U.S. academic institutions and perceived effectiveness of foreign-born faculty.

Author:Marvasti, Akbar

This paper tests current perceptions of the effectiveness of foreign-born faculty at U.S. universities in order to provide suggestions to support useful institutional change in this arena. An institutional perspective allows an understanding of how academic institutions have affected the performance of their members and how these institutions can make effective change. According to Douglass North, "institutions are the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, are devised constraints that shape human interaction. In consequence they structure incentives in human exchange, whether political, social, or economic. Institutional change shapes the way societies evolve through time and hence is the key to understanding historical change" (1990, 3). An institutional approach is needed here because change is being forced upon U.S. academic institutions by the rapid demographic shift in the general population and student/faculty population over the past three decades. The ethnic and racial composition of the population of the USA has been changing dramatically. At the same time, because of attractive job opportunities in the U.S. economy for native college graduates and the low rate of return in graduate education, the percentage of foreign-born faculty in American universities has been rising, especially in technical areas. As a result, the make-up of the student population and the academic labor market has shifted. The question is whether academic institutions are ready for the new face of America.

Here, it is argued that the problem of foreign-born faculty is part of a broader problem of all foreign-born persons in the USA in general. The most powerful perception about foreign-born faculty is that linguistic problems create teaching ineffectiveness. Also, perceptions about foreign-born faculty are deeply rooted in their performance as teaching assistants (TAs). Therefore, to understand social behavior in academic institutions, one must understand the culture of the institutions and the process by which information about foreign-born faculty is transmitted and perceptions are formed. Thus, the remainder of the paper is organized as follows. First, patterns of migration and changes in the composition of the foreign-born population in the country are examined to better understand concerns about the English proficiency of the foreign-born population in academic institutions. Since foreign-born faculty are often former foreign-born teaching assistants, a review of various studies of language barriers among TAs in U.S. academic institutions is presented next. This study then focuses on faculty surveys, including two extensive surveys by the U.S. Department of Education, to support a discussion on the role of academic institutions in adaptation to the evolving composition of students as well as faculty and in promoting diversity on campus. Concluding remarks are made at the end.

Immigration Trends and Foreign-Born Language Proficiency

The pattern of migration to the USA over the last century has been influenced by expansion of the agricultural sector, world wars, the Great Depression, and legislative mandates. Decennial data since 1850 show a rising trend in foreign-born population until 1930, when the number of foreign-born had increased from 2.2 million to 14.2 million (figure 1). However, due to changes in the native-born population during this time period, the actual percentage of foreign-born in the population fluctuated between 9.7 and 14.8 percent (figure 2). (1) A declining trend emerged between 1930 and 1970, both in terms of the number of foreign-born and their share in the population. By 1970, 9.6 million foreign-born lived in the USA, making up only 4.7 percent of the population. Since 1970, however, the rising trend has reemerged. By 2000, 28.4 million foreign-born lived in the country, constituting 10.4 percent of the population.


Historically, when the flow of immigrants to the USA has fluctuated, the composition of immigrants has also changed. Perhaps the strongest determinant of the composition has been legislative changes. Enactment of restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s created a national-origin quota system, which limited the number of immigrants. These laws also favored immigrants from the Western Hemisphere and Western Europe (Hollmann 1993). However, the Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the national-origin quota system, and subsequent legislation in 1986 and 1990 encouraged immigration. For example, in 1850, 92.2 percent of the foreign-born were from Europe, 6.7 percent from North America, and only 0.1 percent from all other countries. By 2000, only 15.3 percent of the foreign-born were from Europe and 2.5 percent from North America while 51.0 percent were from Latin America (approximately one-third from Mexico) and 25.5 percent from Asia. To put the rapid growth of the population of foreign-born from Latin America in perspective, in 1960, 0.9 million Latin American foreign-born lived in the USA. By 2000, this number had grown to 14.5 million. Today, Latin Americans are the largest minority in the country, surpassing African Americans (U.S. Census Bureau 2001).

Changes in the composition of the foreign born in the country have generated debates about their level of education and skills, particularly concerning language proficiency. Donald Lamberton (2002) has maintained that language proficiency is a key ingredient in human capital, which affects several aspects of an individual's life including job qualifications and cultural identity. English proficiency, in particular, is important to the foreign born both as students and as faculty. Data on the spoken language of the foreign born show that the percentage of foreign born (five years and over) who speak only English has dropped steadily between 1980 and 2000. The figures for 1980, 1990, and 2000 are 30 percent, 21 percent, and 17 percent, respectively. In 2000, of 30.7 million foreign born who were five years and over, 9.8 million claimed to speak English well. This means that 68 percent of the foreign born believed that they did not speak English well. In addition, census data show that 43 percent of the foreign born spoke Spanish in 2000, of which only 28 percent claimed to also speak English well (Gibson and Lennon 1999; U.S. Census Bureau 2001). Changes of the composition of the immigrants and their language skills have also impacted the primary language spoken at home by the foreign born. Since 1980 the percentage of foreign-born family members over five years old who speak non-English languages at home has increased. In 1980, 70 percent of foreign-born families spoke non-English at home, while this figure for 1990 increased to 79 percent and in 2000 to 83 percent (Gibson and Lennon 1999; U.S. Census Bureau 2001 Summary File 3). (2)

Language Barriers of the Foreign Born in Academic Institutions

Foreign-born faculty may be expected to adversely influence students' learning because of their lack of familiarity with the U.S. economic systems and institutions, teaching style, and spoken English skills. Ability to speak English, however, has been the main focus of most research in this area. While language proficiency matters in performing tasks in the academics, it seems to be more relevant to teaching than to research. Language is an important tool in communication, more so because it can represent cultural experiences. Jerome Bruner has suggested that there is a close relationship between language, shared meaning representation, and culture (1990). Language is also a source of social identity and impression formation. Robert Krauss and Chi-Yue Chiu (1998) maintained that speech contains information about the origin or the social categories to which a speaker belongs. Therefore, language is a basis for defining group membership in society. Social psychologists believe that language permeates social life by influencing attitudes, personal identity, social interactions, and social perceptions (Krauss and Chiu 1998). When perceptions are categorical, they lead to stereotyping. Susan Fiske has maintained that stereotypes facilitate rapid initial identification of congruent information and, thereby, can lead to prejudice and discriminatory behavior (1998). Thus, language, even accent, may be used as a proxy for an individual's level of skills and lead to prejudice and discriminatory behavior in the work environment.

Perceptions of the level of skill of foreign-born faculty, especially in teaching, are influenced by the long-lasting impression created by foreign-born teaching assistants (TAs) because foreign-born faculty are typically former foreign-born TAs. If so, what can we learn from extensive studies of foreign-born TAs' performance as teachers? Foreign-born TAs have been studied in the fields of speech, linguistics, and education. Performance of foreign-born TAs, and perhaps to a lesser extent foreign-born faculty, is likely to be influenced by their linguistic, presentational, and cultural deficiencies. Several studies in education and linguistics have attempted to shed light on this issue (e.g., Oppenheim 1998, Jacobs and Friedman 1988, and Smith et al. 1999). Some of these studies have found that other factors besides language skills, such as departmental training, prior teaching experience, social skills, difficulty of discipline, and cultural differences determine graduate teaching assistants' effectiveness in the classroom. Consequently, language difficulties are not the root of the students' concerns and the issue needs to be examined in a broader context of quality teaching.

Some studies have exclusively focused on economics students, though the validity of some of these studies is questioned because of inappropriate use of the ordinary least squares (OLS) technique for estimation of student grade function. (3) Michael Watts and Gerlad Lynch (1989) used a survey of 2,800 economics...

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