The Changing Landscape of the Academic Profession: The Culture of Faculty at For-Profit Colleges and Universities
reviewed by Kevin Kinser - May 31, 2006
Title: The Changing Landscape of the Academic Profession: The Culture of Faculty at For-Profit Colleges and Universities
Author(s): Vicente M. Lechuga
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415976995, Pages: 222, Year: 2006
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Over the last several years, scholars of higher education have expressed a growing awareness of the importance of for-profit higher education. A number of reports, articles, and even a few books have discussed the emergence of a degree-granting, for-profit sector as a competitive force and innovative model for higher education in the United States. Positive descriptions of the sector have been countered with arguments highlighting its disruptive potential and negative consequences for the traditional academic values of educational institutions. The middle ground in this debate gets little play, as most authors conclude that, for good or ill, the future of the academy will be greatly influenced by these profit-making schools.
With all the back-and-forth, the empirical basis of most analyses has been rather weak. Generally, the evidence is limited to a few statistics regarding the enormous expansion of the for-profit sector since the 1990s and a case study exemplar that demonstrates the challenge to traditional institutions posed by the distinctive for-profit model. Too much emphasis is given to large players like the University of Phoenix with too little attention being paid to the institutional diversity of the sector. It is rare to find a balanced and scholarly treatment of the for-profit sector, one that appropriately recognizes the complexity of its subject and uses data to separate reality from the rhetoric.
In The Changing Landscape of the Academic Profession, Lechuga has largely avoided these problems. He writes a compelling narrative of the for-profit faculty role, grounded in case studies of four distinct institutions. Taking a cultural approach, Lechuga identifies the key elements that distinguish faculty in the for-profit sector from their colleagues who teach at non-profit institutions. In the process, he illuminates the variety of practice in for-profit higher education, making it clear that the academic model they employ has many deviations. And, by placing the analysis squarely within the existing literature on faculty roles, Lechuga proves that the for-profit sector is not sui generis.
The best part about the book is the in-depth case studies of four for-profit institutions. Each one represents different examples of the range of for-profit institutions that exist in the U.S: a distance learning institution that focuses on graduate training; a multi-campus institution with locations across the U.S.; a regional institution that offers two- and four-year degrees in select fields; and a small, single campus institution that has been in existence for over 120 years. In clear and direct language, Lechuga walks the reader through the faculty model employed by each school, primarily using interviews with faculty to provide a picture of the academic culture at the institution. The cases provide evidence for Lechugas conceptual analysis of the for-profit faculty as contingent workersthose separated from traditional notions of shared governance, academic freedom, and scholarly activity that have been the norm in university life for the last half century.
At the same time, the differences among the institutions suggest how inadequate the polemicists are in their arguments about the for-profit model. The schools vary in the proportion of part-time faculty, from one institution claiming almost its entire faculty to be full-time, in contrast to another that relies almost exclusively on part-time instructors. Faculty involvement in course design ranges from a primary responsibility to that of marginal effort. The differences in the education and training of faculty, their satisfaction with their work and responsibilities, and their institutional service obligations allow few generalizations among these four institutions, let alone the sector as a whole.
Ironically, it is in analyzing this excellent portrayal of for-profit diversity that Lechuga stumbles by focusing on the similarities among institutions rather than their differences. The penultimate chapter offers a cross-institutional comparison that promisingly begins with a declaration that not all for-profit institutions are alike. What follows, however, is a chapter that summarizes the faculty culture at for-profit institutions by largely glossing over the differences. Other than the first section on diverse faculty bodies, the rest of the chapter seems to argue that all for-profits have centralized decision-making, reject shared governance, have tensions between the academic and business sides of the organization, regularly measure faculty job performance, impose constraints on faculty freedom, and enforce a customer-service perspective. Any one of these items may be true for some or even most for-profit institutions, but the diverse perspectives offered in this volume tend to work against such broad sectoral assumptions.
Particularly because of the important information Lechuga has collected in this work, it is difficult not to regret the missing discussion regarding for-profit diversity. For example, three publicly traded corporations own institutions in his sample, with a private investment firm recently purchasing the fourth institution from the founders family. The different ownership models suggest corporate culture may be a mediating variable in faculty culture. Some evidence of this is contained in the case of the institution recently purchased by the investment company. The confusion and low morale reported among the faculty involved in the ownership shift indicates a disconnect between faculty culture and corporate culture. The acquisition of family-run for-profit campuses by large corporate management companies represents a major transition in the for-profit sector over the last decade. Lechuga includes tantalizing hints about how this shift affects faculty culture, but unfortunately sets it aside in the final synthesis.
This book originated as Lechugas dissertation, and some elements more germane to a thesis than a book remain in the text. Mostly, these are minor distractions from the main thrust of the study. One aspect, however, deserves special emphasis. The full attention given to the methodology of the study is not only welcome; it also provides an enlightening insight into the problems of conducting research on proprietary institutions. Lechuga details the resistance he encountered in getting faculty to participate in his study. Most notably, he reprints a letter from the Dean of Academic Affairs at one institution instructing his faculty not to participate in Lechugas bogus study. He was forced to drop this school from his analysis because of the managements objections. One rarely finds such explicit acknowledgement of protocol difficulties in published research. Lechugas forthright discussion emphasizes that research in the for-profit sector proceeds in tenuous relationship with the interests of its respective owners.
Scholarship struggles to keep pace with the fast-changing for-profit sector. This book provides a balanced treatment of a controversial subject. Lechuga does not write as an advocate or detractor. Rather, he presents his data and conclusions and draws on the relationships of existing literature on changing faculty roles in the current era. He has made a valuable contribution to this area of discussion and provides a model for careful research on for-profit higher education that others would do well to emulate.