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Who counts as a “real” faculty member? In a recent study in Innovative Higher Education, we and several colleagues examined how one group of universities includes or excludes non-tenure-track faculty from an important indicator of faculty membership. Namely, to what extent are non-tenure-track faculty eligible for appointment or election to institutionwide faculty senate bodies?

In our analysis of faculty senate bylaws and constitutions at universities recognized as the highest research doctoral institutions in the Carnegie Classification system, we found that most extended faculty senate eligibility to full-time non-tenure-track faculty but not to those in part-time positions.

Non-tenure-track faculty members, including those with adjunct appointments, contribute in multiple ways to our colleges and universities and now constitute the statistical majority among college faculty. While tenure-stream appointments accounted for almost 80 percent of faculty positions in 1969, today nearly two-thirds of faculty members at American public and private nonprofit institutions are off the tenure track. And three out of every four new faculty hires are not on the tenure track. Increased reliance on non-tenure-track faculty raises important questions regarding how to define and to conceptualize what it means to be a member of the professoriate.

Yet despite the significant contributions and prevalence on campuses of adjunct faculty, many institutions still fail to adequately support and fully embrace them in institutional life. That certainly proved to be the case for universities in our study, with almost 90 percent of institutions excluding adjunct faculty from faculty senate bodies. While our study focused on just the nation’s leading research doctoral institutions, our findings raise issues worth considering across institutional types.

Why Faculty Senate Eligibility Matters

The American Association of University Professors and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges have both called for increased participation of non-tenure-track faculty in institutional governance, including those with part-time appointments. But why does eligibility to serve on faculty senates matter for non-tenure-track faculty?

Higher education scholar Robert Birnbaum noted that faculty senates carry out multiple latent and manifest functions. People may debate the efficacy of faculty senates, but a key motivating factor for our study related to an important symbolic function discussed by Birnbaum: the faculty senate’s role in identifying which individuals on a campus are accepted as members of the faculty.

We contend that one function of faculty senates relates to their potential role in legitimating or affirming a person’s status as a “real” faculty member. By convention, we often speak of “the faculty” in higher education in a singular sense. In reality, the disparate treatment of non-tenure-track faculty, and often especially of adjunct faculty, points to a system of faculty haves (often tenure-stream faculty members) and have-nots (often non-tenure-track faculty members). Most universities in our study imparted the message, even if only implicitly, that adjunct faculty are not “real” members of the campus faculty.

Besides important symbolic significance, exclusion of adjunct faculty from faculty senates also can have more pragmatic implications. While institutional variations exist, faculty senates usually serve as a conduit for raising faculty concerns about important issues affecting the campus. Not accounting for the views of adjunct faculty on faculty senates ignores an important voice in institutional life. Previous research also indicates that working conditions -- which are potentially affected by inclusion or exclusion from shared governance -- correlate with non-tenure-track faculty members’ ability and willingness to perform their jobs in ways that impact student learning.

It is widely known that non-tenure-track faculty members, including those with adjunct appointments, are indispensable at many institutions when it comes to meeting instructional needs and serving students. As such, excluding them from an institutionwide body that often exercises substantial authority over curricular and teaching matters makes little sense. Yet a number of colleges and universities in our study -- and many others across institutional type -- fail to include adjunct faculty as part of their faculty senates and, by extension, in the larger fabric of institutional shared governance.

Beyond Faculty Senate Eligibility

One critique of participation by adjunct faculty on faculty senates is that they do not possess sufficient independence to be free of undue influence from administrators. In a study focused on shared governance and non-tenure-track faculty in the context of one institution, the researchers found that many tenure-stream faculty members expressed concerns that their non-tenure-track colleagues potentially would not be critical of administrators due to a lack of job security.

Worries over professional independence are a salient factor in considerations of the service of non-tenure-track faculty members on faculty senates. But rather than a reason to exclude all or certain non-tenure-track faculty from faculty senate eligibility, such concerns should prompt consideration for how to ensure necessary professional independence for those faculty members so they can participate in meaningful ways in shared governance -- including having eligibility for the faculty senate.

In assessing non-tenure-track faculty participation in institutional shared governance and their roles in faculty senates, we are not naïve enough to suggest that faculty senate eligibility represents some kind of panacea to deal with the issues facing such faculty members. Eligibility to serve does not equate to actual selection. Furthermore, faculty senates may play a limited role in the daily lived experiences of non-tenure-track faculty members, including those serving part-time, in their specific colleges or departments.

Thus, faculty senate eligibility exists as part of a much larger continuum defining the professional conditions of non-tenure-track faculty. As such, we urge that consideration of faculty senate eligibility should be considered in a holistic manner alongside a range of issues that affect part-time and full-time non-tenure-track faculty and their working conditions.

To illustrate such a process, the University of Denver several years ago undertook an institutionwide review of its titling and appointment standards for non-tenure-track faculty. The review included issues related to shared governance, and it resulted in the creation of a revised appointment and promotion structure for faculty members in non-tenure-line positions. As a part of the process, the University of Denver also amended policy language dealing with issues of faculty autonomy and independence in shared governance matters and in relation to academic freedom.

While the initiative at the University of Denver was focused on full-time non-tenure-track faculty (as reported, the university relied less on adjunct faculty than many places), other universities can undertake similar reviews for adjunct faculty. Many adjunct faculty members serve their institutions for years, often without adequate recognition or a voice in governance matters, especially those related to curricular matters or their working conditions. (Remember Youngstown State adjuncts having a cake to “celebrate” 25 years with no raise?) The reality is that adjunct faculty are vital to institutional and student success. They deserve to be included in meaningful ways in institutional shared governance, including representation on faculty senates.


We suggest that universities take the following steps.

  • Institutions should make sure that, at a minimum, non-tenure-track faculty are represented in some capacity on the institutionwide faculty senate. Some institutions reserve specific faculty senate seats to such faculty, but debate exists over the efficacy of this approach. The AAUP notes that reserving seats for non-tenure-track faculty may ensure representation, but it contends that general voting and service eligibility should be the ultimate goal. Whether through reserved seats or general eligibility, institutions should provide some type of meaningful representation on faculty senates for them.
  • Institutions should consider questions concerning faculty senate eligibility for adjunct faculty alongside other factors that shape the campus experience for those faculty members. They should put policies and practices into place that help to ensure the professional independence of these faculty members. For example, they should develop procedures so that adjunct faculty members are subject to evaluation and reappointment standards that are based on more than the discretion of a sole administrator.
  • Institutions should compensate adjunct faculty, who are typically paid per course, for the additional time they spend serving on institutionwide governance bodies.
  • Institutional service, such as being a member of the faculty senate, should be included in the evaluation process for adjunct faculty.
  • No matter the stance adopted on faculty senate eligibility for adjunct faculty, transparency and unambiguousness on the issue are warranted in the name of basic openness in matters of shared governance. In our study, we found it difficult in multiple instances to parse out senate eligibility policies in relation to adjunct faculty. In a 2013 survey, the AAUP reported that many senate leaders reported being unsure about particular policies at their own institutions related to non-tenure-track faculty and participation on institutionwide governance bodies -- further indicating the need for clarity in policies related to adjunct faculty members and faculty senates.

We urge institutions to examine their own policies. Are they in line with institutional values related to the equitable treatment of people and in the best interests of students and their learning? If not, universities will not only miss out on an important opportunity to better serve students but also fail to live up to institutional values related to fairness and social justice.

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