1998. Table 1 shows not only a much smaller proportion of women in full-time academic positions in 1969 compared with 1992 or 1998, but only a small difference in female representation between the generational cohorts. Not much change was under way then. By 1992, however, we see a strikingly different pattern: women are much more numerous in the new-entrant cohort, indicating their still-expanding presence. By 1998, women had grown to 35.8 percent among all full-timers, and among the recent hires they accounted for 43.8 percent.

A Radical Realignment
That brings us to the crux of the “silent revolution” that we believe is reshaping the academic profession and, ipso facto, faculty roles as teachers and as knowledge producers. Perhaps the sharpest difference between the contemporary faculty and their predecessors a generation ago is seen in the kinds of academic appointments they hold. In 1992, more than four-fifths (83.5 percent) of the full-time experienced faculty (seven or more years of full-time teaching experience) held “regular,” that is, tenure or tenure-track, appointments, compared with only two-thirds of the new entrants (66.8 percent).

The escalation of full-time, “off-track” appointments is all the more striking when viewed in historical perspective because such appointments were almost unknown in 1969 — amounting to a miniscule 3.3 percent. While the number and proportion of such “non-regular” full-time appointments grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the phenomenon has mushroomed in the 1990s. Indeed, as Figure 2 shows, the majority of all full-time faculty appointments made in the 1990s — new hires in 1993, 1995, and 1997 — were off the tenure track. In other words, non-tenureable term appointments — essentially nonexistent three decades ago — have become the norm, the modal type of faculty appointment. Faculty members are being redeployed at an amazing rate — and regular academic appointments are rapidly becoming less common.

So, what does this extraordinary development mean? Are we describing what may amount to no more than an inconsequential change in the duration of appointments, a superficial, essentially technical matter unrelated to the content and quality of academic work? Indeed, maybe the proliferation of such appointments will constitute a great boon to the body academic, a seismic shift that now promises to deliver ever greater flexibility (with its heightened potential for accountability) to the traditional system of tenure-eligible, full-time faculty appointments.

Roger G. Baldwin and Jay L. Chronister indicate in their recent study of off-track appointments (Teaching Without Tenure: Policies and Practices for a New Era, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) that some non-tenure track appointees largely replicate the work patterns of their tenure-track colleagues. But, they found, many other term appointees perform more specialized and limited — usually teaching-focused but sometimes research-focused — roles.

While their study offers no quantitative measures of difference, we sought to understand the extent of work role changes between faculty regulars and the newish breed of “termers.” Our analysis is summarized in Table 2 above. Accepting that some percentage of termers act like regulars on the job, the majority of termers, it appears, do not. There are evident differences, and the differences are suggestive, even provocative. Keeping in mind that these off-track appointees nonetheless serve on full-time appointments, we have found that those teaching-focused termers:

  • Devote about five hours a week less to their institutional responsibilities (as much as 10 fewer hours at the research universities) than do their regular counterparts.

  • Spend more time teaching, less time in service activities (governance and committee work), and much less time in research.

  • Are about twice as likely as regulars to spend no time whatsoever in “informal interaction” with students. The disparity is even greater in professional fields.

Granted that some term appointees, as noted, function similarly to regular appointees, these data clarify that most do not. Most, in fact, play a highly circumscribed, that is, specialized, role at their institutions, usually centering on the teaching function. Perhaps the day of the full-service professor — teaching, research, service — is becoming an anachronism. There’s another interesting difference: These teaching-focused appointees disproportionately include women, whereas, contrariwise, the research-focused term appointees are predominantly men. More interesting still, these data suggest that women termers are among the most satisfied subgroups in the contemporary academic profession. Clearly, for some of these off-track appointees, the more-defined and limited responsibilities associated with term employment may provide for them a better accommodation to life’s other demands than does the traditional academic role.

Beyond this potentially felicitous development, what does the unraveling of the “holy trinity” — teaching, research, and service — mean for the quality of academic work, the quality of teaching and advising, the quality of the research enterprise? Definitive answers to these questions will have to await more data and analyses. And the issues are not simple but highly nuanced — so crisp answers concerning the tradeoffs are not likely soon to emerge. Meanwhile, the “silent revolution” in academic appointments requires heightened scrutiny; at a minimum, it means that differences between what different types of faculty do should be monitored regularly and assessed carefully to determine, value judgments aside, just what is going on.

Policy Implications
Now moving beyond the challenging enough task of describing the changes, we ask: What are the longer-term implications for the academy?

Our brief preview of transforming trends in faculty demographics and in academic appointments and faculty work concludes with implications for the future of the academic profession and, thereby, for the future of the academy.

Although we have only scratched the proverbial surface in this account, several findings about academic work and careers spanning these past three decades begin to demonstrate that the differences between the current academic workforce and their predecessors — beyond the obvious demographic changes — are real, and they appear to have highly significant implications. Touching on only a few themes at this point, we have argued that the extensive and apparently still accelerating redeployment of faculty — that is, the massive shift in the types of academic appointments toward a more contingent workforce — constitutes a “silent revolution.”

Some aspects of change are much more tangible and much more welcome — for example, the infusion of so many more women and faculty members of color over these past three decades. But other aspects appear to have even more profound and potentially unsettling implications:

·       We foresee a future characterized by re-specialized academic work and by potentially constrained academic careers in which the links between individual faculty members and their institution are further attenuated, that is, a situation in which increasing numbers of academics disengage from long-term institutional commitment or, perhaps more accurately, are being disengaged from such a commitment.

·       Changes are occurring so rapidly that we cannot begin to obtain timely measurements of — much less comprehend — all of the implications. But consider that at this juncture it is apparent that no more than one in four recent faculty hires holds a regular, traditional appointment. (Very roughly, close to half of faculty members are part-time and, among the full-timers, half are being hired into term appointments.)

And here is the most sobering part: We believe that this makeover of the faculty members and their careers is likely to accelerate. Why? Consider, however briefly, three engines that are driving accelerating change:

·       The number of retirements, and accordingly, the need for replacements, is increasing rapidly — leaving wide open the prospect for an even more rapid makeover. The continuing aging of the faculty — now, it seems, the highest average age ever — means huge numbers of retirements looming.

·       The spread of instructional technology — a pervasive theme at the 2001 Conference on Faculty Roles & Rewards — is prompting ever more specialized curricular and instructional roles and the beginnings of academic outsourcing.

·       Changing accreditation standards are likely to exert a subtle but powerful influence. Though mentioned here only in passing, accreditors are striving hard to accommodate the “new realities” and, in so doing, are de-emphasizing the roles of — and, thereby, the need for — a substantial cadre of traditional full-time faculty members.

This is a foreseeable future. It is a future that some, no doubt, will embrace, others may accept as inevitable, and still others may lament. But it is useful to remind ourselves that in our radically decentralized non-system of higher education, no one is in charge. Certainly not the U.S. Department of Education. Not even the AAHE! No sinister conspiracy orchestrates this change. It truly is a revolution driven from “below,” fueled by innumerable decisions on individual campuses — often at the academic unit level — as they develop strategies to engage an uncertain future. No single agency’s or institution’s decision can influence more than a small portion of the larger picture — either by way of further fueling or retarding the changes.

What we urge is just this: that faculty members and administrators alike commit to focusing more attention on monitoring the extent and pace of change, and that they also contemplate, beyond acknowledging the expedient flexibility and cost savings that accrue with faculty redeployment, the likely consequences for the quality of education. That is the key.

This kind of exploration would need to take into account such matters as the likely much-diminished attractiveness of an academic career to highly able young persons if the prospects for securing a traditional academic career become even more elusive. Many such issues that press upon the value-laden core of the academy require systematic, sustained analysis, lest the silent revolution continue to sweep through the academy with far-reaching consequences before we begin to grasp its significance — and pay a potentially very high price for our inattention.

Martin J. Finkelstein is a professor of education at Seton Hall University. Contact him at

Jack H. Schuster is a professor of education and public policy at the Claremont Graduate University. Contact him at

The information in this article is from the forthcoming book The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers (Johns Hopkins University Press, expected late 2002 or early 2003) by Jack H. Schuster and Martin J. Finkelstein.

Copyright © 2008 - American Association for Higher Education and Accreditation