Needed: Equitable Roles for Full-Time Instructors

Paul S. Merritt provides an insider’s perspective as to how colleges can structure such teaching positions to provide the best experience for both students and faculty members.

January 10, 2019
 
 

As academic departments at colleges and universities face higher enrollments without concomitant funding, more are turning to contingent full-time instructional faculty members to meet their needs. As a result, higher education has increasingly devolved into a pseudo-caste system -- with tenured and tenure-track faculty held in the highest esteem and receiving the largest salaries, while contingent full-time and part-time faculty languish with disproportionately heavier workloads and relatively low salaries. If we hope to fulfill the promise of education for all of our students, we must do better.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released an astonishing report in 2017 on adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty. From 1995 to 2011, the percentage of full-time, tenure-track positions across all higher education institutions fell from 42 percent to 28 percent. Meanwhile, the number of full-time contingent positions grew 109 percent, accounting for 21.5 percent of all positions. The GAO also found full-time contingent faculty members were paid significantly less than their tenure-track counterparts.

Having held a tenure-track appointment and now a full-time contingent one, I believe we in higher education need to seriously consider how we treat full-time instructional faculty who are not on the tenure track. We must make sure to structure such teaching positions so they provide the best experience for faculty members and the highest-quality instruction for students.

A number of models for full-time teaching positions have emerged, including full-time (continuing stream or permanent) lecturers and senior lecturers, as well as assistant, associate and full teaching professors. As a general rule of thumb, full-time instructional faculty members spend about 80 percent of their time on teaching and 20 percent on service, or all their time teaching, whereas tenure-track faculty members spend about 40 percent on teaching, 40 percent on research and 20 percent on service.

Full-time instructional faculty members are an important part of the mix in most departments. They give departments the opportunity to maintain or increase student enrollment within courses and programs and allow tenure-track faculty to buy out teaching time. (Tenure-track faculty can allocate grant funding to pay for release time -- usually the portion of the salary associated with a single course.) Moreover, many Ph.D.s have skill sets that are better suited to the classroom than to the publish-or-perish world of research. In addition, full-time instructional positions can offer greater flexibility and a better work-life balance. Aging faculty members who are approaching retirement often find full-time teaching a preferable option to taking on new graduate students and chasing funding.

More important, because we full-time instructors teach a disproportionate number of students compared to our colleagues, we are the most visible faculty members to our undergraduate students. A great full-time instructor, dedicated to educating their students and unburdened by the demands of the tenure-track appointment, can be among an institution’s best and most inspirational faculty members. Conversely, a full-time instructor who is not performing well within the classroom will provide students only low-quality instruction, doing harm to them as well as the reputation of a department.

What Is Fair?

Colleges and universities should develop a system in which the only substantive difference between full-time tenured faculty and full-time instructional faculty is the distribution of work among teaching, research and service. They should rethink how they treat full-time instructors in terms of:

Workload. As a general rule of thumb, a full-time instructor should be teaching about twice the typical teaching load of a tenure-track faculty member. In other words, if your tenure-track faculty members are teaching more than a 2-2 load, full-time instructors should teach no more than a 4-4 load. That is the absolute maximum an institution can expect from its full-time instructors if they are to provide anything close to quality teaching.

Teaching three or to four different courses within a single semester is intellectually demanding and can be exhausting. In fact, full-time instructors perform best when they have at least one semester a year or every other year in which they are able to teach multiple sections of the same course. The goal of having a full-time instructor is to serve the long-term needs of the department, so burning out a colleague because no one else wants to change their teaching schedule does not serve the institution, nor is it fair to the instructor. Being a good full-time instructor is a bit like being in a Broadway musical -- six to eight performances a week. Instructional faculty need to be cared for and nurtured, not worked like pack mules.

Evaluation. Before a department hires any full-time instructional faculty member, it needs to establish how it will evaluate their positions. The effort it invests in evaluating a full-time instructor should be the same as what it puts into evaluating a tenure-track member. It should include not only in-class assessments and student evaluations but also teaching portfolios for review. Fortunately, some great tools are available for objectively assessing teaching.

Also, when evaluating a full-time instructor, the institution should be mindful of base-rate effects. When a faculty member teaches an enormous number of students, simple probability dictates they will have more complaints than if they taught fewer students. Indeed, one full-time instructor may teach as many students in one year as a tenure-track faculty member does in three or four. The key consideration is whether the proportion of issues that all faculty face at some point are out of kilter. For example, assuming 1 percent of students will complain about a faculty member, an instructor with 500 students would have approximately five complaints per year, whereas a faculty member teaching 50 students would have one complaint every other year.

Pay. The primary purpose of every college and university is to teach students, so the pay for tenure-track and full-time instructional faculty should be relatively similar. Compensating full-time instructors less diminishes their role and demonstrates that the institution values teaching less than research. More to the point, it indicates that it values one type of faculty member over another. Plus, it’s just fundamentally unfair to pay instructional faculty less.

Departments should also give their full-time instructors financial support for travel and professional development. In an ideal world, instructional faculty members would receive funding for travel to a teaching conference as well as one conference within their discipline. In return, they could be expected to share their expertise by conducting seminars about teaching for their departments.

Finally, institutions should publicly acknowledge high-quality teaching. At many institutions, teaching, service and research awards are open only to tenure-track faculty. That practice diminishes the vital role that full-time instructional faculty members play on their campuses. Along with their teaching, many conduct research or participate in public service initiatives. Similarly, faculty leadership positions, such as on the faculty senate and on other governance bodies, should be open to non-tenure-track faculty.

For the candidate: if you are considering applying for a full-time instructor position, know that it will present its own distinct challenges. Before you do so, try to determine how the institution or department you are applying to views this sort of position. You want to join a group looking for a colleague, not just someone to cover the teaching load.

If your job interview consists of a lecture, a meal and one meeting with the department chair, consider that a red flag. Academic interviews for tenure-track faculty are as much about how well you will get along with everyone as they are anything else. Departments in which you spend no time meeting one on one with faculty are not looking for a colleague, they are looking for an employee.

Also important: the tenure-track faculty should not treat you as less than equal. In my experience and in discussions with other faculty in similar positions, I have found that tenure-track faculty often treat full-time instructional faculty as being less qualified, that if they were as "good" they would be in a tenure-track position. This type of toxic environment is to be avoided if at all possible.

In conclusion, if higher education is to thrive in the current climate, we must break from the dogmatic traditions of the past by striking a balance between teaching and research. Talented and motivated full-time instructional faculty members can play a crucial part in achieving that balance. We must establish a system that attracts the top talent available to these positions. And that requires workload, compensation and reward structures that are equitable and fair.

Bio

Paul S. Merritt is an assistant teaching professor at Georgetown University and adjunct professor of psychology at Colorado State University.

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