How Influential are Faculty Today? Responses from the Canadian Professoriate

Hand drawing branching human figures on a white board

For more than a half-century, faculty associations and consortia of faculty associations have sought to protect academic autonomy and the tenure system, but today they face new challenges. Institutionally, the Canadian academic profession is challenged by shifts in hiring practices and workload expectations. In the last two decades, faculty labour has become increasingly influenced by external drivers, creating a tense environment on many North American campuses. As the authors of Faculty Careers and Work Lives: A Professional Growth Perspective noted in 2008, there is an organizational “narrative of constraint” on American campuses, where “faculty are subject to unfair tenure systems, work expectations, mission creep, managerial reform, chilly climates, and a lack of support and mentoring” . Yet, despite these constraints, they found that faculty individually and collectively continue to “survive” in the academy and that the profession continues to be attractive to newcomers. Is survival, however, enough? To what degree are faculty engaged in institutional decision-making and in the governance of both formal and informal structures of higher education? How influential are we?

The question of faculty influence was addressed by a multi-national survey known as the Changing Academic Profession (CAP) project. The CAP survey aimed to revisit some of the themes explored by the First International Survey of the Academic Profession, conducted in 1992 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which involved 14 countries. Canada was not represented in the 1992 Carnegie study, making the 2007 CAP study the first time that many of the questions used in the international project had been asked of Canadian faculty. Thus, although the Canadian CAP project has not resulted in a dataset that can be compared with the 1992 Carnegie survey, it has provided an opportunity to assess the academic profession in Canada.

The Canadian CAP sample includes full-time faculty from doctoral-medical, comprehensive, and primarily undergraduate universities in nearly the same ratio as the Canadian university population (see Table 1). Female faculty, however, were somewhat over-represented in the sample, at 40.9 per cent compared to the actual percentage of female faculty in the population (32.7 per cent ). Citizenship status of the respondents in the sample was close to that of the faculty in the general Canadian university population.

Table 1: Demographics of full-time Canadian university faculty

Table 1: Demographics of full-time Canadian university faculty

Beliefs about locus of decision-making

Several questions on the CAP survey pertained to the management and governance of academic work. Survey respondents were asked, “At your institution, which actor has the primary influence on each of the following decisions?” Table 2 reports the percentage distribution of these responses which follow a predictable pattern across the six groups.

Table 2: At your institution, who has primary influence on decisions?

Table 2: At your institution, who has primary influence on decisions?

Government or external stakeholders were reported as being the least influential actors for the decisions mentioned in the item. A similar lack of influence was reported for students, except on the evaluation of teaching, where they were perceived to have the most influence (42.6 per cent). Individual faculty were not seen as influential, except in setting internal research priorities (35.2 per cent) and establishing international linkages (44 per cent). On this latter item, institutional managers were also perceived as being influential (37 per cent). Institutional managers were thought to be the most influential group when it came to selecting key administrators (47.9 per cent) and determining budget priorities (60.2 per cent). This group were perceived to be influential when it came to setting admission standards for undergraduate students (40.4 per cent) and approving new academic programs (36.5 per cent). As one might expect, faculty committees and boards were also considered to be influential on the latter item (38.2 per cent). A large majority of the respondents concluded that faculty committees and boards were influential when it came to choosing new faculty (77 per cent) and making faculty promotion and tenure decisions (66 per cent). Similarly, the highest proportion of our respondents perceived this group to be influential at evaluating research (38.2 per cent). Finally, while academic unit managers were thought to be influential by a sizeable minority on most items, it was only when it came to determining the overall teaching load of faculty that a majority of respondents (51.4 per cent) regarded them having a primary influence.

In terms of personal influence in helping shape key academic policies, faculty reported they were the most influential in their departments, relative to other administrative levels (faculty or school and institution). When we cross-tabulated the responses to this question with academic rank, we found a consistent pattern (Table 3). At each policy-making level, a larger proportion of faculty judged that they were “very” or “somewhat influential” the higher the rank. The perceived lack of influence by full professors at the faculty or school (51.2 per cent) and institutional level (74.4 per cent) was intriguing, given the predominance of a bi-cameral mode of governance in Canadian universities.

Table 3: How influential are you in shaping key academic policies?

Table 3: How influential are you in shaping key academic policies?

The locus of evaluation varied at different institutional levels. A majority of respondents judged that regular evaluations of teaching, research, and service took place in departments and were conducted by department heads (see Table 4).

Table 4: Who regularly evaluates your…

Table 4: Who regularly evaluates your...

Teaching was seen as being regularly evaluated by students (88.2 per cent) to a greater degree than other institutional actors, which corresponds with the influence of students over teaching evaluations, as mentioned above. The research function was reported to be most regularly evaluated by external reviewers (57.1 per cent), although “peers in your department or unit” (45.4 per cent) and department heads (54.0 per cent) were perceived to be regular evaluators of research. A majority likewise perceived department heads as the ones who evaluate “service”(60.3 per cent).

Institutional culture and management style

While a majority of faculty members in the Canadian CAP survey felt that the management style at their institutions is top down, they were split in their responses about whether they felt that “top-level administrators are providing competent leadership” (see Table 5). They were also nearly evenly split on their responses to the statement that “lack of faculty involvement is a real problem”, with slightly more people strongly agreeing or agreeing (39 per cent). Most respondents agreed they were “kept informed about what is going on” at their institutions (45.5 per cent strongly agreeing or agreeing) and that their administration “supports academic freedom” (60.9 per cent). Interestingly, most respondents indicated they disagreed or strongly disagreed that “students should have a stronger voice in determining policy that affects them” (41.3 per cent).

Table 5: Views on the following issues…

Table 5: Views on the following issues...

Overall, the response patterns recorded for the most part are predictable in terms of stratification by institutional type and rank. The perception of influence over decision-making and governance decreases with institutional size and, one might infer, the bureaucratic management style that accompanies working in a large institution. Although lacking longitudinal information within the survey, these results suggest that faculty governance is eroding, at least at the institutional and faculty/school levels of authority. Full professors do not perceive themselves to be as influential as one might predict, given the hierarchical structure. This conclusion tends to confirm the literature that documents how the role of senates has diminished as Canadian universities have become more corporate. These findings are consonant with other research that reports increasing centralization of decision making and the view that even when faculty participate, they have little influence on the mission or direction of the institution. Faculty within comprehensive universities perceive themselves having more influence than we might predict. We are uncertain about what to infer from this, but it might well be related historically to the more democratic approach to governance that was adopted by a number of these institutions at their inception. One thinks of examples like York and Simon Fraser universities.

Faculty in the Canadian CAP survey regarded themselves as being the most influential as collective decision-makers (i.e., working as committees), in areas relating to core academic activities such as choosing new faculty, promotion and tenure review, approving new academic programs, and evaluating research. At the individual level, faculty saw themselves as being most influential in setting internal research priorities and establishing international linkages. Faculty saw academic unit managers, who are often faculty members acting as department head, as the most influential in determining the overall teaching load of faculty. Students were seen as the most influential in the evaluation of teaching.

An explanation for the general perception that faculty were not influential at the institutional level might well be found in the impact of the structural bifurcation of career lines between researchers and administrators that has occurred over the last two decades, coupled with the increased pressure placed on faculty to research and publish. The former factor is referred to elsewhere as the dichotomy between “faculty” and “management professionals”. Our own results contain ample evidence of a performance orientation that translates into increasing pressure to raise research funds and make research a central part of academic work. Working together, these two factors could mean that faculty are increasingly content to leave governance to academic managers, particularly as their own time is more and more devoted to research.

The CAP survey reports a strong commitment to academic freedom that is consistent with the tradition in Canada of emphasizing the public functions served by our universities and the assumption that, as institutions, they should quite properly be accorded high levels of relative autonomy. This also links to the idea that the academic profession is the “archetype” of professionalism. Alongside what might be regarded as a very positive aspect of academic culture in Canada, we found a clear and pronounced dissatisfaction with the way our universities are governed. A majority of faculty agreed their universities were characterized by a “cumbersome administrative process”, a “top-down management style”, and “poor communication” between management and themselves. Yet, in conclusion, our findings strongly suggest the academic profession in Canada is far from being in crisis.

The future of academic governance and institutional management in Canada may be influenced by the changing fiscal realities of postsecondary education. While the strength of faculty associations may be characteristic of the Canadian academic profession, their presence does not guarantee a similarly strong academic senate. In 2008, the Canadian Association for University Teachers struck an ad hoc advisory committee on governance to examine the role of academic senates and the involvement of faculty in key decisions at Canadian universities. The advisory committee found that many faculty collective agreements contained language that limited the power of the academic senates, and it recommended that university faculty revisit these agreements to amend the wording to strengthen the role of faculty governance or, at least, clarify the power of senates in relation to the office of an institution’s president and its governing board. While it is important that faculty have retained control over the decision making that pertains to teaching and research, a growing concern, as reflected in the CAP data presented above, is that the financial decisions of Canadian universities are removed from faculty review and may be increasingly an administrative responsibility.

The authors are members of the Canadian CAP team: Donald Fisher (professor and co-director, Centre for Policy Studies in Higher Education and Training, University of British Columbia), Yves Gingras (professor of history, Université du Québec à Montréal) Glen A. Jones (associate dean and Ontario research chair in postsecondary education policy, University of Toronto/Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), Amy Metcalfe (assistant professor of higher education, University of British Columbia), and Kjell Rubenson (professor of educational studies, University of British Columbia) . We are grateful for the work of André Mazawi (associate professor of education studies, University of British Columbia )on this project in 2006-2007 and of our University of British Columbia graduate research assistant, Iain Snee.

The Canadian CAP project has been housed since 2006 at the Centre for Policy Studies in Higher Education and Training at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

A full chapter related to these findings is forthcoming:A.S. Metcalfe, D. Fisher,, Y. Gingras, G.A Jones, K. Rubenson, and I. Snee,, “The changing academic profession in Canada: Perspectives on governance and management,” in W. Locke, W. Cummings, and D. Fisher (eds.), Governance and Management of Higher Educational Institutions: Perspectives of the Academy (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer)


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Canadian Association of University Teachers, Report of the CAUT Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Governance. Accessed online at

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