The Changing Academic Workforce

By Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey    //    Volume 21,  Number 3   //    May/June 2013

Among the many pressing challenges facing colleges and universities that demand the attention of their boards, one set of issues often is overlooked: those involving employment of non-tenure-track faculty members and the policies and practices shaping their work. There are a number of compelling reasons, however, why boards not only should become knowledgeable about the relevant policies and practices, but also should take a leadership role in collective efforts to determine how they affect the attainment of the institution’s and its students’ goals.

To demonstrate why board leadership is vital regarding what are typically known as adjunct or contingent faculty, consider the potential impact of the following news articles:

“Students of color protest discriminatory practices at local college: Claim disproportionate enrollment in introductory and remedial courses taught by adjuncts reflects an unequal opportunity for a quality education.”

“Local college charged with violating Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and other laws: Accreditation agencies claim institution’s negligence due to lack of orientation and preventive training for adjuncts; federal funding threatened.”

“Shocking numbers of professors at local college found to be on food stamps; students and community leaders voice outrage over unfair pay for adjuncts.”

It is unimaginable that board members would want to read any one of these claims about their institution in the local newspaper. However, each scenario is increasingly likely to threaten the reputation of some institutions, as well as their missions and goals for teaching and learning.

The large and growing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty throughout higher education has resulted in such faculty members now accounting for approximately 70 percent of the faculty providing instruction at nonprofit institutions nationwide. Yet, most campuses ignore the needs of this group, operating as though tenure-track faculty members are the norm. As non-tenure-track faculty have been hired in greater numbers, institutions have often not considered how their faculty policies and practices—and the working conditions encountered by adjuncts, particularly those working part time—may carry deeply troubling implications for student learning, equal-employment opportunities and nondiscrimination, and risk management.

Our comments and suggestions grow out of our work as the principal investigators for the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, based at the University of Southern California. In that work, we have engaged in extensive discussions with disciplinary societies, AGB and other national organizations representing board members and college presidents, academic labor unions, policy makers, and accreditation agencies, among others, and have collected helpful resources, available online at Those conversations have illuminated how the faculty came to be comprised of mostly non-tenure-track positions and the implications of this change for student success and outcomes.

Faculty Composition

In 1969, tenured and tenure-track positions made up approximately 78.3 percent of the faculty, and non-tenure-track positions accounted for about 21.7 percent, according to The American Faculty, published in 2006 by Jack H. Schuster and Martin J. Finkelstein (Johns Hopkins University Press). By 2009, data from the National Center for Education Statistics’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System show these proportions had nearly flipped; tenured and tenure-track faculty had declined to 33.5 percent of the professoriate, and 66.5 percent of faculty were ineligible for tenure. Of the 66.5 percent, 18.8 percent were full-time, non-tenure-track, and 47.7 percent were part-time. While the numbers of non-tenure-track faculty have grown the most at community colleges, they make up a large portion of the faculty at all institutional types. (See Figure 1 below.)

Although the shift in the numbers alone is cause for concern, an even greater problem is that campuses’ policies and practices typically have not kept up with these changes. While the low salaries and difficult work environment experienced by many non-tenure-track faculty members are compelling reasons in themselves to consider change, it is also important to understand that existing policies—or the lack of them—often hamper faculty performance, adversely affect students’ learning, and expose institutions to greater risk of legal action.

Working Conditions for Contingent Faculty

The recent recession and declining state and endowment revenues have placed substantial strains on institutions, causing governing boards to reevaluate priorities and make difficult budgetary decisions in coordination with other leaders on their campuses. Although the rise in numbers of non-tenure-track faculty began long before this current period of constrained budgets and financial uncertainty, board members and administrators today may often view hiring greater numbers of non-tenure-track faculty as a quick and easy way to trim expenditures. But while they may embrace the potential cost savings, they often do not consider the negative implications:

Poor hiring and recruitment practices. Several studies, including one described in John G. Cross and Edie N. Goldenberg’s 2011 book, Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education (MIT Press, 2011), have found that colleges often have no formal criteria or systematic process for recruiting and hiring non-tenure-track faculty. In another recent report, New Faculty Majority found that many institutions and departments hire such faculty within days of the start of the semester. The short amount of time between their being hired and beginning work gives them little, if any, time to prepare for their classes. As a result of late hiring, non-tenure-track faculty may also be excluded from receiving a formal orientation to the institution, their departments, and campus policies, including important academic guidelines related to instruction, grading, and students.

Limited job security. Various surveys conducted by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and others have found job security to be one of the top three concerns of non-tenure-track faculty. The lack of long-term commitment by their institutions can be very demoralizing for faculty members who may have invested considerable time, energy, and resources in an institution and its students, according to a 2011 study by Cross and Goldenberg. One year is the most common length of contract for full-time, contingent faculty across all types of institutions.

As is often the case, however, part-time faculty members experience even more vulnerability. While an institution may hire a part-time faculty member repeatedly over several terms or even many years, he or she typically has to be rehired each term, sometimes being informed of the reappointment only a few days before the semester begins. Similarly, little notice is given to adjunct faculty members whose contracts are not to be extended, denying them the opportunity to pursue other positions.

The result for students of being taught by adjunct faculty members with short contracts and sporadic tenures is to have fewer regular faculty members with whom they can interact. Their faculty instructors may not be able to write letters of recommendation or help advise students about careers. Their education also may suffer as adjuncts have less time to invest in retooling and updating courses.

Inequitable salaries and access to benefits. Although both part-time and full-time adjunct faculty are paid less than tenured and tenure-track faculty, part-time faculty are customarily paid significantly less for the same work. One national study conducted by economist James Monks in 2004 found that full-time, non-tenure-track faculty typically make 26 percent less than tenured faculty, but that part-time faculty members earn approximately 60 percent less than full-time, tenure-track faculty when their salaries are considered on an hourly basis. A 2012 study conducted by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found the median per-course compensation for part-time faculty to be $2,700, far lower than what tenure-track faculty are paid for the same work. In a report released by the University of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women, Carol Hollenshead and others also noted that part-time faculty are often ineligible for raises or promotions.

In addition to being paid less, Hollenshead and her colleagues found that only 51 percent of part-time faculty are provided any form of benefits. Typically their health-insurance plans may be of lesser quality than those for tenure-track faculty and may not include paid sick leave or access to other benefits such as retirement plans or life insurance. Colleen Flaherty, a journalist for Inside Higher Ed, has reported on an increasing number of cases in which part-time faculty members’ hours are being capped by institutions to avoid requirements of the Affordable Care Act. Such decisions will mean that part-time faculty must continue to pay for health insurance out of their own pockets while they receive less pay because of limits on the number of hours or courses they can teach.

Lack of orientation, professional development, and formal evaluation. Contingent faculty, both part-time and full-time, are often excluded from orientation programs and workshops that are made available to other faculty and staff members to provide them with important human-resources information, access to professional development and other services provided by teaching and learning centers, and review of academic and institutional policies. From the moment they are first hired and continuing throughout their employment, they do not have access to resources such as funding to attend training and conferences to support their professional development. Such important opportunities help expose faculty members to innovative pedagogies and strategies for using new classroom technologies. Non-tenure-track faculty members are also not usually provided a formal evaluation by administrators or their faculty peers or mentoring that would provide them with constructive feedback about their work and help them improve their performance on the job.

No involvement in curriculum planning and faculty meetings. Recent research has also found that another major concern for non-tenure-track faculty is that they typically have little input into curriculum design, even for the courses they teach. They may not receive important institutional and departmental communications or be included in faculty meetings in which information about academic policies, curricular goals, and planning is shared and discussed. As a result, adjunct faculty members cannot contribute to academic and curricular planning and may be unaware of goals and policy changes that may directly affect their work.

Lack of office space, clerical support, and instructional materials. To fulfill their responsibilities as instructors, faculty members often need access to various resources and support personnel. They often require some access to clerical support and equipment, such as computers, photocopiers, telephones, and facsimile machines. However, non-tenure-track faculty typically do not have access to these very basic resources to support their instruction. Faculty also need office space, even when it is shared, where they can meet with their students and discuss feedback on assignments, interact with their colleagues, prepare for teaching, and satisfy other work responsibilities.

While institutions may have decided to exclude contingent faculty from receiving the same kind of support that regular faculty receive to reduce costs, such decisions have implications for student learning and risk management. Boards and other stakeholders need to work together to create solutions that allow this largest segment of our faculty to contribute to a high-quality learning environment and to support institutional goals for student learning and graduation.

Impact on Student Learning

Indeed, several recent studies suggest that the rising numbers of non-tenure-track faculty in higher education are negatively affecting student success. Individual faculty members, particularly part-timers, are sometimes blamed—even though it may be apparent that poor working conditions and a lack of support diminish an instructor’s capacity to engage students and provide an excellent learning environment.

For example, studies have highlighted the substantial effects of diminished faculty-student interaction on student-learning outcomes. Ernst Benjamin, former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), found that contact time and interaction between traditional faculty and students fostered greater student success. However, several other research studies, including a pair of studies in 2006—one conducted by John W. Curtis, director of research and public policy at the AAUP, and Monica Jacobe, a research fellow there, and another by Daniel Jacoby, a professor at the University of Washington Bothell—have suggested that the inaccessibility of part-time faculty to students due to time constraints, a lack of office space, and part-timers having to hold jobs at multiple locations has an adverse, negative effect on student outcomes.

Research by Roger G. Baldwin and Matthew R. Wawrzynski in 2011 and Paul D. Umbach in 2007, comparing tenure-track to non-tenure-track faculty, also found that non-tenure-track faculty tend to make less use of effective teaching practices associated with better student-learning outcomes, such as service learning, undergraduate research, active and collaborative learning, problem-based learning, and student-centered or multicultural approaches to teaching. There are various explanations for this, ranging from fears that experimenting with innovative strategies will negatively affect teaching evaluations from their students to a lack of professional development limiting instructors’ exposure to high-impact practices and pedagogies.

Of particular concern for the national goal of improving college-completion rates is empirical research suggesting that increased reliance on non-tenure-track faculty has negatively affected student retention and graduation rates. In 2009, Audrey J. Jaeger, associate professor of higher education at North Carolina State University, and M. Kevin Eagan Jr., assistant director for research at the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, determined that graduation rates declined as proportions of non-tenure-track faculty increased. Research by Jacoby, in 2006, also found that increases in employment of part-time faculty members had the greatest impact on student retention and graduation rates.

Studies have also pointed to a relationship between exposure to non-tenure-track faculty and the number of students who transfer from two- to four-year institutions. Betheny Gross, research director at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, and Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington Bothell, found in 2009 that students at two-year colleges who had greater exposure to full-time, tenured faculty were more likely to continue their education at four-year institutions. The authors found a 4 percent increase in transfers to four-year institutions for each 10 percent increase in the proportion of tenured to non-tenure track faculty members at an institution. Similarly, Eagan and Jaeger found increased proportions of part-time faculty were correlated with lower transfer rates.

Risk Management

Many of the issues described above—unequal pay and the lack of employee benefits, little or no access to professional development, and job insecurity—also raise serious concerns about risk management that have not been addressed by many institutions. Perhaps the most significant issue is whether the practice of continuously rehiring non-tenure-track faculty violates the spirit of fair employment laws. If administrators have a continuing, routine need to employ contingent faculty but do not hire them on a full-time basis, they may violate fair employment guidelines, placing their institutions at greater risk of becoming involved in a class-action lawsuit related to their employment practices, according to legal scholars William A. Kaplin and Barbara A. Lee in The Law of Higher Education (Jossey-Bass, 2007).

Moreover, contingent faculty, especially those who work full-time, may be involved in conducting research, sharing administrative duties, and carrying out service obligations just as tenured faculty do. Increasingly, colleges and universities are failing to demonstrate any differences in the type of work carried out by non-tenure-track faculty versus tenure-track faculty, which poses the potential for litigation on behalf of non-tenure-track faculty. Asking non-tenure-track faculty to do the same tasks as tenured faculty yet be paid substantially less has been seen by some as a misclassification of their legal status.

Such misclassification also exposes institutions to a greater threat of discrimination claims based on practices that have a “disparate impact” on certain types of employees. While there may be no intent on an institution’s part to discriminate against particular groups of people—as evidenced by seemingly neutral employment practices—courts might find a pattern of unintentional discrimination. According to research by John Curtis, as well as Adrianna Kezar and Cecile Sam, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education, women, in particular, have been found to be overrepresented in non-tenure-track faculty positions. The late J. Douglas Toma, a higher education scholar at the University of Georgia, noted that salary or wage discrimination resulting from the misclassification of groups of contingent faculty on the basis of their gender, race or ethnicity, religion, or national origin could provide grounds for a successful disparate-impact claim.

Adjuncts’ frequent exclusion from formal orientation programs, training, and faculty meetings means that they often do not receive important information distributed to regular faculty about institutions’ efforts to limit their legal liability. When new tenure-track faculty are hired, they are typically given comprehensive training and guidebooks that explain complex legal issues and provide tips for minimizing liability. Contingent faculty members, like other faculty members, often encounter situations that carry legal implications for their institutions and for them, personally. Yet since they are often not provided the same, if any, preventive training, they may not be able to recognize situations that might present legal problems.

For example, part-time faculty who do not have private office space may routinely meet with students to discuss feedback on assignments, grades, or other potentially sensitive matters in places like coffee shops or in crowded hallways after class, which are not appropriate places for such conversations to occur. Although this may seem to be an innocuous practice, having conversations about sensitive topics in locations where students’ privacy cannot be protected may create legal risks.

A tight academic job market, poor working conditions, significant inequities, and power imbalances may leave aggrieved non-tenure-track faculty with little recourse other than to resort to litigation in an effort to protect their perceived rights.

Recommendations for Board Members

Many of our Delphi Project participants recognized that boards can help address the significant problems stemming from the growing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty. Boards set priorities, provide direction, and have an important fiduciary role. They can help to ensure that other institutional leaders address the wide range of problems. Without board support and pressure for accountability, in fact, it is possible that little change will occur, although it is desperately needed. Examples from systems or institutions such as the University System of Maryland (see box below) demonstrate how boards can make examining conditions on campuses a priority. They can help set an agenda to address the challenges faced by non-tenure-track faculty with the goal of improving employment equity and creating an environment that fosters student success.

Boards can be instrumental in several important ways, including:

  • Raising questions about faculty composition and the support provided to ensure academic quality and excellence. This may include commissioning reports or faculty climate surveys to better understand the nature of faculty work on the campus and the challenges individuals experience to determine how policies affect faculty members’ ability to provide high-quality instruction;
  • Asking administrators to examine the budget to determine ways they might increase support for instruction or questioning how funds allocated to instruction are spent. That includes examining how the inequitable provision of compensation, professional development, and support services or instructional resources for different types of faculty members might affect student success and risk management;
  • Ensuring that all aspects of strategic planning are sensitive to the institution’s mission. That might include requesting staffing plans that identify the type of faculty appointments and faculty composition best suited to serve the mission and the goals for teaching, research, and service;
  • Asking administrators for reports on staffing plans each year and holding them responsible for creating and implementing hiring procedures and for updating policies to standardize or formalize practices;
  • Encouraging the use of resources, such as those created by the Delphi Project, to support an examination of existing policies and practices and to consider ways to approach changes. (Our Web site includes a guide for campus task forces to use to thoroughly examine policies and practices for non-tenure-track faculty); and
  • Considering how hiring more full-time contingent faculty, rather than part-time faculty, might mitigate some of the risks and concerns we’ve described.

Traditionally, such faculty issues have not been a major priority for boards. Yet in this time of massive change and transition, they should be integral to boards’ direction setting and strategic planning.

The Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland Sets New Standards

Board members at a few institutions have played a major role in efforts to improve policies and practices affecting the work of non-tenure-track faculty members. Recently, the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland (USM) took a leadership role in a process that also involved state lawmakers, administrators, and faculty members on system campuses, including non-tenure-track faculty representatives.

In 2009, the joint chairs of the Maryland General Assembly’s budget committees called upon the system to research and address issues facing graduate student employees and non-tenure-track faculty. To respond to the General Assembly requirements, USM formed a legislative task force including officials from state agencies, representatives from the labor community, institutional presidents, faculty members, and graduate assistants from the state’s public higher education institutions. The recommendations of the task force were summarized in a 2009 report to the board. After receiving and discussing the recommendations, in 2010 the Board of Regents adopted a series of policies establishing baseline standards for non-tenure-track faculty search processes, appointments, contracts, and conditions for employment.

Those policies helped to address a number of problems described in this article. They made taking action to improve conditions for non-tenure-track faculty at USM institutions and setting minimum standards for each campus a priority. The board-mandated changes:

  • Defined two categories of adjunct faculty that allowed for those demonstrating a record of high-quality instruction to be recognized. As a result, institutions have been able to increase by at least 10 percent the compensation of non-tenure-track faculty members who receive positive performance evaluations.
  • Required institutions to define minimum qualifications for employment and each department hiring non-tenure-track faculty to have written procedures governing selection.
  • Required institutions to provide adequate support to non-tenure-track faculty members for professional development and instruction (e.g., access to academic policies, assistance with textbook selection, and access to office space for student meetings, supplies, and e-mail and voice-mail accounts). Also required institutions to determine procedures and criteria for conducting performance evaluations.
  • Identified information required to be included in formal letters of appointment.
  • Set goals for providing notice of teaching assignments at least 45 days before the start of each term. Also required departments cancelling appointments within 30 days of the term without providing an alternate appointment to pay 10 percent of the contracted pay rate. The policy also articulated grievance and due-process rights and procedures.
  • Called upon institutions to take measures to provide compensation that is “professionally appropriate and competitive” and permitted them to extend benefits.
  • Encouraged institutions to fully integrate non-tenure-track faculty into the “scholarly, intellectual, academic, and social life aspects of the department or unit, and institution” and established guidelines for their representation in shared governance and biannual forums with administrators.

In June 2012, the board amended the policy to extend “meet and confer” rights, which allowed non-tenure-track faculty to engage labor representatives or other external groups to assist them with discussing concerns about compensation, benefits, and other terms of employment with administrators.