Looking Beyond the Tenured

May 16, 2014

An interesting dilemma lies ahead -- where will all the academic administrators come from?

Historically, most administrators in academic affairs, whether they be department chairs, program directors, deans, or provosts, have come out of the ranks of tenured faculty. However with faculty increasingly being contingent and off the tenure track (70 percent), there has not been much consideration of where administrators within academic affairs will come from.  

Clearly very different opportunities  and constraints exist at different institutional types,  but the problem will occur across all institutions of higher education to a greater or lesser degree. Fewer tenure-track faculty at research-focused institutions could mean that those who do have tenure will be expected to continue to focus more on grant and research production over leadership.

Teaching-focused institutions, including liberal arts college and community colleges, may be more reluctant to transition faculty from classroom duty to campus leadership. Regardless of institutional mission, it seems as though little action is taken toward leadership succession planning. There are often reports of difficulty filling positions. It’s not unusual to hear of department chairs or deans being chosen because someone was the only individual willing (and able in terms of being tenured, not necessarily commitment or capability) to take the role rather than best suited for it.  

An emphasis on related experience, if tenured, has become more relaxed. It is not unusual to hear of an internal dean moving into a provost role, or a chair moving into a dean role after just a year or two, not because the person is an undeniable choice, but because so few other individuals have the experience needed and an external candidate could not be identified.

The drop in candidates (if we do not look beyond the tenure-track ranks) for academic leadership has implications for the diversity of leadership on campuses as well. Women and faculty of color are overrepresented among the contingent faculty members. Therefore, their ability to move into administrative and leadership positions on campus and academic affairs is categorically diminished without a consideration of an expanded entry points into leadership. If we drew from their ranks, we could more easily diversify leadership on campus as well.  If we do not, the administration is likely to remain homogeneous.

Some campuses have tried to fill their leadership gaps by moving away from hiring academics to hiring professional administrators from other fields such as nonprofit management or even corporate sectors.  The rationale often used for hiring outside of the academy is based on the belief that those from the nonprofit or corporate sections have more extensive leadership experiences than academically focused faculty.  Yet, an overarching mission of higher education is the pursuit of academically focused work.

We suggest there is value in administrators in academic affairs having experiential knowledge of teaching, learning, and an understanding of faculty roles in making decisions about policy and practice. 

So rather than move outside of faculty for administrative roles, we suggest that campuses re-examine some of their policies to make it possible for non-tenure-track faculty (NTTF) to move into roles they have been excluded from in the past.

Here are some important considerations for leaders in higher education:

  1. Survey and collect data from non-tenure-track faculty about their career interests and experiences to determine pockets where individuals may be well suited for moving into administrative or leadership positions. Many non-tenure track faculty have experiences in leadership outside of higher education that might bring to their role and pair with their expertise in teaching and learning to make excellent leaders.
  2. Re-examine policies that might restrict leadership roles to tenured faculty.  Many campuses have restrictions that only tenure-track faculty can be in roles as chair of the academic senate, chairing certain committees, and as department chairs and deans (at all levels).   
  3. Provide support for non-tenure-track faculty members to enter administration by broadening opportunities for service and leadership. Tenure-track faculty are often provided short-term leadership positions – chair a task force – to provide them experience for greater leadership. These opportunities could also be expanded to NTTF.
  4. Examine NTTF contracts so they include some service time so that faculty can be involved in these activities. On some campuses NTTF have  little or no service built into their contracts, which would prevent many of the recommendations noted in this section. 
  5. Open up mentoring opportunities on campus to non-tenure-track faculty so that they can gain career advice. This should include both informal opportunities as well as formal mentoring program on campus. 
  6. Particularly for full-time non-tenure-track faculty, examine career advancement possibilities on campuses – ensuring that pathways are created.  The full-time NTTF are more likely to have service built into their contracts and experience on campuses that they can translate into leadership so they are a very ready source for leadership.
  7. Work to alter institutional norms that only consider tenure-track faculty for administrative roles and leadership. It is the campus norms about who is an appropriate leader that prevent changes in policies and opportunities, so campus leaders cannot ignore those underlying values as they go about changes.
  8. Ensure that national opportunities for leadership development are open to non-tenure-track faculty such as the ACE Fellows program, HERS, ADVANCE leadership programming, Kellogg Leadership Program, the ACE Spectrum Program or the Center for Creative Leadership.

The logic for excluding NTTFs is that they do not understand the tenure system. But they often are quite aware of it from socialization in graduate school, and further, this system is in decline. Those hired outside academic institutions certainly do not have this knowledge. 

Unless we begin some more thoughtful succession planning, higher education is headed for a leadership crisis. While people will assume roles, without changes on campus, it is likely these roles will no longer be filled with people with any solid understanding of the academic enterprise. This, we believe, will worsen the enterprise.


Kristan Venegas is an associate professor of clinical education and a research associate in the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education. Adrianna Kezar is a professor there and co-director of Rossier's Pullias Center for Higher Education.

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