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Supporting Faculty off the Tenure Track: Enhancing Faculty Performance and Student Outcomes

Faculty Development Promotion, Tenure, and Evaluation

Supporting Faculty off the Tenure Track: Enhancing Faculty Performance and Student Outcomes

One of the most revolutionary changes in higher education has been the move to a mostly non-tenure-track faculty. According to the most recent national data, 70 percent of faculty were ineligible for tenure (AFT Higher Education Data Center, 2009). Of the non-tenure-track positions, 18.8 percent were full time and 47.7 percent were part time.

Part-time faculty have long been a part of higher education, particularly at community colleges, where they have grown in numbers beginning in the 1970s. They were not commonly represented in large numbers across four-year institutions until the last decade or so. As a result of this change happening slowly over time and academic leaders’ belief that we might return to a largely tenure-track faculty once budgets stabilized, few if any policies and practices were systematically put in place for non-tenure-track faculty. Now campus leaders are realizing that this shift is likely to be permanent and are considering the implications for their institutions and the impact on the teaching and learning environment.

Many studies have identified the poor working conditions of non-tenure-track faculty, particularly those that part-timers experience. Studies identify unsystematic hiring processes that result in last-minute hiring. Various reports describe no or limited orientation, professional development, or evaluation; no or limited access to office space, materials, and resources; exclusion from curriculum planning and design as well as governance; and lack of access to and support from administrative staff or resources for instruction (Baldwin & Chronister, 2001; Gappa & Leslie, 1993). Inequitable compensation, job insecurity, the denial of health care benefits and retirement plans, and the lack of respect non-tenure-track faculty experience from colleagues are also well documented (Baldwin & Chronister, 2001; Gappa & Leslie, 1993). A recent study I conducted (2013) indicates that the trends of little support and poor working conditions identified in earlier studies remain today.

These working conditions impede instructors’ ability to interact with students and apply their many talents, creativity, and varied knowledge to maximum effect in the classroom. It is important to understand the connections between the growing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty and the lack of a supportive work environment. (A full summary of the data and studies about the impact on student learning can be found on the Delphi website). Although working conditions vary across academia and even within a single institution, many faculty—particularly part-timers—face marginal working conditions.

Numerous studies have identified how an increased number of non-tenure-track faculty is associated with lower graduation and retention rates, less likelihood of transferring from two-year to four-year institutions, reduced performance in later courses, and less contact with faculty, which are known to affect many student outcomes (Ehrenberg & Zhang, 2004; Harrington & Schibik, 2001; Jacoby, 2006; Jaeger & Eagan, 2009). In addition, non-tenure-track faculty use less student-centered teaching approaches and best teaching practices, including high-impact practices associated with greater learning gains among students (Baldwin and Wawrzynski, 2011). In a recent study I conducted I demonstrate how departmental climate can also negatively impact or enhance non-tenure-track faculty performance. In departments where non-tenure-track faculty are respected and provided support, non-tenure-track faculty report being better able to perform in their roles in ways that can enhance student learning (Kezar, 2013). A recent study by Northwestern University (2013) on its own students and faculty demonstrates that when non-tenure-track faculty are well-supported, they can develop the same outcomes for students as tenure-track faculty.

Academic leaders at all levels can significantly ameliorate these issues. My research demonstrates that department chairs have the most significant influence over the climate of the department and set the tone for whether non-tenure-track faculty members will be treated well or poorly. Department chairs also have the power to ensure that faculty are hired on a timely basis, oriented, provided resources, and even given mentoring and feedback. While some issues may be out of their control—access to professional development or benefits—department chairs can lobby administrators to try to create better conditions on campus. Department chairs can collaborate and form alliances with other chairs to seek greater support for non-tenure-track faculty members. Here are some key suggestions for enhancing the work life of non-tenure-track faculty members, but I also encourage you to visit www.thechangingfaculty.org for many resources on this topic that you can also share with your colleagues.

  1. Don’t assume you know what non-tenure-track faculty face—send out a survey and find out about their needs and concerns. Also, conduct focus groups if you have time to hear about their needs.
  2. Examine departmental policies and practices for inclusion. Are non-tenure-track faculty on email announcement lists? Are they invited to key meetings and events? Are they consulted on courses that they teach?
  3. Consider how often you mention non-tenure-track faculty in public talks and announcements. When speaking about the faculty be sure to specifically call out non-tenure-track faculty.
  4. Ask tenure-track faculty and full-time non-tenure-track faculty for support with part-time faculty. Explain ways they might offer mentoring and advice. Ask them to treat all faculty as colleagues.
  5. Look for ways you can make the lives of non-tenure-track faculty easier and enhance their performance. If they teach at multiple institutions (which is common), ask about their schedule at other campuses so they are not too tightly scheduled. Ask about the courses they are best suited to teach, or offer support from tech staff for online courses or blackboard.
  6. Let departmental staff and college professionals such as technology staff know that non-tenure-track faculty needs should be a priority.
  7. In large departments, consider having a non-tenure-track faculty member play the role of adjunct advocate—collecting concerns, providing ideas for support, and ensuring that routine procedures are altered to include non-tenure-track faculty, including such things as evaluation or consideration of awards.

Department chairs and unit heads can significantly improve the performance of non-tenure-track faculty. Right now campus policies and practices actually prevent non-tenure-track faculty from performing to their potential, and it is our responsibility as leaders to get rid of the barriers and to provide adequate support. We need to prioritize this issue as evidence mounts that this is negatively impacting student outcomes. Plus, it is just the right thing to do.


Baldwin, R. G.,& Chronister, J. L. (2001). Teaching without tenure. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Baldwin, R. G.,& Wawrzynski, M. R. (2011). Contingent faculty as teachers: What we know; What we need to know. American Behavioral Scientist, 55 (11), 1485-1509.

Ehrenberg, R.L., & Zhang, L. (2004). Do Tenured and Non-Tenure Track Faculty Matter? National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 10695.

Gappa, J. M., & Leslie, D. W. (1993). The invisible faculty: Improving the status of part timers in higher education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Harrington, C., & Schibik, T. (2001). Caveat emptor: Is there a relationship between part-time faculty utilization and student learning retention? Association for Institutional Research Files Online, 91.

Jacoby, D. (2006). The effects of part-time faculty employment on community college graduation rates. Journal of Higher Education, 77(6), 1081-1103.

Jaeger, A.J., & Eagan, M.K. (2009). Unintended Consequences: Examining the Effect of Part-time Faculty Members on Associate’s Degree Completion. Community College Review 36(3), 167-194.

Kezar, A. (2013). How colleges change. New York: Routledge.

Kezar, A. (2013). Four cultures of the new academy: Support for non-tenure-track faculty. Journal of Higher Education, 84(2), 153-158.

Adrianna Kezar is a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California. On September 24, she will lead the Magna Online Seminar “Policies, Practices for Supporting Non-Tenure Track Faculty.” For information see, www.magnapubs.com/catalog/policies-practices-for-supporting-non-tenure-track-faculty/.

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