Full-Time Non-Tenured Faculty Represent Innovation, Not Aberration

The increased use of non-tenure track faculty by universities has drawn condemnation from many entrenched in the seniority system, but critics may be ignoring the more complex realities and distinctive needs of 21st Century higher education.

Sometimes the detractors blame so-called “corporatization.” Other times they allege that the culprit is inadequate state funding. Whatever their reasoning, critics tend to view the current faculty dynamic as one that allows schools to take advantage of today’s dysfunctional academic job market at the expense of student learning and professors’ well-being. For instance, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)—which holds a strong pro-tenure stance—says that the rise of NTT faculty threatens academic freedom, exploits faculty, and undermines the classroom experience.

While the AAUP and others may be accurate in some instances (harrowing anecdotes from overworked and underpaid adjunct professors seem to abound), they often treat the non-tenure track as a monolith, and thus ignore encouraging developments. In many ways the rise of full-time NTT faculty is significantly benefiting schools, professors, and students. Nevertheless, institutions are slowly recognizing that—for better or worse—a new faculty paradigm has arrived. The sooner they adapt, the better prepared they’ll be for the future.

“A university that really strives to give tenure to all instructional faculty is tying its own hands and feet in terms of dealing with an ever-changing world and fluctuating economy,” said David McCord, tenured psychology professor at Western Carolina University (WCU), in a recent interview with the Pope Center. “Some agility is necessary for survival; disciplines come and go, rise and fall, and the university itself—not just the administration—must have some flexibility in adapting to changes…. [Some] substantial proportion of instructional faculty…should have more flexible contracts than those associated with tenure.”

Recently, McCord and other members of WCU’s faculty senate created a special task force on NTT faculty. The impetus came from tenured and tenure-track faculty members’ recognition of the critical instructional and departmental support provided by NTT faculty, and from a desire to find ways to reward such faculty for their often unheralded contributions.

This year the task force will draft recommendations aimed at improving NTT working conditions. It will examine raising salaries, providing clearer paths to promotion and long-term careers, and even giving NTT faculty more professional-sounding job titles (McCord says that terms such as “contingent faculty” are anathema in faculty circles because of their “dehumanizing” effects). The task force also will focus on big-theme questions, such as what the proper ratio of tenured/tenure-track and NTT should be, and how that ratio might vary by department.

Of course the “proper ratio” will vary not just by department, but also by university. WCU, for instance, is a regional university with a strong undergraduate focus and teaching emphasis. According to the most recent Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) information, WCU has 809 full- and part-time faculty. Roughly 500 are full-time (70 percent of which are tenured or tenure track; 30 percent are full-time NTT), and the rest are adjuncts. Going forward faculty leaders may find that decreasing their reliance on adjuncts, and instead appointing more full-time NTT faculty, could help to improve classroom instruction and advance the university’s mission.

“Everybody’s going to have adjuncts,” McCord said. “But you take a big step-up in quality if you have one person teaching four sections of Psychology 150—a person you know doing it year after year—rather than a warm body off the street teaching individual sections.” 

At North Carolina State University (NCSU), on the other hand, officials appear to have different priorities—ones that reflect the university’s research-intensive mission. In a Pope Center interview, Katharine Stewart, vice provost for faculty affairs, said that approximately two-thirds of NCSU’s 2,700 faculty are tenured or tenure-track, and that the school plans to increase that percentage. She said that that goal aligns with NCSU’s mission to “create and disseminate new knowledge.” But she said that NTT faculty are highly valued assets at NC State.

“We have NTT faculty in positions of importance in the university,” Stewart said. “Overall, we have clearly defined pathways for success [and] we make it clear that NTT faculty have a voice.”

That point was corroborated by Laura Sremaniak, a full-time NTT teaching professor in NCSU’s chemistry department. Since joining the department in 1996, she’s had the opportunity to take on a number of curriculum development projects, help write two chemistry textbooks, and work on research. And in 2009, she became her department’s associate chair, an administrative management position in which she oversees department staff and operations.

“I experienced less-than-desirable conditions early on in my career, but NC State, to its credit, has made tremendous strides in a positive direction in both its policies and its promotion of a culture where NTT faculty are respected and enjoy good working conditions,” Sremaniak told the Pope Center.

Apparently such favorable working conditions are common at other universities. According to a 2015 study published in Education Policy Analysis Archives, full-time NTT professors across the country enjoy a level of job satisfaction that is on par with that of tenured and tenure-track faculty. A big reason for that satisfaction is collegiality—something that Patrick Conway, chair of UNC-Chapel Hill’s economics department, emphasized in a recent Pope Center interview. 

“I have observed that the fixed-term faculty interact well with our tenure-track faculty,” Conway said. “[They] serve on faculty committees with tenure-track faculty. They attend and participate in economics department faculty meetings. They are given substantial latitude in setting the contents of their courses.”

The benefits of this system don’t accrue to NTT faculty alone, according to Jennifer Carbrey, a full-time NTT faculty member in Duke University’s School of Medicine.

“The advantage of my position to my [tenure-track colleagues],” she told the Pope Center, “is that because I teach, their teaching load is lightened, which gives them more time for research.” 

In other words, if done right, incorporating full-time NTT professors as teaching, research, or clinical specialists can benefit universities by freeing up valuable campus resources without diminishing academic quality.

Unfortunately, such NTT integration isn’t always done right. According to higher education analysts Adrianna Kezar and Sean Gehrke, universities, because of their decentralized governance, often lack “intentional,” well-managed faculty hiring systems. That’s one reason why the makeup of faculty has changed so dramatically over the last half-century. In the late 1960s, tenured and tenure-track faculty represented almost three-fourths of the American professoriate. Today, nearly the opposite is true: approximately 70 percent of professors are in NTT positions—roughly 50 percent hold part-time, adjunct appointments, and about 20 percent hold full-time appointments. 

This sea change (which some have called the “adjunctification of higher education”) is due largely to the absence of accountability on the part of campus stakeholders—governing boards, presidents, deans, administrators, faculty—to ensure that hiring practices align with their school’s mission. It also is due to the fact that many institutions either inadequately track faculty and hiring data, or fail to use such data to inform policy. 

Furthermore, according to Kezar and Gehrke, hiring decisions are often made by just a few individuals and not shared with others as part of a broader campus strategy. Adding to the apparent haphazardness of faculty hires are factors such as enrollment fluctuations, changing demand for degree programs, and research/travel sabbaticals, which can necessitate last-second adjunct appointments. Over time those factors, combined with the policy incoherence mentioned above, have resulted in the current broken system. 

The good news is that Western Carolina University, NC State, and other schools in North Carolina and elsewhere are having thoughtful discussions that could lead to more rational faculty employment policies. Consider this proposal: All faculty, for their first 5 years, enter into single-year contracts. After that, their records are reviewed. If they’ve satisfied their contractual obligations, they enter into multi-year contracts. Sustained excellence is rewarded with promotions, raises, etc. For a select few—the very best teacher-scholars—tenure is available, provided that such individuals remain engaged in campus affairs and, when appropriate, speak-out against university policies or board decisions that may raise faculty hackles. 

Sound interesting? That’s one of Professor McCord’s ideas. Let’s hope that his Western Carolina colleagues hear him out in the coming months. In order to create more efficient faculty hiring systems that account for academic quality, bold university leaders will have to challenge the academy’s longstanding orthodoxy and administrative practices.