Faculty jobs, once among the most secure in the United States, have become increasingly precarious. As the broader labor market has shifted to contingent workers, so too have colleges and universities -- with part-time faculty shouldering an even larger share of the responsibility for teaching students. This is also becoming a more prevalent theme in higher education -- and a perceived threat to the existence of tenure by some -- during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This steady march toward the Gig Academy -- as Adrianna Kezar, the author and professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, titled her 2019 book -- means that more than half of the faculty are now adjuncts, and three-quarters of all faculty positions are off the tenure track. Full-time hiring has practically ground to a halt as institutions deal with unprecedented uncertainty amid the crisis sparked by COVID-19, and it may never return to precrisis levels. State budgets are on the verge of collapse, and college enrollments are projected to drop by 20 percent or more.
At many institutions, the last recession sped up the shift from full-time, tenure-track faculty to contingent faculty -- who command lower pay and typically are provided fewer benefits or none, in the case of adjuncts teaching only a course or two. In that way, a large core of adjunct faculty helps counter fiscal pressures from rising costs, enrollment challenges, aging infrastructure and state disinvestment. The move to contingent faculty also allows institutions to quickly expand the teaching ranks when enrollments increase over all or in a particular field, and to contract them when enrollments wane.
But a heavy reliance on adjuncts comes with its own costs, especially for faculty and the protection of academic freedom.
Full-time, contingent faculty earn 26 percent less per hour than their tenured peers. A quarter of part-time faculty are enrolled in public assistance programs, and few adjuncts believe they will be able to retire with any savings. Many highly educated individuals work multiple jobs and teach at multiple institutions to make ends meet. Attracting and retaining diverse faculty members at a time when many jobs within higher education appear so volatile and unstable will require colleges and universities to rethink the social contract with faculty.
Research shows that few faculty members receive the support and training they need to succeed. It’s even worse for contingent faculty, who are often shut out of professional and curriculum development and receive little administrative support. Very few systems or tools are designed to support individual faculty members in their teaching outside of an institutional setting, sometimes at the expense of supporting student success and career matriculation. Prior to COVID-19, faculty development was quickly becoming a professionalized field, as more universities hired provosts and senior executives tasked with supporting faculty development. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities is in the process of creating a group of faculty development professionals. This would join a growing number of opportunities for faculty development professionals to learn from one another, though initiatives such as Harvard’s Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education or through faculty supportive tools such as Interfolio.
As higher education experiences profound upheaval, colleges and universities need to double down on their efforts to better support faculty and their professional development. After all, faculty are responsible for revenue, rank, student success, governance and driving the strategic growth plan. Efforts should be wide-ranging, but a number of areas need immediate attention.
Make renewal, promotion and tenure (RPT) more inclusive, clear and consistent.
Tenure-track and contingent faculty alike need a predictable process for RPT -- even during a pandemic -- that not only focuses on individual achievements, but also looks holistically at current university, college and department workload guidelines; annual evaluation practices; and RPT expectations at all levels of the university. This should certainly take exigent factors, such as COVID-19, into account. For example, we are already seeing early signs that the crisis is having a disproportionate impact on women faculty’s research productivity.
In some cases, these changes to the RPT process would require a fundamental shift with a focus on broader but consistent criteria for RPT; better data around faculty goals, productivity and contributions; and granting higher levels of flexibility and agency to faculty themselves -- even if the institutional goals need to shift to support the existential realities caused by a pandemic.
Faculty, in the context of faculty governance, will need to review, change and vote on RPT policies in department and college bylaws as well as in the university faculty handbook. Institutions will increasingly need to take an introspective look at long-held cultural norms and social practices that enshrine tenure-track faculty as the only group eligible for job security and privileges.
Broaden the base for faculty engagement.
Colleges and universities should also change or strengthen policies and practices to support multiyear contracts and participation in faculty governance for term faculty. Multiyear contracts for term faculty were becoming more common, and this should continue. In addition, universities can no longer rely exclusively on tenure-track faculty for institutional leadership. Not only are there too few tenure-track faculty, proportionally speaking, but they also face increased pressure to spend time on research activities, a privilege often reserved exclusively for tenured or tenure-track faculty.
Rethink professional development activities and support.
In addition to innovating around faculty’s access to data, colleges and universities need to provide professional development for faculty that is focused on individual career success and, as a result, their students’ successes. The common use of professional development funds to attend disciplinary conferences does little to support individual career success. Instead, opportunities for career counseling in the form of individualized development plans, mentoring, learning communities and grants to pursue research and teaching innovations are important to keep all faculty motivated, progressing and supporting institutional strategic goals.
At California State University, Dominguez Hills, for example, non-tenure-track faculty are eligible to apply for university research funds, scholarships and awards. The university also reviews non-tenure-track faculty for advancement into multiyear contracts, encourages them to apply for scholarly sabbaticals and includes them on the Academic Senate with dedicated positions for non-tenure-track faculty. Other institutions are now exploring similar changes to how they support contingent faculty.
As colleges and universities begin to chart a path to a new normal for teaching, learning and research, institutions must find ways to better support the academic workforce that drives their mission and economic viability. They must offer benefits beyond those reserved only for the shrinking tenure class, providing all faculty with greater stability, ensuring their academic freedom and potentially including them in shared governance. Institutions should offer platforms that provide more granular insights into faculty’s earning potential and career paths, and that help them more comprehensively demonstrate their achievements. These platforms should be designed with portability and flexibility in mind. Faculty development must move from the periphery to the core of institutional strategy and include adjunct and contingent academic staff.
Like the rest of the world, higher education faces an uncertain future, even as the way faculty live and work has already dramatically changed. As institutions adapt, they must look for new, better ways to recruit, nurture and engage with all their faculty. Because, ultimately, it is faculty who deliver on the core mission and economic future of the institution every day.