An Executive Summary of Research on Faculty Well-Being and Vitality

Indiana University of Pennsylvania
May 9, 2001


The American Association of Higher Education (AAHE) funds a variety of research projects on the work and professional lives of faculty. As part of this effort AAHE gave Charles Walker of St. Bonaventure University a small grant to study faculty well-being. Mary Ann Cessna, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, was invited to participate in this project; Dr. Cessna then consulted faculty in the Reflective Practice Group and Teaching Circles, union leaders, deans, and the Provost for Academic Affairs. The project was unanimously endorsed. Because the research involved human subjects, IRB authorization for the project was then sought and obtained. The project began in March of 1999 and is ongoing.

Research Objectives and Methods

The objective of this research is to assess the state of well-being of faculty and to identify policies, practices, and support systems that sustain and strengthen well-being. To accomplish these objectives, a model of faculty well-being was constructed, and qualitative and quantitative ways to assess it were developed (see Walker & Hale, 1999; Walker 2001). Qualitative ways included interviews and behavioral observations. Quantitative ways included an Inventory on Teaching Climate and Faculty Well-Being, a survey on vital organizations, content analyses of faculty statements on what makes them flourish and perish. In March of 1999 a small but representative sample (n = 20) of faculty at IUP took the Inventory on Teaching Climate and Faculty Well-Being; then two additional samples of faculty took the Inventory March, 2000 (n = 28) and October, 2000 (n = 21). These later two groups also completed a survey on vital organizations and listed what causes them to flourish perish as faculty at IUP. Subsequently, interviews with faculty (n = 19), staff and administrators (n = 4) where conducted during the Fall 2000 semester to clarify and elaborate the results.

Results and Implications

Data from the Inventory on Teaching Climate and Faculty Well-Being suggest that faculty at IUP are scholars and have the pedagogical skills and knowledge required to teach college students (i.e., IUP faculty are highly qualified and capable to do their work). Professional development programs at IUP appear to be quite effective. However, data from the Inventory also suggest that faculty do not feel recognized for doing good work, lack sufficient social support, and because of time constraints and insufficient resources, can not do their work the way they feel it should be done (i.e., their autonomy as professionals is being abridged). While professionals, like college faculty, are known to overload themselves with work, at IUP this problem is pronounced. When faculty say they are having difficulty balancing the demands or work with those of family, or not being able to strike a good balance in teaching, service and research, this is a symptom of a lack of control of work. Insufficient autonomy is usually the ultimate cause of this stressor.

Data from other sources such as a survey on vital organizations, faculty statements on what makes them flourish or perish, and group interviews of faculty suggest that there are four additional positive and negative influences on vitality. The positive influences are a) generative relations with students, b) opportunities for professional growth, c) opportunities to work cooperatively with colleagues, and d) above average compensation, pay, and benefits. The negative influences are a) leadership problems at IUP at all levels, but particularly at the level of chair, b) the definition of faculty work and the equity of faculty work, c) poor work conditions in classrooms, faculty offices and community spaces, and d) barriers in making and sustaining a human community both on and off campus.

Positive Influences on Well-Being

With few exceptions, relations between students and faculty are very good. The majority of statements from faculty on what makes them flourish concerned students and the generative relationships they have with them. Statements such as "seeing students succeed" or "students who understand, enjoy and become involved" were in the majority. These data are consistent with the high scores on the generativity dimension seen all three time the Inventory on Teaching Climate and Faculty Well-Being was administered. A few faculty commented on apathetic or uncivil students, but for the majority, loved and admired students are their reason for being.

Just as fulfilling for faculty is the opportunity to grow professionally, especially when done with colleagues and students. Faculty who reported high levels of well-being were also the ones felt alive in their research and teaching. Programs that fund opportunities to take sabbaticals or leaves, conduct research or do other professional activities, and upgrade skills and knowledge in teaching were cited by virtually all faculty as essential to their professional well-being.

College faculty are reluctant to talk about pay and benefits. For example, in a recent study of over 100 faculty on what makes their work satisfying or dissatisfying, not one mentioned anything related to pay and benefits. Several IUP faculty said something about "the benefits of having a good union" or pay that is "above average". While there may be some problems with equity of pay and fairness in the tenure and promotion process, in the main, faculty at IUP feel adequately compensated. This undergirds their sense of well-being.

Negative Influences on Well-Being

Rather than serving as an important leader of a department, the position of chair appears to be an undesirable duty to be avoided. The role and work of chairs is unclear, their power is weak, they are insufficiently compensated, and they are not trained. Poor leadership at this level contributes to a multitude of conditions which undermine faculty well-being. It is a very serious problem that needs urgent attention.

Although faculty are expected to do equal work for equal reward, this is not consistently happening at IUP. Some faculty have greater challenges in teaching than others (e.g., lab courses), some must work in old buildings (e.g., Sutton Hall), and a few have more opportunities for professional development (e.g., more support to attend conferences), yet all are assumed to be equal. Inequities in difficulty of work, conditions of work, and outcomes of work are acute problems that not only undermine vitality but eventually lead to disengagement and apathy. This is another problem area that needs earnest attention.

The poor condition of buildings, classrooms, labs, faculty offices and meeting places definitely contributes to a lowered sense of well-being for a lot of IUP faculty. Faculty have rightly complained about their safety (e.g., asbestos, ceilings falling on them while teaching), not being able to teach properly (e.g., teaching in classrooms that are too small, too hot, or not designed for open discussions), and not having spaces that form and strengthen communities (e.g., tiny, uncomfortable offices, or no meeting rooms or other public spaces for departments or other groups). But what faculty feel most deeply about, they may be too shy to voice: neglect of the place where they work is a neglect of them. The quality of work conditions speak volumes about the quality of the relationship between professionals and the institution in which they work. Universities that show they care about faculty, in return, get faculty who care about their university. Mismanagement of work conditions not only makes it more difficult for faculty to be effective, it also undermines their commitment and loyalty to IUP.

Many faculty at IUP need more social support. Staging and rewarding faculty for team work and other collaborative efforts is not being done often enough at IUP. Discussions about goals and ways to achieve goals are not being held in a lot of academic departments. A lack of goals or unclear goals weakens communities and day-to-day sources of social support. Opportunities for cross-discipline sources of social support such as the Reflective Practice Group are not being strengthened and enlarged despite the good track record of groups like Reflective Practice. Creating budget lines to fund groups like this would make this source of social support much more reliable.

Finally, I strongly urge deans and other upper administrators at IUP to form standing committees on faculty well-being and the quality of work life. The present research project sponsored by AAHE gives the University feedback on these important matters at only one point in time; but because of the pervasive effects faculty vitality has on a university community, a more permanent and enduring commitment to these matters is sorely needed. Similar committees should also be formed to address the needs of staff and administrators. The research literature on the treatment of employees unequivocally indicates that this not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do.

Respectfully submitted by

Charles J. Walker

Charles J. Walker, PhD
Professor of Psychology
St. Bonaventure University