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As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged campuses the last two years, light was shed on the mission-central importance of the faculty, the role of teaching and the need to support faculty as they support students in higher education. Since the pandemic’s start, faculty members have adapted in-person courses to online formats, often with little to no assistance. They have also provided emotional comfort to students grieving deaths among family, friends and community members. We have heard dramatic stories of the toll on faculty during the pandemic.
But one positive trend that has gone unnoticed is how administrators have treated the pandemic as a catalyst for transforming their policies and procedures in favor of honoring the important roles that all faculty members—tenured and non–tenure track alike—play in the campus community.
Over the last 50 years, higher education employment has become more and more precarious, with only 30 percent of faculty having secure employment. For non-tenure-track faculty, the precarity and constant vying for better jobs foster higher levels of turnover and hinder their ability to build relationships and a sense of community with others in their everyday work.
Now, however, higher education appears to be at a crossroads, where contingency does not comport with expectations for supporting student success, growing mental health needs on campus and the need to innovate and improve teaching. The crisis of the pandemic has made some universities rethink their support of faculty, as they implement policies that respect the great contributions of contingent faculty in making the institution work and in student success.
In the past, campuses have been tinkering with changes—such as implementing an orientation for non-tenure-track faculty members or providing them access to professional development. I write this as a director for a project, the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, that has tracked changes on campus and provided the annual Delphi Award to institution that better support non-tenure-track faculty. What I am seeing now in applications to our awards and in conversations with campus leaders is a much broader and systemic rethinking of the faculty role and a recognition that things need to change much more dramatically.
These innovative policies reduce the levels of precarity that contingent faculty face so that they can see a future for themselves at their university and receive the compensation and support that allow them to invest time and energy in participating in the university community. Although much of the administrative discourse on higher education labor exploitation has treated contingent employment arrangements as inevitable and necessary, exemplar campuses that are changing policies to improve working conditions for contingent faculty demonstrate that the problems of academic labor exploitation are neither natural nor intractable.
Two winners of the 2021 Delphi Award provide particularly strong examples of implementing these much more bold and systemic policies and practices to better respect the contributions of non-tenure-track faculty: Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the University of Denver. Both institutions have made changes that have reduced the level of contingency facing non-tenure-track faculty, including them in university decision making and giving them longer-term contract appointments and pathways for promotion.
Charting a Path for Progress
Worcester Polytechnic Institute has established regular titles and promotion lines for its contingent faculty members. This reverses the precarity of non-tenure-track employment and protects academic and free expression in a political climate increasingly polarized by right-wing attacks on higher education—especially public higher education. WPI went a step further and established tenure paths for teaching faculty who used to be entirely contingent, creating an institutional incentive for faculty to invest their time and energy in being excellent teachers in a way similar to how tenured and tenure-track faculty are incentivized to be excellent researchers and scholars at most institutions.
WPI has also developed stronger standards for evaluating teaching quality in a way that fosters pedagogical innovation. What’s more, it shifted the employment agreements with non-tenure-track faculty members from short-term appointments to multiyear contracts.
Charting a path for progress, WPI has set goals of getting 40 percent of all full-time teaching faculty added to the new tenure-track lines by August 2023, and it has provided supports to make that goal a reality. Faculty and WPI are also now included in university governance in ways they have not been previously. Having that ability to participate in and shape how the university operates means contingent faculty can now invest in the institution on a longer-term scale.
Taking an Equity-Minded Approach
Another Delphi Award winner, the University of Denver, has advanced contingent faculty members by establishing a new line of full-time non-tenure-track teaching faculty members, whom they call teaching and professional faculty. This is not only an improvement in title but also includes improvements to the material conditions of contingent faculty work, with renewable contracts, promotion pathways and a role in university governance. The University of Denver took an equity-minded approach to revising its policies, considering how they specifically impacted faculty members who focus on classroom teaching.
After five years of working on renewable contracts, non-tenure-track faculty can be promoted to this new line, which offers seven-year contracts. The university also established new faculty lines, including assistant teaching professor, assistant clinical professor and assistant professor of practice. The establishment of long-term contracts improves job security for non-tenure-track faculty and allows them to make deeper commitments to their work at the university. Faculty members’ ongoing employment means that they are able to integrate more deeply into the university culture and develop longer-term relationships with their colleagues across the campus—including staff, administrators and other faculty members—as well as make deeper connections with their students.
The University of Denver also modified its shared governance to include teaching and professional faculty, so they can now serve on the Faculty Senate as senators and committee members. Departmental governance has improved, as well: teaching and professional faculty members are now included in hiring processes for tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty.
In addition, the university has committed to teaching and professional faculty by establishing a position explicitly dedicated to them. This role, the resident scholar, is tasked with supporting non-tenure-track faculty members and educating the university community about their contributions and experiences, sharing best practices and research. And the institution is offering financial support for teaching and professional faculty to engage in professional development opportunities, investing in their growth rather than simply extracting their labor.
Finally, the university has integrated teaching and professional faculty into its onboarding processes with other faculty members. With a single process, tenure-track faculty and non-tenure-track faculty are less differentiated, which ultimately generates more opportunity for organic relationship building and collaboration between all faculty.
The examples of University of Denver and Worcester Polytechnic Institute demonstrate that universities are turning a corner and bold changes are ahead. It is time for all institutions to engage in efforts to remake faculty for the future in ways that honor them as professionals and the important they play role in student support and the ultimate success of higher education.