In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section University Faculty Roles and Responsibilities in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journals and Other Publications
  • Organizations
  • Data Sources
  • Academics as Knowledge Workers
  • Faculty Development and Learning
  • Assessment, Evaluation, and Rewards
  • Work-Life Balance
  • Women and Faculty in Underrepresented Groups
  • Non-Tenure-Track and Part-Time Faculty
  • Community College Faculty

Education University Faculty Roles and Responsibilities in the United States
Ann E. Austin, Lucas B. Hill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0070


Faculty members are a central and critical ingredient to the quality of a higher education institution. They carry out the missions of the institutions where they work, conducting research, teaching students, applying their knowledge in service to addressing societal challenges, and fulfilling leadership and service roles within the university or college. While some features of academic work are common for all faculty members in the United States (such as commitment to integrity and learning), the particularities of a professor’s roles and responsibilities depend on the discipline and institutional type where he or she works. For example, teaching is typically a larger part of the role in community colleges and other undergraduate-focused institutions than in research universities, where faculty face heavier expectations to produce research as well as to teach. Engagement with society, as another example, may take a different form for a faculty member in a professional field than for one working in the humanities or sciences. The experiences of faculty members in fulfilling their roles and responsibilities also vary across career stages. While graduate education provides some preparation for faculty roles and responsibilities (and many programs have been giving more attention to such preparation in recent years), the early career period still has challenges as the novice learns to navigate multiple expectations, manage personal and professional responsibilities, and establish collegial relationships. As faculty members move into the mid- and late career stages, different issues arise, such as maintaining professional vitality over time, handling more institutional roles, and supporting newer colleagues. Important institutional responsibilities include providing opportunities for faculty members to continue their professional development, growth, and learning, establishing institutional policies that support faculty efforts to manage work and life responsibilities, and ensuring that appropriate evaluation and reward systems are in place. Institutional leaders also should recognize the particular challenges that often confront women and faculty in underrepresented groups, as well as those holding non-tenure-track and part-time positions. Furthermore, with the changing external context for higher education institutions in the global economy, faculty members can be seen as knowledge workers facing expanding expectations, changing appointment types, more diverse student bodies, and new modes of teaching, working, and engaging with the broader society. Much remains to be learned about how faculty roles and responsibilities are changing, how these changes vary for individuals and by discipline and institution type, and how to best support faculty in carrying out their work.

General Overviews

The academic profession has deep historical roots while simultaneously being affected by the societal context in which faculty carry out their work. The publications in this section, written by well-recognized scholars on the professoriate, discuss historically based dimensions of academic work, as well as changes occurring in recent years. Several reach the conclusion that the academic profession is currently at a point of major, perhaps transformative, change. The renowned sociologist Burton Clark examines the ways in which disciplinary and institutional allegiances shape and add complexity to the nature of the professoriate in Clark 1987. Finkelstein 1984 provides a systematic analysis of social science research between the post–World War II period and 1980 pertaining to full-time faculty at four-year higher education institutions. Blackburn and Lawrence 1995 draws extensively on its authors’ own and others’ empirical research to develop and test a model explaining what motivates faculty in regard to their research, teaching, and service. Rice 1986 adds another dimension to knowledge about faculty work through its incisive analysis of the consensus that emerged in the post–World War II period about the meaning of being an academic professional (key assumptions include the centrality of research, the organization of knowledge by discipline, and the importance of specialization). However, in the face of major shifts occurring in the academy, the author calls for the creation of a new conception of the academic professional (see his further work developing this argument in Rice 2007, cited under Academic Careers). Changes in the academy and the broader society, and the implications for faculty work, are strong themes in several other pieces. Altbach 1995 provides a succinct summary of the changes affecting the professoriate at the end of the 20th century. Schuster and Finkelstein 2006 is impressive for the extensiveness of data provided about the condition of the academic profession, its analysis of past and expected future trends, and its well-reasoned argument that “revolutionary changes” are afoot in the profession. Gappa, et al. 2007 also analyzes major changes affecting faculty, and offers a research-based framework of “essential elements” of academic work and how they can be maintained in a changing context. Finally, Hermanowicz 2011 brings together chapters from a number of well-known scholars who examine the conditions of academe as a profession at the start of this century, taking up such topics as the changing nature of faculty appointments, structural changes in academic work, socialization for a changing profession, and issues of autonomy and regulation. All the publications in this section touch on the questions of the meaning of academic work and the direction in which the profession is moving.

  • Altbach, Phillip. G. 1995. Problems and possibilities: The US academic profession. Studies in Higher Education 20.1: 27–44.

    DOI: 10.1080/03075079512331381780

    A comprehensive, succinct essay exploring significant challenges facing the professoriate at the end of the 20th century, including changing faculty demographics, a tightened academic labor market, economic uncertainty, decreasing public support for higher education, increased demands for accountability, and changing student interests.

  • Blackburn, Robert T., and Janet H. Lawrence. 1995. Faculty at work: Motivation, expectation, satisfaction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Uses previous empirical research, sociological and psychological theory, and new survey data to develop and test a framework to address the question of what motivates faculty in regard to their research, teaching, and service. Offers recommendations for administrators for supporting faculty vitality and increasing institutional productivity.

  • Clark, Burton R. 1987. The academic life: Small worlds, different worlds. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

    A much-cited sociological analysis of the nature of the academic profession, drawing on extensive interview data and national survey data. Analyzes historic foundations of the profession, the complexities associated with how academic work occurs in different institutional types and disciplines, and faculty commitment to both discipline and institution.

  • Finkelstein, Martin J. 1984. The American academic profession: A synthesis of social scientific inquiry since World War II. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

    Thorough and systematic literature review of three hundred research-based articles concerning the professoriate from post–World War II through 1980. Discusses the choice to enter the professoriate, norms guiding academic work, how faculty spend their time, and family, civic, and religious aspects of their lives. Includes a chapter specifically on women and minorities (pp. 179–219).

  • Gappa, Judith M., Ann E. Austin, and Andrea G. Trice. 2007. Rethinking faculty work: Higher education’s strategic imperative. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Analyzes recent changes in higher education that affect the professoriate. Based on a review of research and theory concerning work overall and faculty work specifically. Advances a framework of “essential elements” in academic work that support faculty satisfaction and commitment in service to institutional missions. Contains an expansive bibliography.

  • Hermanowicz, Joseph C., ed. 2011. The American academic profession: Transformation in contemporary higher education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    An edited volume whose chapters examine major contemporary factors and trends affecting—and possibly eroding—academe as a profession. Chapters are organized around structural and cognitive change, socialization and deviance, experience of the career, autonomy and regulation, and contemporary and historical views. Chapters are written by prominent scholars and contain extensive references.

  • Rice, R. Eugene. 1986. The academic profession in transition: Toward a new social fiction. Teaching Sociology 14.1: 12–23.

    DOI: 10.2307/1318295

    An essay grounded in sociological concepts that describe the consensus that emerged in the post–World War II era on a set of key assumptions defining what it means to be an academic professional. Argues that these assumptions need to be reformulated to match the contextual changes occurring in higher education.

  • Schuster, Jack H., and Martin J. Finkelstein. 2006. The American faculty: The restructuring of academic work and careers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive, historically based examination of the academic career rooted in extensive empirical research and based on national faculty surveys. Analyzes trends in academic life over several decades and suggests trend lines for the future. Contains numerous appendices, including extensive data on aspects of faculty careers, and an extensive bibliography.

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