KU News Service

KU researchers find foreign faculty more productive, less satisfied than U.S. peers

Mon, 11/28/2011

LAWRENCE — Three University of Kansas researchers have published a study showing that university faculty members born and educated outside of the United States are significantly more productive than their peers but are often less satisfied in their jobs.

Dongbin Kim, associate professor; Lisa Wolf-Wendel, professor, and Susan Twombly, professor and chair of educational leadership and policy studies, published “International Faculty: Experiences of Academic Life and Productivity in U.S. Universities” in the November issue of the Journal of Higher Education. They examined survey data that represented faculty members at American universities who were both foreign-born and received undergraduate degrees outside of the United States; foreign-born and educated in the U.S., and both born and educated in the U.S.

The researchers conducted the study to determine whether international faculty members are more productive than their American colleagues and whether job satisfaction plays a role in a faculty member’s output, as well as to examine the relationship between organizational influences and international faculty productivity.

Previous studies on the topic defined foreign faculty members as simply as those born outside the United States or who hadn’t completed the citizenship process. The KU researchers expanded this to look at where international faculty received their undergraduate education.

“We thought maybe having some educational experience here in the U.S. as an undergraduate might make some real differences as the international faculty teach students, particularly undergraduates,” Kim said.

In the study, productivity was measured by the number of articles authored or co-authored in peer-reviewed journals between 1998 and 2003, the time of the survey. It did not factor in teaching productivity.

“The study found that foreign-born, foreign-educated faculty are significantly more productive than their U.S. counterparts after controlling for personal, professional and institutional variables,” the authors wrote. “No significant difference in the productivity was found between foreign-born U.S.-educated and U.S. faculty.”

They also found that even though they are less productive, foreign-born U.S. educated and U.S. faculty members have higher rates of job satisfaction. Naturally, the findings raised questions for the researchers. They posit that perhaps the “best and brightest” of foreign-born and educated faculty are coming to the United States to work at some of the world’s best universities. There is also the possibility that they are receiving better educations before coming to the states.

The researchers also point out that there was a larger difference in productivity rates than there was in satisfaction rates. Cultural differences likely play a role in the satisfaction differences.

“This notion that you need to be happy in your job might be a distinctly American philosophy,” Twombly noted.

Organizational factors, such as support from administration and the institution, also were considered, as many foreign-born and educated faculty members felt they received less support than their American peers. However, the variables didn’t necessarily explain the satisfaction or productivity of those individuals. That data supports one of the researchers’ proposed explanations of the reason for their higher productivity: “Foreign-educated faculty work harder than their U.S.-educated faculty counterparts and are less concerned about being satisfied than U.S. faculty or foreign-born, U.S.-educated faculty.”

While job satisfaction is a concern for some faculty members, it does not necessarily indicate widespread job dissatisfaction.

“I think it’s important to note that, overall, faculty are pretty satisfied,” Wolf-Wendel said.

However, that doesn’t mean that universities should not be concerned with the satisfaction rates of its foreign-born and educated faculty. There is growing competition for the world’s best faculty members from overseas universities, the private sector and other potential employers. They are also the professors who will be educating American students who need to compete in an increasingly global economy.

“The present study suggests that international faculty are important not only for the fact that they are more productive than U.S. faculty but also because having a critical mass of them is related to U.S. faculty productivity,” the authors wrote. “This study reinforces the need for further understanding the experiences of international faculty if the U.S. is to remain in the forefront of global knowledge production.”

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