Planning Department Staffing to Meet Academic Needs
In viewing the rosters of those who deliver academic instruction at colleges and universities, one discovers a wide variety of appointment types and total numbers of faculty. With the former, what has been surprising is the growth, both in number and variety, in non-tenure track (NTT) lines over the past few decades. The total number is not surprising as it primarily reflects student body size and, to a lesser extent, the number of degree programs available, overall institutional resources, and internal choices regarding faculty work.
As changes among traditional faculty lines have taken place, and as new appointment types have emerged and been adopted, little thought seems to have been given to establishing the ideal balance of instructional resources in a given unit, neither has there been much planning for future changes that would result in new ratios or mixes of instructional types. Rather, new appointments are made on an ad hoc basis to address present needs. In addition, the increase in the different types of faculty appointments means that alternative training, orientation, evaluation, and development programs are called for, and it is often years after a new appointment type is made that these sorts of issues are recognized and dealt with. Finally, another critical challenge is assimilating these individuals into the tenure track (TT)-dominated culture of higher education such that there is mutual respect and understanding for the contributions of all parties. The responsibility for addressing these issues lies primarily with the department chair and secondarily with the dean who approves all full-time hiring and who has oversight of academic programs across departments.
Before proceeding further, it might be worthwhile to review the major types of appointments now found working in our departments. The list is a long one. Everyone is familiar with the TT ranks, so the focus will be on NTT appointments.
Part-time/adjunct/associate faculty are external individuals contracted by course to teach. Their overall participation varies by institutional culture and their availability, with those institutions in or near population centers providing more possibilities for contributions across the curriculum. The facts that pay is low for part-time faculty and fringe benefits are infrequent have been sources of recent national scrutiny and concern.
The most prevalent type of full-time (FT) NTT appointment is the lecturer (sometimes called instructor). Lecturers teach a full load (typically 4 courses or 12 credits per semester) and sometimes participate in service at a modest level. Some institutions have an advancement possibility to senior lecturer based on classroom performance or productivity in the “scholarship” of teaching. Compensation for a beginning lecturer is significantly lower than that for an assistant professor.
Clinical ranks (clinical lecturer, clinical assistant professor) have been around for a long time in professional schools. In medicine, they see patients (the “clinical” part) and do some service, some research, or some teaching. More recently, they have been used in other schools, such as engineering or arts and sciences, in lieu of lecturers to provide instruction to large numbers of students or class sections. The attractions for this appointment type are the possibility of multiple promotions and the prestige that comes with a title that contains the word “professor.”
Academic professional or specialist is a cross between faculty and staff. They do some teaching and can coordinate sections (e.g., chemistry labs), coordinate courses/instructors (e.g., 12 listings of Composition I), oversee internships, maintain instrumentation, gather data, write reports, interview, hire and assign adjuncts, and schedule classes.
Depending on the nature of the institution and the discipline, other department individuals may contribute to the instructional effort. The most obvious are graduate students. They provide essential laboratory instruction in the sciences as teaching assistants (TAs) and often teach introductory course sections in other disciplines. The sciences also use advanced undergraduates in laboratory instruction and as recitation leaders or mentors in course sections.
Advisors are sometimes involved in teaching freshman seminars and capstone courses and, depending on background, occasionally teach an upper-level class.
Technical staff members are also a possible source of department instruction. Finally, at research universities there are full-time NTT hires who hold positions as research professors or scholars. In some cases, with mutual consent, teaching can be written into their job descriptions, or they can volunteer ad hoc.
In addition, postdoctoral appointees may be available, with the right permissions, to teach. Some institutions have formal programs for teaching postdocs, who work primarily in research but also receive training and do some teaching as a way to make them more attractive candidates for academic positions.
The migration over the last 2–3 decades from TT hires to those who are FT NTT has been driven by institutional costs and by the growth in student enrollments. Coupled with flat or diminished state support, tuition caps, and the increasingly competitive external funding environment, savings must come from somewhere. NTT faculty teach more sections, thereby addressing the enrollment growth that is the best means of enhancing revenue and keeping our external constituents (legislators, parents, employers) satisfied. The NTT trend is seen in its fullest form among non-elite public universities with a strong research focus. Such universities do not have the benefits of budgets that allow for routine TT replacements for TT departures or a large endowment that can buffer the impact of a negative fiscal climate.
Here, the teaching load differential can be four-fold in STEM areas. These areas are the ones in which much enrollment growth results in larger introductory courses that can have more than one component. Because of the expectation (and necessity) for external funding, new TT faculty must be highly focused in getting their research program underway, their work published, and their proposals for external support submitted; thus, these individuals are highly reluctant to accept positions where teaching and managing one of these courses is the assignment. Thus we find FT NTT faculty in increasing numbers teaching our introductory (for majors and service) courses.
Earlier department level acculturation is a challenge with which chairs must deal. This applies primarily to FT NTT faculty because they share the same space with TT faculty; adjuncts in many cases are totally unknown to most unit faculty. Is NTT input respected? One could argue that when it comes to conversations around beginning students they are in the best position to give solid advice. Is the reward system (e.g., merit pay) sufficiently flexible to accommodate the work of NNT faculty equitably? There are also issues of where NNT faculty stand in terms of duties, responsibilities, rights, and privileges, starting with whether they are defined as faculty. Do they have the same voting rights? Are there clear, written criteria for promotion? Are they eligible to apply for sabbatical leaves? Can they serve on all committees? Some of these issues go beyond the department to higher levels of administrative authority. Some institutions address these questions at the outset, while others tend to deal with them as specific requests or concerns are raised.
Other questions that may also be appropriate for adjunct faculty are those concerning programs or access to resources associated with faculty development and improvement, offering of new faculty orientations and workshops held at times and in locations that make sense for the attendees, and availability of specifically designed evaluation criteria that take into account the work they do. Chairs in collaboration with the dean and other administrators should tackle these questions as early as possible, preferably before the first appointments are made in one of these categories of instructional faculty.
The recommendation here is that chairs develop a staffing plan for the department that starts with the present situation. Is everything covered? Are the appropriate people assigned to ensure quality? Were classes left out of the schedule for lack of an instructor? Now comes the difficult part of the exercise: predicting the needs of the department moving forward (perhaps five years out). This will require two categories of information: the outlook for resources available to the department and predictions based on the department’s situation. For the former, the chair should consult with the dean. Approaching with a list of requests for new hires is not optimal. The dean may have information on future budgets and will certainly know of competing requests and school-wide commitments.
The relevant departmental information (provided by the chair in consultation with faculty) would be items such as new programs or the retirement of existing ones, anticipated faculty retirements, possible negative tenure cases, course and program enrollment growth/shrinkage, and support staff changes. Because of the times we are now facing, cost reductions are likely to be required. For example, the chair may have to consider hiring a lecturer as a replacement for two retirements on the TT. That may provide leverage (savings) for two new TAs to address the enrollment growth in a new program. The plan that emerges should be shared with the dean and updated each year. This approach will certainly change department demographics, but if implemented properly, it will demonstrate that the department is not just asking for new resources but is being fiscally responsible in its planning to meet students’ academic needs.
N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.