America’s research universities have undergone striking change in recent decades, as have many aspects of the society that surrounds them. This change has important implications for the heart of every university: the faculty. To sustain their high level of intellectual excellence and their success in preparing young people for the various roles they will play in society, universities need to be aware of how evolving conditions affect their ability to attract the most qualified people and to maximize their effectiveness as teachers and researchers. This workshop summary addresses the challenges universities face from nurturing the talent of future faculty members to managing their progress through all the stages of their careers to finding the best use of their skills as their work winds down.
Gender roles, family life, the demographic makeup of the nation and the faculty, and the economic stability of higher education all have shifted dramatically over the past generation. In addition, strong current trends in technology, funding, and demographics suggest that change will continue and perhaps even accelerate in academe in the years to come. Among the forces now propelling America’s universities toward an uncertain future are: increasing financial pressures on institutions, the research enterprise, and students; the advent of computer-based instruction on a worldwide scale; and the growing internationalization of both higher education and research.
One central element of academic life has remained essentially unchanged for generations, however: the formal structure of the professorial career. Developed in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to suit circumstances quite different from today’s, and based on traditions going back even earlier, this customary career path is now a source of strain for both the individuals pursuing it and the institutions where they work.
Universities’ effectiveness in supporting the careers of their scientific faculty matters, because faculty members pursuing that traditional career path at
research universities play a crucial role in the nation’s research enterprise. Collectively, tenured and tenure-track faculty researchers account for much of the scientific and technological progress that underlies the nation’s prosperity, security, well-being, and world leadership. For generations, secure academic positions have given faculty members the stability and resources to pursue their work. Only by assuring that gifted and highly qualified individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds are able to enter and thrive in scientific and technical research careers at academic institutions can this vital progress and leadership continue.
Changing conditions have inspired a number of universities to develop innovative approaches that attempt to adapt long-familiar practices, procedures, and concepts designed for different times to the challenges facing today’s faculty members and institutions. In developing these new systems, it is important that universities heed how changes to policies governing one stage of a career can have repercussions for the other stages.
The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy organized the workshop summarized in this report to examine major points of strain in academic research careers from the point of view of both the faculty members and the institutions. Although the issues discussed are relevant to faculty in all disciplines, the focus in this workshop was on the biological sciences, physical sciences, the social sciences, and engineering. The workshop was held in Washington, DC, in the National Academy of Sciences Building on September 9th and 10th, 2013. The gathering brought together national experts from a variety of disciplines and institutions to highlight practices and strategies already in use on various campuses and to identify issues as yet not effectively addressed. Although the workshop was designed to study current conditions and future possibilities, it was not intended to make policy recommendations. It comprised six sessions spread over a day and a half. The first day spanned the academic career arc with sessions entitled “Overview of Challenges to U.S. Universities and Academic Science and Engineering Careers,” “Getting Started: Early Career Bottleneck,” “The Family v. The Workplace: Mid-Career Priorities,” and “Beautiful Sunsets: A Fulfilling Late-career Transition.” The workshop’s second day continued with the sixth session, “Reports from the Field: Examples of Innovative Approaches,” and concluded with the final section, “Opportunities for Action.”1
This report aims to summarize the issues and information presented and discussed at the workshop. It is not, however, a chronological account of the gathering. Instead, it is organized around the broad themes covered in the presentations and discussions. Ideas, data, and participants’ statements are introduced where they are relevant to a topic, not necessarily when they appeared in the program.
1 A full agenda for the workshop can be found in Appendix A; biographies of the speakers can be found in Appendix B.
The report begins with background information that provides a framework for the discussion. Next, it covers the major phases of the academic career, highlighting the stress points that connect them. These phases are entry into academe, the tenure decision and the mid-career years that follow it, and the transition to retirement. The report then considers important issues outside that traditional ladder involving the many academics in the burgeoning ranks of “off-track” or “non-ladder” faculty. The report closes with workshop participants’ observations on opportunities for future action.
The report has been prepared by the workshop rapporteur as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop. The planning committee’s role was limited to setting the agenda and convening the workshop. The views contained in the report are those of individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all workshop participants, the planning committee, or the National Research Council.
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