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The professoriate comprises faculty in postsecondary institutions who have specialized expertise in one of the many academic disciplines or professional fields and who teach and to varying degrees engage in research, institutional governance, and service (for example, provide medical care). In the early twenty-first century the professoriate includes approximately 3.5 million professionals teaching more than 80 million students worldwide (Task Force on Higher Education and Society 2000).

The evolution of the academic profession has been inextricably linked to changes in fields of study, colleges and universities, and national systems of higher education. The kaleidoscope of organizational structures and operations that characterize postsecondary institutions are associated with an array of faculty employment and career patterns as well as differences in the nature of academic work. The teaching and research of a psychologist differ from a chemists, and the career path of a professor in a German university only slightly resembles that of a professor in a small American liberal arts college. Hence treating the professoriate as a single professional group is often difficult.

Despite the differences, there are some core features of the profession that can be attributed to the common origins of most contemporary universities in the medieval European universities. Specifically, a history of the professoriate should take into account the nature of academic work, professors autonomy, and their roles in institutional governance.


A fundamental difference in the overall governance of higher education distinguishes the United States from other nations. Whereas in most countries there is a national system of public higher education with government bodies that set policies for all institutions under their jurisdictions, this is not the case in the United States. In the United States control of higher education is decentralized, and responsibility for funding and governance is delegated to individual states. States in turn have given individual universities leeway to establish their own faculty employment practices. Consequently, variations among campuses are greater in the decentralized U.S. higher education system than is the case in a centralized one, where conditions of employment are determined by national policies. For a variety of reasons, countries with centralized national systems are looking to the United States as an example of how professorial roles might be restructured. Hence it is instructive to consider the history of the U.S. professoriate in some detail.

The Professoriate in the Decentralized U.S. System The earliest colleges, founded in British colonies, were modeled after Oxford and Cambridge, and their mission was to prepare children of means for public life and further study in medicine, law, or theology. Education was for the privileged classthe eliteand the classical curriculum varied little from that found in the Middle Ages: ethics, metaphysics, and natural philosophy. The language of instruction was Latin.

From the opening of Harvard College in 1636 until the early 1800s, tutors predominated in the professoriate. Recruited from among recent graduates, tutors were considered qualified to teach all subjects. The curriculum was set, and campus governance was the responsibility of a lay board and a strong president.

In the 1720s Harvard made the first permanent faculty appointments: endowed professorships in divinity, mathematics, and natural philosophy. Professors differed from tutors in that they usually had some advanced professional training, were appointed to and taught almost exclusively in one subject area, and remained in their positions longer. By 1795 approximately 105 professors were distributed across nineteen colleges. However, the faculty career was not financially viable, so most professors also earned incomes as clergymen, lawyers, and physicians. In the early 1800s the work of Enlightenment scholars, emphasizing scientific reasoning and truth, edged into undergraduate curricula. New areas of academic knowledge with new modes of research emerged, bringing opportunities for postbaccalaureate education outside the traditional professions. The German university, with its ideals of unfettered inquiry and faculty simultaneously engaged in teaching and research, became the model to which the United States aspired, and Americans went abroad for advanced education.

The late 1800s brought specialized colleges for women and blacks and land-grant institutions devoted to utilitarian education. Disciplinary associations (for example, the American Chemical Society) were established, providing avenues for faculty publication that brought national recognition to scholars and their universities. American doctoral education began in earnest. Yale granted the first PhD in 1861, and in 1876 the first exclusively graduate school was foundedJohns Hopkins University.

Further differentiation of postsecondary institutions occurred as the American graduate university began to take shape alongside the liberal arts, specialized, and land-grant institutions. Its core was a four-year undergraduate college organized into disciplinary departments, with graduate and professional programs arrayed around it. These universities exerted profound influences on the definition of academic knowledge and on the professional norms and values of the professoriate. In 1913 faculty in the leading graduate universities called a meeting to set professional standards for university-based scholars, paving the way for the founding of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915.

The late 1800s and early 1900s were pivotal years for the academic profession. The earned PhD was becoming a requirement for entry. Growing numbers of individuals moved directly from doctoral study to faculty positions. The ranks of instructor, assistant professor, and professor were forged into a distinguishable career. Individuals were appointed in departments representing specialized disciplinary areas. Structural changes in universities enhanced professors work autonomy and their authority in academic personnel matters. Primary responsibility for academic decisions such as curriculum and faculty hiring migrated to professors.

Between 1921 and 1945 state and federal governments recruited faculty to help solve societal problems, increasing the visibility and stature of the professoriate. The prestige of graduate universities became calibrated in terms of student quality and achievement and faculty prominence and research accomplishments. Between 1920 and 1940 the annual production of doctorates increased from 620 to about 3,300. At the same time new institutionstwo-year colleges and normal schools with qualitatively different programswere created to meet the needs of immigrants and part-time students interested in technical and semiprofessional occupations. Nationally, institutional differentiation and enrollments increased. Student and faculty profiles changed as access to higher education widened and the massification of higher education progressed.

Although the professoriate grew in stature and assumed primary responsibility for academic matters, faculty served at the pleasure of institutional governing boards and presidents. Faculty did not enjoy the economic security or due process that characterized other professions, and they chafed at restrictions on their academic freedom. The AAUP, with the American Association of Colleges, crafted professional guidelines to address these problems and in 1940 produced the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The statement articulated the concept of continuous tenure, meaning that an individual could not be fired without a judicial hearing, and provided guidelines for awarding tenure. The authors proffered tenure as a means to protect academic freedom and ensure a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability (American Association of University Professors). Another AAUP report on faculty governance from this period asserted that professors were not employees to be managed by administrators but professionals to be consulted on institutional decisionsin particular faculty appointments and promotions and educational matters.

After World War II, as a result of federal legislation such as the GI Bill, enrollments tripled, as did the need for professors. Established graduate education programs grew, and new ones were created. Government funding for research burgeoned. The confluence of these events in the 1950s further expanded the influence of graduate universities, diffusing the research ethos throughout academe. The specialized scholar came to epitomize the academic professional.

In the 1960s faculty enjoyed ready employment, funding for research, career advancement, and geographic mobility. Faculty autonomy strengthened as departments assumed primary responsibility for academic decisions and faculty personnel matters. The standards for faculty promotion and tenure heightened. Economic conditions worsened in the 1970s, and undergraduate enrollment declined. Professors were criticized for valuing esoteric research, being inattentive to undergraduates, and failing to diversify by hiring and promoting women and minorities. Beginning in the 1980s the nations economic policies shifted greater responsibility for funding their education to students and encouraged greater cooperation between postsecondary institutions and business. State and federal governments called for greater fiscal and educational accountability.

Beginning in the 1990s and continuing into the early twenty-first century reduced campus budgets, attributed to lost tax dollars and diminished tuition revenue, and the need for instructional flexibility were reasons given for significant changes in personnel practices. Faculty appointments were changed from tenure track, with its assumption of continuous employment, to term appointments that specify a fixed period at the end of which a person is released or the contract is extended. The proportion of the U.S. professoriate employed full-time dropped from 78 percent to 56 percent between 1970 and 2001, and the majority of full-time appointments in the 1990s were off the tenure trackabout 53 percent in 1997 (Finkelstein and Schuster 2001). Unionization of non-tenure-track faculty has increased, providing an alternative to traditional forms of shared governance on some campuses.

The Professoriate in Centralized Higher Education Systems Certain factors have had pervasive and similar effects on the professoriate in both the United States and other countries. For example, new modes of inquiry as well as calls for more utilitarian programs of study have altered postsecondary institutions and the nature of academic work worldwide. However, different national contexts and cultural traditions have led to variations in employment conditions and career structures within the professoriate. For example, in the former Soviet republics, the requirements for different programs of study and rigid workload guidelines are set by the national government and constrain faculty autonomy in their teaching. In western Europe professors participate in and greatly influence decisions about academic matters, but nonprofessors have little to no power. Some nations maintain separate organizational structures for professors teaching and research, such as the research institutes and academies of science found in Germany and throughout eastern Europe. Yet Britain has created an institutional ranking system in which placement depends heavily on the research productivity of the universitys faculty. In certain nations France, Germany, and Italy, for exampleprofessors are civil servants and enjoy a form of tenure based on their status within the public-service sector. In contrast, the British government removed faculty from the civil service ranks, and now all faculty hold fixed-term appointments. Professors in Latin America must compete periodically with a national pool of applicants for the positions they hold. Some countriesChina, for exampleare implementing policies that will require faculty to fund parts of their full-time positions with money obtained through research grants.

Such examples highlight variations in the professoriate across centralized higher education systems. Academic work continues to be shaped by changes outside as well as within academe, and it appears that several professional features of the professoriateautonomy and career stability in particularare being eroded.


The configuration of faculty activities and the credentials of professors vary by field, institutional mission, and national context. In the United States, for example, a research university professor with graduate and undergraduate students and a research laboratory distributes her or his time differently than does a community college professor who teaches five or more undergraduate courses. In France the credentials to teach lower division university courses are the same as those required to teach in the elite university preparatory schools.

U.S. colleges set their own personnel policies and practices, but typically, when they seek tenure track faculty, they announce openings in national venues. Search committees made up primarily of faculty screen applicants, interview candidates, and ultimately recommend preferred candidates to administrators. Selection is based on merit criteria, such as academic credentials, publication quality, and peer recommendations. Fixed-term appointments are handled differently, especially if the employment period is brief. In countries with national systems, traditions differ, but typically a government body establishes personnel policies and practices for all postsecondary institutions.

The U.S. tenure track has three ranks: assistant professor, associate professor, and professor. After a probationary period, assistant professors are evaluated and are either promoted to associate professor and awarded tenure or dismissed. Reappointments and promotions of fixed-term faculty are also based on performance evaluations. Faculty may be dismissed from their tenured or nontenured positions because of misconduct, financial exigencies, or post-tenure reviews that document inadequate performance.

In other countries the sequence of positions held by nonprofessors varies greatly, as do national policies regarding whether a person can earn promotion in the university where he or she is currently employed. In contrast with the United States, where faculty can be promoted through the ranks in a single institution, the careers of academics unfold within national systems. Faculty must often migrate from one institution to another to advance their careers. The Humboldtian university chair system, in which each discipline (department) has one professor the chairwas copied widely and has significantly influenced faculty careers in many nations. A professor enjoys permanent employment, but nonprofessors are on fixed-term contracts, and to be promoted, they must successfully compete for a position at another university. Nonprofessors must complete a second doctorate (the Habilitation ) to be eligible for a professorial appointment. While they complete the Habilitation, these nonprofessors hold either paid or unpaid university teaching and research appointments. Unlike in the United States, where junior faculty and professors participate in decision-making with respect to a range of academic issues, in Germany a significant gap in authority exists between these two groups.


Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, public views of the academic profession were positive, and occupational prestige was high. However, public perceptions began to change in the 1970s. Criticism of the professoriate appeared regularly in the popular press, students rioted in some countries, and there were general calls for accountability. Faculty productivity, instructional quality, research relevance, and tenure were all questioned in the last thirty years of the twentieth century. The political beliefs of faculty, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, have also drawn criticism. As guaranteed employment and pay in other professions declined, disapproval of U.S. institutional tenure and presumed tenure of professors who are civil servants intensified. However, sociological studies suggest the occupation has remained among the highest in prestige.


The academic profession faces multiple challenges. Here are a few:

  • One challenge results from government pressures for accountability and structural changes in faculty roles. Proponents of increased efficiency and those who want to change the balance of power among faculty, administrators, and government bodies argue that tenure (both as defined in the United States and in national civil service careers) is outmoded and advocate fixed-term faculty appointments as an alternative. Critics of such appointments believe they diminish the quality of the professoriate and the conditions of academic work that have made higher education successful: professional autonomy, academic freedom, and economic security. These divergent views of the professoriate are a source of tension among government officials, university administrators, and faculty.
  • Since the nineteenth century, teaching and learning through simultaneous engagement in scholarship and instruction has been a cornerstone of the strongest higher education systems in the world. Critics of personnel policies that prioritize fixed-term positions with heavy teaching loads challenge what they believe is a failure to recognize the impact on the advancement of knowledge that has resulted in countries that have adopted such practices.
  • Yet another challenge for the professoriate is changes in government and foundation research support. Funding for research in some areas is abundant. In others, especially the arts and humanities, monies are scarce. The attractiveness of fields and the availability of future scholars may be affected by this situation.

SEE ALSO Cambridge University; Education, USA; Intellectualism, Anti-; New Class, The; University of Oxford; University, The


American Association of University Professors. 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Baldwin, R. G., and J. L. Chronister. 2002. What Happened to the Tenure Track? In The Question of Tenure, ed. Richard P. Chait, 125159. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Blackburn, Robert T., and Janet H. Lawrence. 1995. Faculty at Work: Motivation, Expectation, Satisfaction. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Fairweather, James S. 1996. Faculty Work and Public Trust: Restoring the Value of Teaching and Public Service in American Academic Life. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Finkelstein, Martin J. 1984. The American Academic Profession: A Synthesis of Social Scientific Inquiry since World War II. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Finkelstein, Martin J., and Jack H. Schuster. 2001. Assessing the Silent Revolution: How Changing Demographics Are Reshaping the Academic Profession. American Association for Higher Education Bulletin 54 (2): 37.

Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. 2004. Digest of Education Statistics, Chapter 3. Postsecondary Education. National Center for Educational Statistics.

Rudolph, F. 1962. The American College and University: A History. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Task Force on Higher Education and Society. 2000. Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Janet H. Lawrence

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