Do Universities Retard the Development of Their Faculty?

As I’ve read more on predictable patterns of adult development by such authors as Jane LoevingerWilliam TorbertRobert Kegan, Susanne Cook-Greuter, and others, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which universities encourage and inhibit the development of their faculty. For example, in a framework presented by Cook-Greuter (here), there are three conventional stages of adult human development in which  77% of adults typically find themselves:  diplomat, expert, and achiever.

  • In diplomat, an individual makes meaning by conforming with group norms, and a leader in diplomat will often use words, like “family” and “loyalty” to describe what is important to them at work.
  • In expert, an individual makes meaning through exercising and advocating the expertise of his or her discipline.  Other disciplines are typically less enlightened than the expert’s, and sarcasm and phases such as “yes, but…” rule the expert’s speech.
  • In achiever, an individual makes meaning through making goals and getting results with others, and disciplinary expertise gives way to working with others to get the job done.  Deadline and metric talk rule the speech of the achiever.

The stages following the three conventional stages (individualist, strategist, alchemist & above) involve higher degrees of system complexity, tolerance of ambiguity and diversity, and an ability to integrate across different systemic levels.

With these distinctions as background, we notice something almost immediately.  Because universities are organized strictly by discipline, and because universities value expertise within a discipline above almost everything else, it would be reasonable to assume that many faculty members are in expert from a developmental perspective.  The kinds of battles that break out within departments for the hiring of this or that subdiscipline, for example, support this inference, and the quotation (attributed to Kissinger and others), “Academic politics are so bitter because there is so little at stake,” may be interpreted as exactly the pitched battle among those locked in expert one would expect from a developmental stage that does not respect the knowledge and knowhow of those in a different discipline (or subdiscipline) than yours.

To those inside the university, none of this is particularly noteworthy, except to say that expert is a very early stage of adult development.  And here’s the rub. To the extent that universities are organized to keep their faculty in expert, they retard their development as adults, and keep them in a relatively immature stage.  In business, the move to achiever occurs relatively early for someone rising through the leadership ranks.  In universities, it is fairly common to enter as an Assistant Professor and exit as a Professor Emeritus and be in expert the whole time.

This is not good or bad news in and of itself, and developmental theorists are careful to say that later stages are not better or worse than earlier stages.  And clearly from the standpoint of research expertise, having a large cadre of experts is in the university’s interest; however, from the perspective of the individual faculty member, many faculty members may have yearnings to develop and move beyond the bounds of expert.  While only 3% of the population has a PhD, 48% of the population is in a developmental stage above expert. The faculty member who desires to grow and develop finds few organizational mechanisms for doing so.

Academic leaders concerned with the development of their people would do well to first understand the problem through an adult development lens.  Programmatically, a number of interventions are possible once the difficulty is seen this way, but as long as the university is viewed as a collection of experts, little can be done to address the further development of its faculty.