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Engaged Students Require Engaged Faculty: Facing the Paradox of a Largely Non-Tenure-Track Faculty

By Adrianna Kezar, associate professor, University of Southern California

January 2011 Bringing Theory to Practice Newsletter

The changing face of the professoriate with the increased hiring of nontenured faculty members is an important trend largely ignored by most institutional leaders as they think about ways to improve the student experience and create greater student engagement. We know that one of the most important predictors of student success is students’ relationship with faculty.  Students who talk to their professors, attend office hours, and engage with faculty outside of the class tend to persist, graduate, and do better in school.  While campuses seem to be aware of this important relationship between faculty and students, few seem to be concerned about the enormous shift from a largely tenured to an untenured professoriate. These new faculty positions are not designed to provide a quality teaching experience—nontenured faculty have limited or no time for advising, office hours, engagement outside of the class, or even the ability to talk with students after class due to the tight scheduling of courses. Campus policies and practices can make it virtually impossible for faculty to provide a quality learning environment.

The number of non-tenure-track faculty (both full time and part time) has increased at all institutional types, and presently represents two-thirds of our nation’s faculty (Schuster and Finkelstein 2006). If the current trend in hiring non-tenure-track faculty (three out of four appointments) continues, then tenured faculty will become a marginal part of our higher education institutions, perhaps existing only within elite research universities, liberal arts colleges, or a few select departments. Non-tenure-track faculty receive little orientation, may be hired a week before class, have limited or no professional development opportunities, are provided limited information about campus learning goals or input on textbooks and curriculum, and receive little or no clerical and technical support for courses.  Research examining the learning outcomes for students who take many courses with part-time faculty suggests that they have lower graduation rates and are less likely to transfer to four-year institutions (Jaeger and Egan 2009). We also know that non-tenure-track faculty, particularly part-timers, use less engaging pedagogies and spend less time with students (Umbach 2007, 2008). The negative outcomes are much more pronounced among part-time rather than full-time non-tenure-track faculty.  While we do not have definitive empirical evidence, these outcomes are likely a result of the way that we as institutional leaders have constructed their positions (part-time faculty often teach at multiple institutions, may not be paid for office hours, are hired on a semester-by-semester basis, etc.) Certainly not all part-time faculty are piecing together part-time jobs into full-time ones, but national data suggest this is the case for more than one-third of the faculty (AFT Higher Education 2010).  Even professionals who are only teaching one course on campus are still limited in the amount of time and rich engagement they can provide for students. Campus policies and practices do not try to ameliorate the difficulty of these positions; instead, they exacerbate the difficulties by providing little, if any, communication, socialization, professional development, or involvement in governance (if jobs are even constructed in ways where they could take advantage of these opportunities).

Campus administrators must take leadership on this important national issue in two ways.  First, administrative teams need to look at their own faculty composition. Data need to be collected on the number of non-tenure-track faculty, and the percentage who work full time and part time. Many campuses do not have accurate data because hiring happens within departments, and these institutional trends are often unknown to administrative teams. With more accurate information about faculty composition, conversations across multiple campus constituencies need to take place about how many tenure-track faculty are needed to maintain an engaging environment and to support students. Part-time positions need to be examined, and individuals who are interested in full-time non-tenure-track work should be offered positions where possible. The number of part-time positions should be consolidated, since the negative outcomes are often associated with part-time positions.

I need to emphasize that this is not because part-time faculty are not quality instructors, but instead because of inferior working conditions and lack of institutional expectations around student engagement. Also, in certain professional fields, part-time faculty expertise is important, and these various needs should be the focus of campus discussions. Campuses need to consider if certain non-tenure-track faculty should be converted to tenure-track lines where appropriate (AAUP 2001). Administrative teams also need to develop campuswide policies about supporting non-tenure-track faculty. At a minimum, the following should be addressed: orientation, mentoring on teaching and advising, opportunities for input about curriculum and textbook selection, training for department chairs about inclusivity and support for non-tenure-track faculty, surveys of office space, computer equipment, and clerical support, and an examination of salary and benefits for equity. 

Second, campus leaders need to talk about this issue at a national level and with their colleagues, challenging each other to provide strong role models for campuses that support all faculty. While some private liberal arts colleges may be less affected by these hiring trends, their leaders should still speak up nationally on behalf of public institutions with shrinking budgets. And while shrinking budgets are one reason for this transition in the faculty, we know the expenditures for instruction have declined from instructional budgets across higher education (and have gone up in other areas within institutional budgets); we need to examine and question this trend. How will we achieve the quality of learning we know is important for students when we consistently move money away from the core of instruction? But more than just needing more money, we need leaders who shine a light on this issue – who examine data, hold campus conversations, and create new policies and practices that support the professoriate of today.   


American Association of University Professors. 2001. Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Report. (pdf) Washington, DC: American Association of University Professors.

AFT Higher Education. 2010. American Academic: A National Survey of Part-Time/Adjunct Faculty. (pdf) Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers.

Jaeger, Audrey, and M. Kevin Eagan. 2009. “Unintended Consequences: Examining the Effect of Part-Time Faculty Members on Associate’s Degree Completion.” Community College Review 36 (3):167-194.

Schuster, Jack H., and Martin J. Finkelstein. 2006. American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Umbach, Paul D. 2007. “How Effective Are They? Exploring the Impact of Non-Tenure Track Faculty on Undergraduate Education.”  The Review of Higher Education 30 (2): 91-123.

——— 2008. “The Effects of Part-Time Faculty Appointments on Instructional Techniques and Commitment to Teaching.” Paper presented at the Thirty-Third Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Jacksonville, FL.

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