Exception to the Rule

From the 1990s on, many colleges have increasingly relied on adjunct professors. Elon has gone from majority part timers to 74 percent tenure track -- and it's not done yet.
December 2, 2008

The percentage of faculty members who are off the tenure track keeps going up, and they are quite possibly in the majority in American higher education. Administrators have justified the hiring pattern -- even before the current economic downturn -- by saying that they gain flexibility and talent without tenure, and end up saving money as well.

Faculty groups have been pushing back hard against this trend, but with limited success. Even many professors view it as inevitable and argue for a focus on improving pay and benefits for adjuncts.

Elon University, a private institution in North Carolina, offers evidence that institutions can reverse the tide and build up their tenured and tenure-track ranks. In the 1990s, Elon's faculty was split about evenly between adjuncts and those on the tenure track. Today, about 74 percent of professors are either tenured or tenure track. Even with the national economy in turmoil, Elon's leaders say that they plan to continue in this direction until the faculty is about 85 percent tenure track.

Particularly notable, given the concerns of many adjuncts that shifts away from contingent labor will only cost them jobs, is the fact that Elon has hired some former adjuncts into tenure-track jobs, given them credit for their time as adjuncts, and in some cases tenured them.

The impetus for the shift came from faculty members who worked in the mid-1990s on developing a strategic plan for Elon that would distinguish it from other institutions. Elon wouldn't try to compete with research powerhouses like nearby Duke University or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But it did want to add new programs and to stake a claim about being a place for "engaged learning."

John Sullivan, a professor emeritus of philosophy, is credited with putting the issue of the tenure track front and center when the discussion of "engaged learning" came up. "We were talking about producing a community of learners," and the idea of community was central, he said.

Faculty members wanted to be sure students would have contact with their instructors in class and out of class, and year after year – which isn't easy to ensure if you are relying on adjuncts for many courses.

"If we wanted more commitments of faculty time, we needed to make more commitments to faculty," he said.

While some at Elon were worried about the issue of fairness to adjuncts -- an issue that played a role in the discussions -- the driving idea was the emphasis on the institution's identity and the faculty role that was seen as necessary to make that identity a reality.

Leo Lambert became president of Elon in 1999, as these discussions solidified. He said that the consensus, which he strongly supported, was that "if we wanted to build the most excellent faculty, we really needed to radically increase our institutional commitment to tenure and tenure-track faculty."

Elon is a "quintessential tuition-driven institution" in terms of its budget. There is no mammoth endowment on which to rely. Lambert said that timing was key to the success of the shift of faculty positions: Elon was attracting more and better applications and students, so this was a period of "institutional confidence" during which trustees and those on campus knew that there would be students to support the new positions. He said he was less sure a college could make such a transformation while worrying over whether students would show up.

The provost, Gerald L. Francis, along with Tim Peeples, then a faculty member and now associate dean of arts and sciences, led the process of identifying – campus-wide – which positions should be converted. Because the college was generally growing its faculty over the period of time in which the tenured ranks grew, adjuncts didn't lose many jobs so much as the new hiring was on the tenure track.

Faculty Status at Elon

Job status 1990-1 2007-8
Tenured 32 135
Tenure-track, but not tenured 22 94
Off the tenure track 78 82

The non-tenure track faculty members, generally instructors without a terminal degree, receive full benefits, based on the same assumption underlying the overall plan: that the university benefits from having teaching done by people who feel part of the community.

Francis said that the new tenure-track slots, while gradually phased in, have covered just about every department.

When administrators at other campuses defend the widespread use of adjuncts, they typically cite the need to assign positions where enrollment is growing. Department chairs at Elon report that enrollments were carefully studied as positions were added on the tenure track. "We've had to show some pain first before the gain," said Chalmers Brumbaugh, chair of political science. The department is doing a search this year for a tenure-track professor, a position that will bring the department to 14 full-time professors, all but two either tenured or on the tenure track. When he arrived at Elon in 1986, there were only three full timers in the department.

Brumbaugh said that in discussions about adding positions, "one of the criteria that resonates is the percentage of courses taught by adjuncts." As the percentage rises, and courses show consistent interest, the college has been adding new positions. "When I say that I have to keep adding sections, that argument resonates," he said.

While Elon has hired many high quality adjuncts over the years, Brumbaugh said that there is no comparison in his mind in what tenure-track faculty offer students. "They can take advisees, they can spend more time with the student," he said. "Adjuncts, as good as they may be in the classroom, may have an office hour here or there, but they are not part of the institution and the institutional culture in the same way."

That view is shared by professors who started at Elon as adjuncts and were able to switch to the tenure track and earn tenure. Yoram Lubling, a professor of philosophy, arrived in 1991 for a one-year replacement position. That turned into a series of one-year contracts off the tenure track -- what he calls "full work and part pay." In 1996, he won a permanent slot off the tenure track, and in 1998 he was hired for a tenure-track position when his department received one. He was given some credit for his teaching prior to joining the tenure track, so he came up for tenure and received it in 2002.

Since joining the tenure tack, Lubling has been able to step up writing in a way that would have been impossible for him before. He just published a book about the prisoners' revolt in the Treblinka concentration camp, and he's under contract for a book about John Dewey.

In many ways, he said, the writing time doesn't come from not teaching, but from not job hunting and not worrying. "In the humanities, jobs are very scarce, so not having tenure and being on a yearly contract makes it impossible to actually have an academic career," he said. "You are constantly preoccupied with finding jobs." At the beginning of his Elon career, he said, "it felt like all I was doing was worrying about where I'm going to teach the following year."

As a tenured faculty member, in contrast, "you feel the university has made a commitment."


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