A New Faculty Path

It's time to rethink the role of professors in a way that focuses on student learning and moves past the divide between those on and off the tenure track, write Adrianna Kezar, Susan Albertine and Dan Maxey.

October 2, 2012

With all the recent discussions about disruptive technologies and ways to increase completion rates, too little attention has been paid to the roles of faculty members in the emerging new academy. What kinds of faculty do we need to ensure the success of today’s "new majority" students who are older, attend multiple institutions, come from families whose members have not attended college, and who have increased need for remediation and attention from faculty ? Who is currently carrying the biggest load in teaching these students, especially at the introductory levels, where far too many students drop out of college? How will faculty roles evolve in this new environment? To answer these questions, we need to take a hard look at the current status of college faculty — including the large percentage of those not tenured nor on the tenure track.

Today, more than 70 percent of all faculty members responsible for instruction at not-for-profit institutions serve in non-tenure-track (NTT) positions. The numbers are startling, but numbers alone do not capture the essence of this problem. Many of our colleagues among this growing category of non-tenure-track faculty experience poor working conditions and a lack of support. Not only is it difficult for them to provide for themselves and their families, but their working conditions also interfere with their ability to offer the best educational experience for their students.

Emerging research demonstrates that increases in the numbers of non-tenure-track faculty, particularly part-time faculty, and the lack of support they receive have adverse effects on our most important goals for student learning. For example, studies connect rising contingency to diminished graduation rates, fewer transfers from two- to four-year institutions, and lower grade-point averages. Other studies have found that non-tenure-track faculty make less frequent use of high-impact practices and collaborative, creative teaching techniques that we know are associated with deeper learning. They may not utilize innovative pedagogies for fear of poor student evaluations that might jeopardize their reappointment; they may have been excluded from professional development intended to hone faculty skills; they may be driving long distances to accumulate courses in several institutions. And to be clear, it is non-tenure-track faculty’s working conditions, exclusion from campus life, and lack of support that accounts for these findings. (A summary of all this research may be found here.)

Even after years of urging and mounting calls for change, few institutions have developed policies and practices to support non-tenure-track faculty members or include them more completely in the life of our campuses. They remain "adjunct" to the institution -- something supplemental and perhaps not treated as an essential part of the whole. A growing number of educators agree this situation cannot continue if we are to have any success in improving the quality of student learning -- the core of our mission and the source of our collective future well-being.

Seeing so little action toward change, advocates for these faculty members from among the various stakeholder groups, ourselves included, are growing frustrated by what is not being done. However, where many see willful neglect, we see complicated systemic problems and compelling numbers of well-intentioned educators who simply do not know how to address what they know to be a problem. Important efforts by academic unions and disciplinary societies have increased awareness of the problem and offered new professional standards to respond to the inequities in contingent employment. However, no group working alone has been able to make meaningful progress.

So, we are stuck. It is for this reason that we started the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success in partnership with the Association of American Colleges and Universities. We sought to do something that has never been done before, to convene a broad range of key stakeholders interested in the changing faculty and student success to seek a better understanding of these issues in our time and develop strategies to address contingency and a vision for the new faculty together.

In using a Delphi approach, key stakeholders or experts on an issue are first surveyed on a complex policy issue; these stakeholders are then convened in person to discuss the issue – including their points of consensus and divergence – and to develop thoughtfully conceived solutions. We invited leaders from national associations such as the American Council on Education and the American Association of Community Colleges. Policy groups such as the Education Commission of the States and Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education joined the project. In addition to these groups, we invited the leaders of accreditation agencies, disciplinary societies, academic unions, faculty researchers, and academic leaders such as presidents, representatives of governing boards, deans and provosts. We also included advocacy organizations for NTT faculty, such as New Faculty Majority.

In May, we came together outside Washington. A report from our deliberations is now available on the project website, as are several resources that were prepared for the meeting to frame participants’ understanding of the research that has been conducted on non-tenure track faculty and national trend data about their growth in numbers over 40 years. The end result of the meeting was the formation of two major, parallel strategies for moving forward:

The first strategy will engage higher education organizations and stakeholders in reconceptualizing the professoriate, including redefined faculty roles (beyond existing tenure or non-tenure-track faculty), rewards, and professional standards. A second strategy will lead to the creation of data and resource tool kits for use by campus stakeholders including faculty task forces, administrators, and governing boards, as well as accrediting agencies. The tool kits will draw upon existing knowledge and data, providing a blueprint for promoting greater awareness of non-tenure-track faculty issues. They will also provide examples of positive practices to support non-tenure-track faculty and show how policy change is possible among different types of institutions.

Undergirding all of our discussions was a shared acknowledgement that the academy lacks the information, data, shared awareness, and models necessary for supporting non-tenure-track faculty and achieving a vision for the future of the professoriate — even as the pace of change in higher education accelerates. Throughout our efforts, we have been attentive to the vast heterogeneity of non-tenure-track faculty as a group and the idea that the character of higher education institutions is extremely diverse. We have worked from a common understanding that any set of recommendations must be attuned to this heterogeneity and diversity.

Key insights and ways to begin addressing this problem include:

1. Collective action: No one group can effectively solve this problem alone. Collective action is needed to address its many complicated parts – the growing expenses of providing a high-quality college education amid declining state support, a lack of good faculty data, the scarcity of campus staffing plans, minimal access to best practices or effective models, the potential overproduction of Ph.D.s, and a tendency for prestige-seeking and mission drift by colleges and universities, to name only a few. The multifaceted and complicated nature of the problem is the reason why it persists and has endured so long. In coming together, we have to understand the priorities that connect us and the serious implications of inaction.

2. Perspective: Bringing together stakeholders with diverse perspectives helped us to identify all of the aspects of the problem so that they could be addressed in new ways. Perspective-taking is helpful. Coming to see the issue through the point of view of other stakeholders, many participants began to understand the issues differently and to see their role in creating solutions.

3. Common ground: There are many more common perspectives than would be expected among such a diverse group of stakeholders. Project participants generally agreed that the current three-tiered system (tenure-track, full-time non-tenure-track and part-time non-tenure track) is broken, that student success is being compromised, and that better data systems and greater awareness can promote movement toward better policies and practices to support non-tenure-track faculty.

4. The future professoriate: While we could not come to full agreement about what the nature of the future professoriate should be, we did agree to many common principles. They include the importance of academic freedom, shared governance, a livable wage, and greater job security for non-tenure-track faculty (in the form of multiyear contracts). There was also agreement that teaching and scholarship cannot be fully unbundled, that institutional roles should differ by institutional type, and that above all other goals, student success should be the primary focus of any faculty work. As we continue our work, we will refine these ideas into a workable vision for our future.

5. Trust: We need to learn to trust each other in order to address this problem. Unfortunately, trust in higher education has worn thin following the decline of shared governance, the rise in unilateral decision-making, and the apparent protectionism of narrow interests among the various stakeholders.

To our surprise, a highly diverse group of stakeholders found far more consensus than we would have anticipated. Thanks to the time and energy that participants and their respective organizations put into this effort, many have now committed to work with their own constituencies to further develop awareness and contribute to improvement. Their investment demonstrates for us that we have the capacity to trust each other and the potential goodwill to create the best enterprise possible to support student learning.

Our hope is that this article will spark broader interest and serve as an invitation for others to join this project. Let’s not allow current trends toward increasing numbers of contingent faculty continue unchallenged. Let’s not simply aim to reform the practices of the 20th century. The world faces many grand challenges. Higher education needs to face this challenge of our own so that our students can go out there and go after the rest.

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Adrianna Kezar is associate professor of education at the University of Southern California and director of the Delphi Project. Susan Albertine is vice president, Office of Engagement, Inclusion, and Success, at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Dan Maxey is research assistant and co-investigator of the Delphi Project at the University of Southern California.

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