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September-October 2008

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Mapping the Terrain of Mid-Career Faculty at a Research University: Implications for Faculty and Academic Leaders

Mid-career faculty comprise the largest component of the academic workforce. But what do we really know about them? What do they experience? What are their needs? What are the needs of the chairs who try to support, motivate, and evaluate them?  In contrast to the large and growing body of empirical research on their early-career colleagues, the research on them is far from robust, offering relatively few suggestions for how best to guide them through the rest of their academic careers. This is symptomatic of the lack of attention, and even neglect, that many mid-career faculty experience.  

To fill this gap, a group of researchers at Michigan State University conducted a study of mid-career tenured faculty and department chairs to “map the terrain” of the mid-career experience. Our research took place during a time of increased attention to the condition and future prospects of the academic profession. Recent national publications—such as Rethinking Faculty Work: Higher Education’s Strategic Imperative by Gappa, Austin, and Trice (2007) and The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers by Schuster and Finkelstein (2006)—show that the demographic composition and work life of faculty are changing substantially. At the same time, policies and practices intended to support professors’ work and professional development have not kept pace with these dramatic changes in the profession. We concluded that research focusing on the lengthy mid-career years would help to inform the national conversation on the evolving academic profession as well as enrich personnel policies and practices at individual institutions.

This article describes our efforts and summarizes key themes and contested topics for the sake of faculty, personnel committees, chairs, faculty developers, and other administrators committed to supporting their academic colleagues. Although the study’s findings and implications may be most relevant to other research universities, other types of colleges and universities may benefit from the methods, insights, and recommendations we offer and want to replicate or build on the processes and practices described here on their own campuses.

The Study
The context. Michigan State University (MSU) is a large, public, land-grant, research university. The Office of Faculty and Organizational Development provides a comprehensive support program for its 4,000 faculty and academic administrators. Like many similar faculty development programs, the office’s primary focus has been to support early career tenure-track faculty, even though its mission explicitly mandates support for “faculty across the career stages” in recognition that faculty may want and need different types of support and opportunities at different stages of their academic lives. In an effort to fulfill that broader mission, we invited a group of MSU mid-career colleagues to share with us their experiences and needs and how we might better support them.  

The authors are all at Michigan State University, where Roger Baldwin is a professor of higher education administration, Deborah DeZure is the assistant provost for the Faculty and Organizational Development (F&OD) program, Allyn Shaw is the assistant director of leadership development programs at F&OD, and Kristin Moretto is a doctoral candidate in the higher education administration program. The results of this study were presented at the 2007 annual conference of the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) network, where it won a Robert J. Menges Award for outstanding research in faculty development.

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