For some years now the word among young people on the nation’s campuses has been not to bother aspiring to a university professorship. In most disciplines, particularly the humanities, there simply were no jobs open, or too few to matter. Higher education had boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, and faculty members hired in those years rarely budged once they had tenure. But in the next decade many of those professors will be retiring; the nation’s universities may face the same teacher shortages that confront public schools. Steps taken now can affect the quality of higher education for years to come.
Wisely looking ahead, the Ford Foundation has asked 39 of the nation’s top colleges and universities to bid for $4.75 million in grants to help develop that teaching talent. Among the schools invited to bid are the University of California, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Oberlin.
“More undergraduates must choose faculty careers than have done so in recent years, and the quality of the graduate pool must rise,” said Dr. Franklin A. Thomas, Ford Foundation president, in announcing the program. “At present, relatively few of our best students pursue the Ph.D. and become college teachers.” By the year 2010, schools may need half a million new professors.
The university bidders must address more than just job prospects if young people are to be attracted to college teaching--although that has been the critical barrier in the last decade. Faculty pay is far too low on many campuses, and teaching loads are often too heavy--especially for young faculty members. Many schools are ambivalent about whether to emphasize research or teaching, and must make their preferences clear as they seek to recruit and retain the best possible faculty members for their own needs.
The quality of responses to the Ford Foundation proposal will be vital. It takes about 10 years of schooling from freshman to Ph.D., so it’s none too soon to start addressing these questions.