Printer Friendly

Some aspects of American higher education.

I describe and interpret from a behavior analytic viewpoint the following aspects of contemporary American higher education: (a) administrators, (b) faculty, and (c) nontraditional and for-profit institutions. Some of the contingencies operating in these three areas are described.

Although there is a vast and ever-growing literature about America's system of higher education, behavior analysts, with few exceptions (e.g. Fraley 1998; Lamal, 2001; Lamal, Rakos, & Greenspoon, 2000; Michael, 1991; Moore, 2001; Rakos, 2001), have not addressed this critical cultural practice. In what follows I describe and interpret from a behavior analytic viewpoint the following aspects of contemporary American higher education: (a) administrators, (b) faculty, and (c) nontraditional and for-profit institutions of postsecondary education. My description and interpretation of these facets of American higher education makes no claim to being exhaustive. It also uses real-life examples as a form of case studies that do not permit the drawing of conclusions about what caused what. The examples, however, add verve to my account and prompt the reader to further explore the issues that the examples illuminate. I have not attempted to address all of the facets of American higher education; to do so would require the writing of a book.


The behavior of administrators and the contingencies controlling their professional behaviors are key elements in the interlocking sets of contingencies that characterize higher education. A recent trend is the increased power of administrators. "There is widespread acknowledgement that administrators and boards of trustees have increased their power at the expense of the faculty" (Lamal, Rakos, & Greenspoon, 2000, p. 228). This trend has also been noted by Smith (2000) and Readings (1996), among others. Administrators exercise greater control over the curriculum, including decisions about what programs, departments, and colleges within universities may be created, as well as terminated. They also determine which departments and colleges will be allocated new or replacement faculty positions and such other putative positive reinforcers as additional funds for equipment and faculty travel. The increased control exercised by administrators is exemplified by the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The faculty of each department in the College formerly selected their department chairperson. Now, however, department faculty are required to forward to the College dean two candidates, and the dean chooses the chairperson. It is reasonable to believe that a chairperson selected by the dean is more likely to behave in ways approved by that dean if there is conflict between the dean and that department than is a chairperson selected by the department faculty. Important facets of the behavior of many chairpersons are controlled by the positive reinforcer of continuing in the position. This is readily understandable, as administrators earn significantly more than the typical faculty member ("The Nation," 1998). Another positive reinforcer for many chairs is doubtless the level of control they are able to exercise over such matters as faculty personnel decisions (e.g., promotion, granting of tenure, merit pay) and the facilitation of "good results" (Lamal, Rakos, & Greenspoon, 2000).

At some institutions, particularly community colleges, faculty members' discretion in the design of courses or departments in the design of the curriculum is circumscribed by central administration directives. This "programming" may "involve the development of procedures manuals that specify the form of the syllabus to be prepared, the precise manner for delineating and measuring the achievement of course objectives, the criteria for prerequisites (Bess, 1988, pp. 62 & 63). And as stronger external demands for efficiency (e.g., by state legislatures [Robst, 2001]) are encountered, an increased emphasis on programmed coordination can be expected. But this increased administrative control may be met by passive faculty resistance or harder collective bargaining by faculty unions. The faculty may foresee no increase in positive consequences for their anticipated increases in time and effort required to effectively carry out a new program. In order to avoid negative consequences the faculty may instead go through the motions of carrying out the changes, while actually not significantly changing their behavior or the learning environment. And the administration may lose interest or become infatuated with the latest best approach to higher education (Birnbaum, 2000; Lamal, 2001).

Administrator control over higher education outcomes by specification of the criteria of acceptable products or behaviors ("outputs") is, according to Bess (1988), also problematic. This is because "output goals for both teaching and research in education are ambiguous and difficult to operationalize" (p. 65). On the other hand, Moore (2001), has provided a behavior-analytic view of the educational process, including the kinds of behaviors, particularly verbal behaviors that constitute student learning. But the widespread ambiguity regarding what behaviors and products will result in positive reinforcers for faculty is often a source of conflict among members of departments and between department members and their chairs. As Rakos (2001) points out, the chair "must develop and implement a range of equitable rules that promote unambiguous expectations" (p. 39). Not easily done. Ambiguity may also be a source of conflict between chairs and deans. Within a given college department chairs may also contest among themselves regarding which departments are most worthy of the always--finite resources provided by the dean. And deans may disagree about which colleges/schools are most deserving of resources because there is no clear, agreed-upon method for evaluating their outputs.

Bess (1988) points out that administrators in different types of institutions of higher education exercise their control in different ways. These different ways "may or may not fit faculty expectations of appropriateness in the satisfaction of either organizational or personal prerequisites" (pp. 146 & 147). Although university faculty have authority over curriculum matters, deans at some universities may attempt to undermine that authority. And many faculty may see the dean's behavior, when it is successful, as both legitimate and effective. An example would be a dean who forces significant changes in a department's course offerings in spite of resistance from some "old guard" department faculty.

It is often difficult to determine just who is in charge on any given decision and to determine patterns of authority and control over positive and negative reinforcers. As Cyert and March (1963) put it:
 The authority structures in complex institutions like universities
 are often ambiguou ... While faculty handbooks and constitutions
 frequently identify what seem to be clear-cut jurisdictional
 domains, in reality, decisions are often made sub rosa either
 by dominant coalitions of faculty or by faculty and key
 administrators working toward common goals, which may not be
 those of the majority. (p. 156)

And almost 40 years later, Bogue and Aper (2000) described much the same state of affairs. They said that it is informative to look at institutions of higher education:
 as clusters of alliances and influence patterns, networks of
 both formal and informal relation ... and as chronicles of
 leverage and exchange ... in any college or university we
 will find conflict over its purposes and processes,
 conflict over resource allocation, and conflict over
 different levels of personal influence. (p. 37)

As a result of this situation, the faculty at many institutions find themselves unable to exercise much, if any, control over relevant contingencies. One faculty activity that has traditionally been considered sacrosanct is the awarding of course grades. But when faculty members and administrators are motivated by fear of aversive consequences, even that bedrock of faculty control is seriously threatened. In 2000, the president of North Carolina's Gardner--Webb University ordered that an F not be calculated into a star basketball player's grade point average. The player had received an F for cheating in a religion class ("Gardner-Webb chief," 2002). After this became public knowledge, the University's trustees announced that the president would continue in his position and that two administrators who had criticized the president were being "demoted" to teaching. When the president later resigned, the trustees chairman "emphasized that [the president] resigned voluntarily, not at the request of the board, and praised his 16year presidency" ("Gardner-Webb's president," 2002). A powerful positive reinforcer responsible for many going into higher education administration is no doubt the significantly higher average salaries relative to faculty salaries. And money can also reinforce an administrator for retiring. Upon retiring, Gardner-Webb's president received a severance package of $605,000. The package also allows him to keep his university car, as well as memberships in three country clubs and life and health insurance policies with premiums paid for three years ("President gets huge," 2002). Other examples of administrator high-handedness could be adduced.

Public controversy is anathema to administrators and boards of trustees. Behavior patterns are directed at avoidance of such publicity, which can result in negative consequences for the institution (e.g., decreased alumni giving; increased scrutiny by government agencies or professional organizations). According to Meiners and Staaf (1995), however, this avoidance behavior foregoes the potential benefits of innovative risk taking.

So what is today's ambitious administrator, or one who just wants to keep his or her position, to do? One career-enhancing or protective move is to adopt the "business", "managerial", or "entrepreneurial" approach to higher education (Lamal, 2001; Martin, 1998; Nelson, 1997; Readings, 1996). This approach emphasizes revenue enhancement and cost containment. It also fits well with the contingencies involved in calls for accountability in higher education. The market approach also has significant effects for many faculty. "Universities have become more market oriented, with attendant implications for faculty to change their teaching and research activities and to contribute revenue to the institution" (Rhoades, 2000, p. 30). The move to the market approach has been promoted by states' increased emphasis on higher education's accountability and productivity (Bogue & Aper 2000). This raises important questions. Just what, for example, does "accountability" mean? "Educational productivity"? What are the respective roles of administrators and faculty in determining how these contructs will be operationalized on any given campus? The contingencies they will establish, strengthen, or weaken? Breneman (2002) has recently described some of the factors, such as the steady declining share of public higher-education revenues provided by states, that have had important effects favoring the market model of higher education. As we shall see in the next section, adoption of the market model also has significant effects for many faculty.


The great variation among the 4,000 (Bogue & Aper, 2000) American colleges and universities is reflected in, and exemplified by, the variation in the contingencies under which faculty members at different institutions operate. Rather than repeating behavior analytic treatments of faculty roles and contingencies (e.g., Greenspoon, 1991; Lamal, 2001; Lamal, Rakos, & Greenspoon, 2000; Rakos, 2001), I focus on the effects on faculty of the current move to the business model.

One clear effect has been the increased use of part-time (adjunct) faculty (Breneman, 2002; Tirelli, 1998). Rhoades (2000) recently wrote that part-timers accounted for 43 percent of all faculty. This compares with 33 percent 10 years ago (Smallwood, 2002). The numbers of full-time faculty who are not on the tenure track is also increasing. "As a result, the collective context of the faculty, and of institutional life, is undermined" (p. 47). Part-time faculty are poorly paid and rarely get health insurance or other benefits (e.g., Smallwood, 2002). Supply-and-demand is apparently responsible for this state of affairs; there is apparently an over-supply of presumably qualified faculty in some disciplines. As a lowest--level administrator at a large community college, one of my wife's responsibilities was to hire visual arts part time faculty at the start of every term. Well over half of the visual arts courses were taught by part-timers. She invariably had numerous requests for teaching opportunities from individuals who were solely part-time instructors. Many of these individuals taught at two or three different institutions every term. Interestingly, even the full-time faculty at this institution received a one-year contract every year. Also, all pay raises were across-the-board. There was no monetary positive reinforcement for superior performance.

The increased employment of part-time faculty is congruent with the business model of higher education because the low pay and lack of benefits for part-timers means reduced costs. And there is another benefit from the perspective of administrators. It is reasonable to believe that part-time faculty members as well as full-time faculty who are not on the tenure track are unlikely to challenge administrators decisions. This is particularly true in light of the dearth of reports of faculty challenging administrators, except perhaps, at institutions where the faculty are unionized. Faculty members who publicly disagree with administrators may well find themselves in a "Lone Ranger" position. None of their colleagues, at least publicly, supports them. Even at as respected an institution as Stanford, with its prestigious faculty, the faculty can apparently be cowed, as illustrated by the following episode.

When National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was provost at Stanford the United States Department of Labor began an investigation into claims of bias against women and minorities at Stanford. A number of women blamed Rice's decision-making for their professional setbacks.
 Once, at a meeting of the faculty senate, a political-science
 professor named Susan Okin read out loud a letter of Rice's,
 for the purpose of disagreeing with it, and Rice, according
 to Okin, brusquely replied, "Those are not my words." Okin
 continued, "Nobody stood up for me ... People behaved as
 though they were helpless". (Lemann, 2002, p. 171)

The kind of negative consequences that can follow behaviors that administrators dislike were visited upon Katherine S. Sturdevant, stripped of her position as head of a community college history department after defending a colleague who had written a parody titled "Gringo American Studies" (Fogg, 2002). Sturdevant said college administrators had retaliated against her for her activities as president of the college's faculty association. In that capacity, she had led a survey-style evaluation of top administrators. The college also removed her from various college committees, denied her merit raises, and gave her a negative evaluation after 12 years of positive performance reviews. After a four-year court battle, the college agreed to reinstate Ms. Sturdevant as department head and to award her $75,000 and a raise.

On many campuses, faculty (and administrators) have been taught to be extremely risk-aversive. The message they have strongly embraced is "Don't make waves." The question then is how well institutions can evolve, if all members except top administrators' behavior is avoidant. This question is particularly timely with the rapid emergence and proliferation of various nontraditional and for-profit institutions of postsecondary education.

Nontraditional and For-Profit Institutions

There is no agreed-upon definition of what makes a postsecondary institution "nontraditional". Kliewer (1999) describes six innovative higher education institutions that were established during the high-water mark years of the 1960s and early 1970s. Then during the 1970s the movement lost momentum and many of the innovative institutions no longer exit.

Although there have been for-profit postsecondary institutions (e.g., business schools) for many years, recent years have seen the rapid growth of degree-granting, for-profit colleges and universities. As the heading of a recent advertisement claims ("For-profit colleges," 2002), for-profits may no longer be outside the mainstream of higher education. The ad cites the major findings of a 1998 study by the Education Commission of the States (ECS) ( that are assumed to reflect positively on the for-profits:

1. Between 1988 and 1998, enrollment in for-profit degree-granting institutions grew by 59%, to approximately 365,000 students.

2. The for-profit sector is diverse. Small colleges serve local communities, and the country's largest private university, The University of Phoenix, has an enrollment of more than 100,000 students in 22 states and online.

3. The for-profit institutions' emphasis on career-oriented, hands-on, and "customerfocused" programs and services appeals to nontraditional students, such as working adults and those with family responsibilities.

4. The for-profits' programs are tailored to employer needs and student interests. "Success is measured by retention of students, degree completion, job placement and employer satisfaction with graduates' performance" ("For-profit colleges," 2002, p. A22). The for-profits may be more concerned with quality than are traditional institutions.

Also, according to the ad, traditional colleges and universities have tended to distance themselves from the for-profit sector, but, consistent with what I described above, more and more traditional institutions "are embracing the same kinds of entrepreneurial, customer-focused approaches that have proven so successful on the for-profit side of the market," ("For-profit colleges," 2002, p. A22). The ad also points out that the stock of at least 12 for-profits is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Internet has allowed another kind of nontraditional institution, the "virtual" institution. An example is Western Governors University, founded by the governors of Colorado and Utah (Lamal, Rakos, & Greenspoon, 2000). This virtual institution does not teach its own courses, but has partnerships with other institutions throughout the United States to provide instruction through distance learning (Lamal, 2001). Some colleges and universities are now reaching niche markets by developing tailor-made distance-education programs for employees in specific industries, such as telecommunications, health-care, and electric utilities. The online programs allow the employees to work while pursuing their education. Pace University, for example, offers 16 online courses for certificate and associate-degree programs. ("Some colleges," 2002).

According to the ad, above, one reason for the success of the non-profit institutions is their appeal to nontraditional students. Concern with enrolling and keeping nontraditional students is doubtless a factor in traditional institutions' adoption of a market approach and such practices as distance education. This is understandable in view of the large number of nontraditional students. According to one report, almost 75 percent of today's undergraduate students are considered nontraditional (Evelyn, 2002).


There is great variation among the American institutions of higher education. Descriptions of individual institutions' administrators, faculty, students, curricula, and resources, are often of limited relevance when considering other higher education institutions. Consider, for example, (a) a small resource-strapped community college located in a nonurban area, whose mission is vocational/technical education, (b) a for-profit institution enrolling thousands in an urban setting, (c) one of the Ivy League universities. What is common to all these institutions is their goal of educating people and the fact that all of them are loci of contingencies controlled by, and controlling those involved in them.

There are also questions that can be raised about the current practices of many American institutions of higher education, both traditional and nontraditional. What, for example, are the costs and benefits of the current embrace of a market model of higher education? Making it easier for students, particularly

nontraditional students to enroll and to continue in higher education would seem to be a laudable practice. But questions remain concerning how much many students learn, and at least in some disciplines, whether higher education has evolved into vocational training (Murray, 2002).

Information Technology (IT) in higher education is viewed by some as The Holy Grail and by others as nothing short of an abomination. No doubt IT, properly implemented, can be very helpful. But administrators' enthusiasm about IT as a means of increasing or maintaining enrollments without having to add faculty, may not be shared by many faculty members. Veteran faculty have strongly ingrained teaching repertoires and learning new technology-relevant behaviors can be aversive and time-consuming. Rhoades (2000) maintains that with IT, faculty responsibilities are not diminished, rather new ones are added. It has, for example, increased for at least some faculty the time devoted to advising because "faculty are 'on call' because they are 'on line'" (p. 39). The faculty union of the University of Massachusetts system has initiated discussions with the administration to ensure the faculty are not overworked or underpaid when they undertake distance education (Carnevale, 2002). One of the administrators points out that the technology will allow faculty members to teach more students in an online course than in a traditional classroom.

In Smith's (2000) view, the jury is still out on the question of how much, if any, IT will save higher education money. Thus far, he maintains, IT has been an additional expense. Not all IT applications are success stories (Carnevale, 2002), and not all students benefit from online courses (Carnevale, 2002).

How American higher education will evolve is an open question. Some current practices may become extinct while others are selected for. What does seem certain for the foreseeable future, however, is that in the United States the cultural practice, higher education, will continue to be constituted by a variety of sets of contingencies.


Bess, James L. (1988). Collegiality and bureaucracy in the modern university: The influence of information and power on decision-making structures. New York: Teachers College Press.

Birnbaum, Robert. (2000). Management fads in higher education: Where they come from, what they do, why they fail. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bogue, E. Grady, & Aper, Jeffery. (2000). Exploring the heritage of American higher education: The evolution of philosophy and policy. Phoenix: Oryx Press.

Breneman, David W. (2002, June 14). For colleges, this is not just another recession. The Chronicle of Higher Education, pp. B7-B9.

Carnevale, D. (2002, July 19). Stronger students benefit more from online course, Texas study finds. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A30.

Carnevale, D. (2002, September 27). Arizona lawmakers want to sell computers from failed distance program. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A51.

Carnevale, D. (2002, September 27). Union seeks agreement with U. of Mass. on distance education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A50.

Cyert, Richard, & March, James G. (1963). A behavioral theory of the firm. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Evelyn, J. (2002, June 14). Nontraditional students dominate undergraduate enrollments, study finds. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A34.

Fogg, P. (2002, September 27). Pikes Peak Community college settles lawsuit with professor. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A12.

For-profit colleges and universities: No longer outside the mainstream of higher education. (2002, July 19). The Chronicle of Higher Education, pp. A22 & 23.

Fraley, L. (1998). Adverse implications for university teaching concealed in economically driven policies. The Behavior Analyst, 21, 289-305.

Gardner-Webb chief stays. (2002, September 28). The Charlotte Observer, pp. B1, B5.

Gardner-Webb's president resigns. (2002, October 12). The Charlotte Observer, pp. A1, A4.

Greenspoon, Joel. (1991). Behavioral analysis in higher educatio n. In P.A. Lamal (Ed.). Behavioral analysis of societies and cultural practices (pp. 141-164). New York: Hemisphere.

Kliewer, J. R. (1999). The innovative campus: Nurturing the distinctive learning environment. Phoenix: Oryx Press.

Lamal, P. A. (2001). Higher education: Social institution or business? Behavior and Social Issues, 11, 65-70.

Lamal, P. A., Rakos, Richard F., & Greenspoon, Joel. (2000). Collegiate contingencies. The Behavior Analyst, 23, 219-238.

Lemann, Nicholas. (2002, October 14 & 21). Without a doubt: Has Condoleezza Rice changed

George W. Bush, or has he changed her? The New Yorker, 164 & 166-173 & 175-179.

Martin, Randy (Ed.). (1998). Chalk lines: The politics of work in the managed university. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Meiners, R. E., & Staaf, R. J. (1995). Property rights in academe. In J. W. Sommer (Ed.). The academy in crisis: The political economy of higher education (pp. 197-216). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Michael, J. (1991). A behavioral perspective on college teaching. The Behavior Analyst, 14, 229-239.

Moore, J. (2001). On certain assumptions underlying contemporary educational practices. Behavior and Social Issues, 11, 49-64.

Murray, B. (2002). Debating the doctorate's future: Education or vocational training? Monitor on Psychology, 36-38.

Nelson, C. (Ed.). (1997). Will teach for food: Academic labor in crisis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

President gets huge severance. (2002, October 22). The Charlotte Observer, p. B1.

Rakos, Richard F. (2001). The department chair: Antecedent and postcedent stimulus control. Behavior and Social Issues, 11, 31-48.

Readings, B. (1996). The university in ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rhoades, G. (2000). The changing role of faculty. In J. Losco, & B. L. Fife (Eds.). Higher education in transition: The challenges of the New Millennium (pp. 29-49). Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Robst, J. (2001). Cost efficiency in public higher education institutions. The Journal of Higher Education, 72, pp. 730-750.

Smallwood, S. (2002, August 2). Faculty union issues standards for treatment of adjuncts. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A12.

Smallwood, S. (2002, July 19). UAW will represent part-time faculty members at NYU. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A10.

Smith, C. W. (2000). Market values in American higher education: The pitfalls and promises. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Some colleges and universities. (2002, August 2). The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A27.

The Nation. (1998, August 28). The Chronicle of Higher Education, pp. A 5-43.

Tirelli, V.(1998). Adjuncts and more adjuncts: Labor segmentation and the transformation of higher education. In Randy Martin (Ed.). Chalk lines: The politics of work in the managed university (pp. 181-201). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

P.A. Lamal

University of North Carolina at Charlotte
COPYRIGHT 2003 Behavior Analyst Online
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Lamal, P.A.
Publication:The Behavior Analyst Today
Date:Mar 22, 2003
Previous Article:Do no harm--an ethical dilemma and one possible way out.
Next Article:Pediatric feeding problems: a behavior analytic approach to assessment and treatment.

Related Articles
Raising educational expectations.
Clipping their own wings; the incompatibility between Latino culture and American education.
American higher education transformed, 1940-2005; documenting the national discourse.
American Universities in a Global Market.
Jordan, Libya Discuss Higher Education Cooperation.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters