Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Supporting Contingent Faculty for Better Learning Environments at Virginia Tech


Approximately half of the faculty members teaching in the English department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) work off the tenure track. Most of those non-tenure-track faculty members (NTTF) are full-time instructors, some of whom have made a career teaching at Virginia Tech, despite the relative lack of stability and lower compensation compared to their colleagues on the tenure track. To recognize the long service of these instructors—and to encourage more instructors to stay with the university long term—the English department established a formal promotion track for NTTF, offering new titles and raises based on excellence in teaching as well participation in professional development, department governance, and student advising. The policy was subsequently adopted as the model for a university-wide career ladder for NTTF.

The new policy was a positive step forward for NTTF at Virginia Tech—and also for students at the university, who benefit from instructors with more experience, training, and dedication to the institution. With the number of contingent faculty members on the rise across the United States, administrators and faculty of all ranks are starting to ask questions about what this means for their institutions and for the students they teach. As the New Faculty Majority, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing academic freedom and professional equity for contingent faculty, states in its motto, “faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.”

How Faculty Work Policies Affect Student Learning

The proportion of NTTF in Virginia Tech’s English department, 50 percent, is not unusual—some researchers estimate that nearly three quarters of all college-level courses are taught by NTTF. Working conditions for NTTF vary widely, and the quality of those work conditions can affect their ability to teach, says Marisa Allison, a researcher with New Faculty Majority. Lack of office space, phone lines, or even institutional e-mail addresses can make it difficult for students to communicate with NTTF. NTTF are often hired at the last minute and have little time to familiarize themselves with the course materials. Even when they have ample notification about their course schedules, NTTF may not receive university library privileges until after the semester starts, or at all.

In addition to providing all of those resources, institutions can improve work and learning conditions by involving NTTF as much as possible in curriculum design and course development, which will promote cohesion between departmental curriculum decisions and their implementation in the classroom, Allison says. But the biggest shift that would support NTTF and improve the learning environment for the students they teach is to compensate all faculty at an equitable rate for the work they put into courses, she says, so that instructors don’t need additional employment and can focus their full attention on the students they teach at a single institution.

An adequate salary, Allison says, “would allow these faculty members time to keep up-to-date on the materials in their field, to more adequately prepare for their courses before the term, to spend time with students before and after class to answer any of their questions, and to give appropriate writing assignments and projects for their fields and give the valuable feedback their students need to advance to higher courses or degrees.” 

The English Department at Virginia Tech had already implemented a number of these practices before beginning work on a promotion track. Many of the NTTF working in the department are full-time instructors with ongoing appointments, so they have more stability than many other NTTF, and they receive the same health and retirement benefits as tenured and tenure-track faculty. NTTF attend and vote at department meetings, and many serve on committees, though committee work isn’t required. The department also has for many years had a standing Instructor Concerns Committee tasked with hearing and addressing the concerns of NTTF.

 “There was always a great deal of collegiality amongst all faculty ranks, and many instructors knew that they were respected and that their talents were appreciated, though maybe not the way they should be in rank and money,” says Nancy Metz, professor of English and former associate chair of the department. “There was an understanding among all of us that instructors are among our best teachers and colleagues.”

Establishing a Pathway to Promotion

The department had discussed the possibility of a promotion track for NTTF many times in the past, but the initiative gained momentum in 2006, when faculty members found an ally in Patricia Hyer, associate provost for academic administration at the time. Hyer and other administrators suggested that the proposed model from the English Department could be adapted and expanded to apply to all NTTF at the university. Jack Finney, then dean of the College of Sciences and now associate vice provost for faculty affairs, worked with a committee of faculty from across the university to develop a university-wide policy to present to the faculty senate.

[Note: for more details on the process of refining and implementing the university-wide policy, see Patricia’s Hyer’s chapter in Embracing Non-Tenure Track Faculty: Changing Campuses for the New Faculty Majority, edited by Adrianna Kezar (2012).] 

Although there was widespread support for the basic idea of a career ladder for instructors, faculty had many concerns about how such a policy might work in practice. Would it be automatic based on years of service? Would certain academic credentials be required? There was also concern about how much time and documentation was required in order to apply for promotion, given that the rewards for NTTF would still be less than those enjoyed by their tenure-track colleagues. Ultimately, the final policy allowed each department to establish its criteria for promotion, which instructors would apply for by submitting a dossier outlining their accomplishments.

“The conversation happened quite smoothly, and tenure-track faculty did not see it as a threat to recognize value of NTTF,” Finney says. “It was, in fact a quick process—it went through our governance system, became part of the faculty handbook, and was implemented within two years of the initial discussions. For a big policy change like that, that’s a rapid speed in academia.”

In the English department, promotion criteria build off the baseline expectations for instructor job performance: good teaching (as evidenced by student evaluations and peer review), high annual reviews, participation in department meetings and workshops, and creation of well-developed syllabi reflecting program goals and requirements. In order to obtain the rank of advanced instructor, faculty must exhibit excellence on the criteria above, plus excellence in one additional accomplishment. “Our instructors bring a range of credentials and talents,” Metz says, “so we wanted to acknowledge various kinds of achievement.”

That additional achievement can include professional development beyond department workshops, such as university workshops or professional conferences; additional course, curricular, or pedagogical developments, such as contributions to the department composition textbook; substantial contribution in advising or mentoring students; administration and service related to instruction, such as an administrative post in the writing center; or scholarly or creative work that enhances teaching. For promotion to senior instructor, the department requires steady and significant additional achievement in the criteria for promotion to advanced instructor.

Improving Learning Environments and Changing the Culture

Although it’s difficult to measure the effects of the promotion policy, Metz and Finney both say they believe it’s created a better environment for NTTF and for students. “We have greater stability in the teaching faculty. We have individuals who are happier in their positions because they see a career path and it gives recognition to the contribution they are making to the university’s mission,” Finney says. “That raises the quality of our programs. Students get the benefit of experienced teachers year after year, and they complement the perspective our teaching and research faculty bring to developing the curriculum and pedagogical changes.”

Marisa Allison agrees that promotions often lead to a more dedicated faculty and more consistent curriculum for students, but she also stresses that raises alone don’t necessarily lead to equity for NTTF. “I think it's important that before institutions talk about setting policies for raises, they first ensure that the base pay from which raises can be earned is equitable.”

The promotion pathway at Virginia Tech also fails to offer advancement for instructors with limited term appointments or adjuncts teaching on a course-by-course basis, Metz says, although those who move into ongoing instructor positions that are eligible for promotion can count their years of service in previous appointments toward the promotion requirements. The university is currently working on developing a similar career ladder for clinical professors of practice and research faculty, most whom also work off the tenure track.

Hyer noted in her 2012 chapter that these policies will likely have to evolve—especially since the number of NTTF at Virginia Tech is likely to increase. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of NTTF increased by more than 40 percent, even as the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty declined by 10 percent during the same period. And while the university intends to resume hiring tenure-track faculty when budgets allow, it is unlikely that the proportion of tenure-track faculty will return to what it was in 2001.

A career track for NTTF isn’t a magic bullet for all the thorny issues around contingent employment in the academy—but developing such a policy has helped to change the institutional climate at Virginia Tech, Finney says. “We are in the midst of transforming our general education curriculum, and the faculty committee working on that program includes tenured and non-tenure track faculty working as a team. The fact that we would have all our instructors and professional faculty included in that curriculum transformation is a sign that we’ve changed the culture here and we’ve broadened the role of various kinds of faculty.”

Read more about curricular change and faculty policies at Virginia Tech on the university website. AAC&U and the Pullias Center for Higher Education in the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education are partners in the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, an initiative that addresses the fundamental shift in the American academic workforce from tenurable to contingent faculty and focuses on the effects of that shift on student learning. More information can be found on The Delphi Project website. AAC&U's website also offers additional faculty resources.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University