Professors of Instruction

Northwestern's arts and sciences college offered new titles and clearer paths to promotion -- but no tenure or additional pay -- to teaching-track professors. Faculty members say it's a model that works.

August 12, 2015

What’s in a name? A lot, evidently.

A year after Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences introduced new titles for full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members, along with longer contracts and clearer paths to promotion, proponents say the system has helped them recruit quality teachers and attracted outside interest.

“We wanted clearer paths to promotion and a set of titles that confers respect,” said Monica Russel y Rodriguez, an associate dean at Weinberg who helped design the new ranks. “I’ve been pleased -- I think this was a good concept.”

Formerly various ranks of lecturer, Weinberg’s full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members are now “professors of instruction” at the assistant, associate and full levels. Proponents say the titles better communicate to those within Northwestern that this is a career path, and to those outside of Northwestern exactly what the job entails.

That’s important when these professors, who make up about one-quarter of Weinberg’s faculty (including lots of foreign language instructors), are writing student recommendation letters, for instance, Rodriguez said. It’s also been helpful in recruiting new faculty members. Part-time faculty members are not affected by the changes.

“I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly, but we’ve been able to recruit a couple faculty that I think were particularly pleased by having the title and clear promotion paths,” she said.

And tenured faculty members seem to like it, too, Rodriguez added. “How many tenure-line faculty want to be at a university that doesn’t treat their non-tenure-track faculty like shit? They’ve been very outspoken about it.”

During the transition process, which happened in consultation with faculty members, Rodriguez said she had important discussions about exactly what it means to be teaching-track faculty.

“We wanted to be philosophically clear about what these positions are, and what these faculty bring pedagogically to the classroom,” she said. “They are faculty whose strength and interest is in classroom teaching. … What we didn't want was [to create] a low-cost, nontenure position with high expectations of research.”

Those discussions, in 2013, coincided with a much-publicized study from Northwestern suggesting that students may actually learn more from non-tenure-track faculty members than tenure-track faculty members with lots of obligations other than teaching. Critics were quick to point out that the study involved non-tenure-track faculty members who enjoyed a much higher level of institutional support than do most of their peers on other campuses. But Rodriguez said the study “validated” Weinberg’s initiative.

Eventually, the school decided on three new ranks -- assistant, associate and full professor of instruction -- and bolstered its expectations for promotion. Previously there were opportunities for promotion, but the exact processes varied by department.

Assistant professors of instruction must have a terminal degree, except in foreign language instruction, where a master’s degree paired with significant teaching experience may be appropriate. A candidate must have demonstrable records of excellence in teaching and service; evidence of a pedagogical, research or creative agenda; and a record of scholarly achievement appropriate to the field.

Associate professors of instruction typically have terminal degrees, with six years of sustained, excellent teaching at the rank of assistant professor of instruction. They have strong service and research records, with the latter meaning pedagogical research, professional development or creative work that introduces current knowledge of the field to the classroom.

Full professors of instruction almost always have terminal degrees and six years of sustained, superlative teaching as associate professors of instruction. They have excellent service and research records and evidence of “pedagogical standing in the field.” Examples of such standing include making significant presentations at national conferences, publishing articles in pedagogical journals, helping write textbooks or making innovative contributions to the curriculum.

Faculty searches are expected to be national. The promotion and appointment process still varies somewhat by department, but the process is now more rigid and involves student evaluations, peer evaluations and teaching statements.

Longer-term contracts for teaching-track faculty members were part of the deal. Previously, contracts varied from two to five years. Now initial appointments to the rank of assistant, associate or full professor are two years (candidates may be hired directly into a rank). But subsequent appointments will be at least four years, and sometimes five.

“For me, that was a big deal,” said Rodriguez, a former non-tenure-track senior lecturer of anthropology at Weinberg. “For [non-tenure-track] faculty, it’s hard to shake that sense of impermanence or not really being invested. … The more we can convey we want to invest in faculty so they can invest in students, we all win.”

The changes don’t affect part-time faculty members, and there were no pay raises immediately associated with the new ranks.

Heather Colburn, an associate professor of instruction in the department of Spanish and Portuguese, and chair of the Faculty Senate’s Non-Tenure-Eligible Committee, said there’s a lot of support for the new titles among her non-tenure-track colleagues.

“A lot of non-tenure-track faculty appreciate the title, which recognizes their professionalism,” she said. And colleagues also like the “professional stability as well as the economic stability” that longer contracts bring, she said.

Colburn's committee recently informally surveyed non-tenure-track faculty members across Northwestern about performance evaluation and criteria, she said. Responses revealed significant interest in Weinberg's new ranks from faculty members in other colleges, who go by a variety of titles.

“It made very clear that this could be an initial sort of wave,” she said.

While Colburn praised Weinberg’s new system, she also offered a note of caution: it's important that new titles for non-tenure-track faculty at Northwestern and elsewhere don’t increase expectations -- especially for service -- “that may or may not be realistic in terms of compensation.”

Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education and director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California, has warned of such problems in her research and advocacy work with both adjuncts and administrators. But on its face, she said, Weinberg’s plan looks good.

“Hopefully more campuses will follow suit,” Kezar said. “There is no real downside to more respect, acknowledgment, longer contracts and chance for promotion and basically being more professionalized.” Indeed, a study from North Carolina State University published earlier this year in the Journal of Higher Education suggested adjuncts crave respect from tenure-line colleagues and administrators as much as they do material improvements to their working conditions.

Other ways to bolster non-tenure-track faculty include writing them into academic freedom policies and offering them professional development opportunities, a chance to compete for campus awards and mentoring programs, Kezar said.

Regarding the 2013 Northwestern study on adjuncts and student learning, Kezar reiterated that it didn’t look at part-time faculty members. “So the question is to look at all faculty, not any single subset,” she said. “But improvement of any one group is amazing.”

David Figlio, one of the authors of that study and the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern, was traveling, but in a brief email said he was “very pleased” with Weinberg’s direction in light of his study.

Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, recently co-wrote a book advocating more stringent appointment standards for teaching-track faculty. His proposal called for tenure and its related guarantees of academic freedom for such faculty members, and he said he would have preferred Weinberg’s initiative to involve tenure. But he praised it nonetheless for its emphasis on professionalism and the “vetting” of even non-tenure-track faculty members. Nationwide, he said, they're hired in a somewhat ad hoc fashion.

That’s “even if their teaching is every bit as good as, or better than, that of their tenured colleagues,” Bérubé added via email. “One of my non-tenure-track colleagues here at Penn State complained to me that he hadn't undergone any meaningful form of review in his many years of teaching here (he is not in my department). So a review-and-reward system, including a formal promotion process, is a measure of professionalization for faculty who, as we argue in the book, have been almost wholly deprofessionalized.”


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