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Expanding Leadership Roles for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty: What Institutional Leaders Should Consider

Faculty Development Leadership and Management

Expanding Leadership Roles for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty: What Institutional Leaders Should Consider

Non-tenure-track faculty (NTTF) make up over 50 percent of the faculty in higher education (“Percentages of Full-Time Faculty,” 2020). At associate’s and baccalaureate-granting institutions, more than 70 percent of faculty are NTTF. There are many consequences of this composition, including effects on student learning, academic governance, and faculty health and well-being. One of the less discussed consequences of these changes is the pipeline for available faculty leaders. With faculty burnout (Pope-Ruark, 2022) and workload equity (O’Meara et al., 2021) dominating the narrative, tenured faculty cannot possibly fulfill all the formal and informal leadership roles needed in higher education today. Many NTTF have the same or similar education and training as tenure-track faculty and should not be excluded from leadership simply because of their line.

In response to the changing composition of the faculty, campuses have innovated including creating full-time, non-tenure-track faculty (FTNTTF) lines, inviting NTTF to participate in governance, and developing pathways for career advancement and faculty development. In 2021, my institution, the University of Denver (DU), was recognized as a Delphi Award Winner from the Pullias Center—in part for our work to institutionalize and create a culture of respect for NTTF.

The following suggestions stem from some of our work to support FTNTTF and reflections of my own leadership from the past three years serving as the resident scholar for teaching and professional faculty. This role was created within the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and is charged with leading efforts to support DU’s FTNTFF. As an NTTF leader, here are four things I wish administrators would consider in regard to NTTF:

  1. Shared governance is contingent upon participation and representation; all faculty should be eligible to participate and lead. First and foremost, NTTF should be engaged in faculty governance at their institutions. While participation in governance has improved over time, institutions should create ways to engage NTTF in governance and leadership with peers and colleagues through leadership on committees, formal leadership positions in faculty senate, or leadership opportunities with other governing bodies. NTTF should also be eligible to serve on and lead search and other curriculum-related committees due to their expertise in the classroom.
  2. Many NTTF have leadership experiences outside academia to draw upon and should be considered for leadership positions in the academy. Many NTTF come to the faculty with experiences outside higher education and possess transferable skills that our institutions could use if they included these NTTF and gave them opportunities to lead. At DU, I personally know former school leaders and superintendents, CDC experts, WHO leaders, international aid workers, think tank experts, government officials, nonprofit executives, industry experts, and high-ranking corporate leaders. (And these are just people I know—I’m sure there are many more examples on my campus and yours!) These experiences are enriching to the faculty and to our students and show applied leadership skills.

    NTTF with these leadership and administrative experiences bring rich and diverse experiences to bear in higher education. In my experience, many NTTF want to put their leadership skills and career aspirations to use as leaders in the faculty senate, committee chairs, department chairs, associate deans, and mentors. What is the pathway for career development and the faculty lifespan for all faculty? Institutional leaders should examine their policies and practices to create spaces and pathways for NTTF to be able to lead.
  3. NTTF often offer a different perspective and can diversify leadership teams. Given the traditional hierarchy of the faculty in higher education, many NTTF feel like second-class citizens or separate from tenure-track and tenured faculty. With this outsider status, NTTF can offer a different perspective on issues facing faculty and students on campus . In some ways, NTTF can relate to and empathize with staff and the staff-faculty divide. In my experience, NTTF are attuned to equity issues and often see blind spots in institutional policies and practices that are exclusionary. On our campus, it is often NTFF who lead on equity issues related to workload, teaching, and compensation.

    Although tenured faculty sit at atop higher education’s perceived heirarchy, not all NTTF desire tenure-track positions (although some certainly do, and this is not meant to downplay the lack of tenure-track lines and the declining number of full-time faculty members.) Rather, I have observed that many faculty members want the job security of tenure and its affordances but also like modeling different forms of engagement in teaching, research, and service. The priorities of NTTF can be diverse and can add to the richness of opinion.
  4. NTTF have expertise in the classroom and advising students and should be included in decision-making about curriculum and the student experience. Many NTTF are primarily in teaching roles and teach multiple courses per term; many teach general education classes. In this way, NTTF may experience a closeness to and understanding of the student experience that can be useful to leaders considering general education reform or other curricular initiatives. Shouldn’t it be those in the classroom and working most closely with our students who have a say in how the curriculum is structured and organized? NTTF can provide valuable leadership about the student experience and the curriculum and should be included in decision-making.

NTTF are an untapped and underused resource on our campuses. Institutional leaders should create policies, practices, and pathways for NTTF to participate in shared governance and serve as leaders at their institutions. There is a lot to gain from including this population, not least of all faculty with rich experiences and diverse perspectives who have connections with our students. Given the reality of the composition of the faculty, we cannot continue to systematically exclude over half the faculty from leadership in our institutions. As an NTTF member who studies NTTF, I hope you take these recommendations to your departments, schools, colleges, and institutions and consider how you can include this important and marginalized group of faculty in formal and informal leadership roles on your campuses.


Percentages of full-time faculty members who were non-tenure-track, by institutional classification, 2018–19. (2020, October). The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/percentages-of-full-time-faculty-members-who-were-non-tenure-track-by-institutional-classification-2018-19

O’Meara, K., Culpepper, D., Misra, J. & Jaeger, A. (2021). Equity-minded faculty workloads: What we can and should do now. American Council on Education. https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Equity-Minded-Faculty-Workloads.pdf

Pope-Ruark, R. (2022). Unraveling faculty burnout. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Laura E. Sponsler, PhD, is a clinical associate professor of higher education at the University of Denver, where she leads efforts to support faculty off the tenure track as the resident scholar for teaching and professional faculty.


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