More Than Adjuncts

U. of Denver moves to new titles, a career path and multiyear contracts for those off the tenure track. Could this be a model for other institutions?

February 17, 2015
University of Denver
Arthur Jones, a non-tenure-track faculty member at Denver

The University of Denver has never been one of the many colleges where part-time, semester-to-semester faculty members lacking institutional support make up the majority of instructors. Denver employs relatively few part-time adjuncts, and those it does hire usually have other jobs and teach one or two courses based on their professional expertise. But the institution employs a good number of full-time, non-tenure-track faculty who, despite being compensated relatively well, with benefits, have little job security. Some lecturers and clinical faculty members, as they’re called at Denver, have worked there for more than 20 years but still work on annual contracts with no guarantee of renewal.

So when Denver’s faculty members undertook updating the institution’s more than a decade old appointment, promotion and tenure policies several years ago, they decided to take a somewhat radical approach: Why not establish professional pathways and long-term contracts for valued, non-tenure-track faculty members? Not everyone supported the idea at first -- a small but vocal minority of tenure-line faculty members continued to oppose the idea throughout. But by the time the university’s Board of Trustees approved Denver’s new Policies and Procedures Relating to Faculty Appointment, Promotion and Tenure document last month, more than 85 percent of the faculty was behind it.

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Denver’s new system works something like this: non-tenure-track instructors may be hired on annual contracts for no more than five years. After five years, they’re either released from duty or promoted to assistant teaching professor, assistant clinical professor or assistant professor of the practice (for nontraditional academics) on a contract of up to three years. Reappointment to the position for a contract similar in length is possible, after an enhanced evaluation process within the academic unit, decided by at least three members of the faculty.

Assistant professors may apply for promotion to associate professor at any time, but must be evaluated for promotion for associate professor after six years. If the review is positive, the professor will be promoted to associate professor with a five-year contract. If the review is negative, the professor’s employment ends at the end of his or her current contract. The process is similar for promotion to full professor, except that review may result in reappointment to associate professor with another five-year contract. Those successfully appointed to full professor get a seven-year contract.

During the transition phase, longtime non-tenure-track faculty members with strong performance records can expect to be promoted to ranks commensurate with their years of experience. They won't get raises right away, since raises aren't part of this process, but non-tenure-track faculty members at Denver have gotten cost-of-living adjustments over the years. The average non-tenure-track faculty salary at Denver was $59,763 in 2013, the most recent year for which data was immediately available.

The university is in the process of converting lecturers and other non-tenure-track faculty members into the new ranking series -- teaching professors, clinical professors and professors of the practice -- so that the new APT, as it’s called, is up and running by the fall. Supporters and mild critics alike says much remains to be seen in how the new faculty model actually works in time, such as whether or not it leads to fewer tenure-line appointments, and whether non-tenure-track faculty members actually feel it makes a difference.

But it’s already clear that Denver’s ahead of the curve in rethinking the professor role, and that its model might be exportable to other institutions grappling with how to better incorporate their adjuncts into the faculty.

“I think it would take bold leadership from both the faculty side and from the administration to make this kind of change, because it’s an economic argument,” said Arthur Jones, clinical professor of culture and psychology at Denver and president of its Faculty Senate. Jones has taught at Denver for more than 20 years and, despite playing a key role in shared governance, has always worked off an annual contract. Under the new system, given his seniority, he stands to gain a seven-year contract and the rank of full clinical professor.

“You have to make the argument that this is going to cost us money up front, but it will create distinctiveness at the university that ultimately will aid us in the longer term,” Jones said. “It guarantees our ability to be a player in this era of change.”

There are no up-front costs associated with the new system, since no one’s getting a raise. But handing out longer-term contracts of three to seven years, depending on where one falls under each non-tenure-track professor series -- assistant, associate and full -- does mean the institution is making more of a long-term commitment to its non-tenure-track faculty.

That was a choice Denver was more than willing to make, said Douglas Scrivner, chair of Denver's Board of Trustees.

Any “risk,” Scrivner said, “can be managed and is dramatically outweighed by the benefits of engaged faculty and our ability to attract great teachers through the new renewable series.” That’s in addition to great scholar-teachers under the still-active tenure-line series, he said. 

Scrivner said the board, like others around the country, has been focused on the challenges ahead for higher education, and for Denver specifically. Making this kind of commitment to the faculty, “We have an opportunity to imagine how [Denver] can be a real leader in taking on those challenges.”

The policy also includes stronger language protecting the academic freedom of all faculty members, even those off the tenure track. "The University of Denver fully supports the academic freedom of its faculty," the statement says in part. "A bedrock principle upon which the advancement and dissemination of knowledge rests, academic freedom grants faculty members the liberty to teach, pursue and discuss knowledge. Under this core principle, faculty members are entitled to freedom in research and in the publication of research results. In the classroom, they have the right to teach and say what they believe to be pertinent to the subject at hand, even though their methods or speech may be offensive or contrary to the beliefs of some. Academic freedom also includes faculty members' rights to speak or write on matters related to the governance of colleges, schools, divisions, departments or other academic units and the university as a whole without negative consequences."

Charles S. Reichardt, a longtime tenured professor of psychology at Denver, chaired the faculty committee charged with drafting the new APT document. Like most everyone at Denver, Reichardt said the biggest change under the new policy is longer-term contracts for non-tenure-track faculty, which provide those colleagues the kind of stability that will make them even better teachers, since they don’t have waste time looking for jobs every year. But he said the new faculty titles also are important.

“Lecturers and adjuncts -- that just didn’t seem sufficient,” Reichardt said of the old titles for many non-tenure-track faculty members. “We value their role here, and think they’re highly skilled, great teachers.... So the world needed to know that they had the right status, if that’s the right word -- that they’re valued.”

Faculty members at Denver said that those titles drove some debate among tenured professors, mainly about whether calling instructors “professors” would dilute the meaning of tenure. Jones said a small but vocal minority continued to oppose the changes, but when they were finally put to a vote among the entire faculty, 85 percent of members approved them in the first round. In a second vote, after the APT document was fine-tuned, closer to 90 percent of faculty members approved it, he said. Non-tenure-track faculty members make up about one-third of Denver's 696-member faculty and participate actively in the Faculty Senate, but the proposals also faced a faculty-wide vote.

Gregg Kvistad, provost and executive vice chancellor, said there also was a high level of support from and collaboration with trustees, which is significant, given that faculty-board interactions across academe can be thorny, to put it mildly. The university-wide buy-in underscores the significance of the new APT, he said.

“This was a win-win for everyone at the university,” Kvistad said. “It really does benefit everyone when folks can be better teachers and mentors and advisers if they know they’re going to be here for five years.”

Addressing outstanding concerns among some faculty members that tenure could suffer under the new system, Kvistad said just how Denver will treat tenure going forward -- such as perhaps establishing quotas for tenured faculty lines -- is still being figured out. But it’s clear that tenure works in the service of academic freedom, he said, which is crucial to the work of the scholar-teachers on whom Denver’s reputation is based.

“We’re a research university, and research is still done by tenured faculty,” he said, noting that teaching professors under the new system must spend 90 percent of their time on teaching and related work.

Henry Reichman, chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said there was a lot to like about the new Denver policy, including its strong protections of academic freedom and endorsement of tenure. But he said he also had some concerns, including why -- if the teaching professional series was supposed to honor strong academics -- they wouldn’t be put on the tenure track. Reichman noted, too, that according to AAUP guidelines, anyone serving at an institution for more than seven years should enjoy the privileges of tenure -- including due process for any termination.

Denver's policy “integrates many important AAUP principles into the university's system of tenure and appointment, in some places offering protections even stronger than AAUP demands,” Reichman said. But “in practice it remains to be seen whether the university will shift significant numbers of faculty off the tenure track and into the other non-tenure-line series. I certainly hope they do not.”

Adrianna Kezar, professor and director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California, studies how adjunct faculty employment affects student learning and works with both faculty and administrative groups on reforming the faculty role. Kezar said she thought the faculty model of the future will be “close to what they are doing -- more full-time, non-tenure-track [faculty] with multiyear rather than contingent semester-to-semester or year-to-year appointments." And with promotion tracks, “this is a real profession,” she said.


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