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Supporting Adjunct and Non-Tenure-Track Faculty

Winners of the 2020 Delphi Award share their strategies

By Ben Dedman

March 3, 2020

Pretty much everyone working in higher ed knows the “dirty little secrets” about many non-tenure-track teaching positions (full- and part-time, often referred to as adjuncts): the terrible pay, the lack of benefits or job security, and the hours spent commuting between campuses.

Some adjuncts even live in their cars.

“People say, ‘Oh, it’s a dirty little secret,’” said Joelle Adams, who taught for years as an adjunct before becoming a full-time professor at Santa Monica College. “But it’s not even a secret, so why are we still letting it happen?”

For Adams, the treatment of non-tenure-track faculty affects everyone on campus, including students. “This isn’t just faculty whining and complaining about not getting the tenure position,” she said. “This is a student equity issue; this is a student success issue; this is a student experience issue.”

The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success—operated by the University of Southern California (USC) Pullias Center for Higher Education in partnership with AAC&U—supports campuses taking action to change faculty work conditions.

“Nothing on campuses is structured with [adjuncts] in mind,” said Adrianna Kezar, director of the Delphi Project and dean’s professor of leadership at USC. Many non-tenure-track faculty are hired at the “last minute, days before class, with no time to prepare.” They often lack knowledge about their students, the curriculum, or the program. And some don’t even have access to an office, the library, or a mailbox.

Institutions can do several “low-cost things that have gigantic impact for the faculty off the tenure track,” Kezar said. “Could you just start by doing a better job at hiring—not hiring last minute? That would be so amazing.”

Campuses can also develop online orientations that introduce faculty to the institution, the department, and the students. And faculty from all ranks should be represented in shared governance structures, giving them power to draw attention to the issues they face in and out of the classroom.

To recognize the good work that institutions are doing, Delphi gives annual $15,000 awards to recognize two institutions or organizations with effective and sustainable programs to improve faculty conditions. Applications for the 2020 Delphi Award are due July 17.

Below, the 2019 Delphi Award recipients—faculty at Pennsylvania State University and Santa Monica College—share very different models for supporting non-tenure-track faculty.

Working from the Top-Down: Faculty Titles and Contracts at Penn State University

In 2007, after years of preparation, the faculty senate at the Pennsylvania State University was ready to vote on a plan to revise the promotion process for non-tenure-line faculty (the campus's preferred term).

The proposal would have given non-tenure-line faculty the title of “professor.” At the time, some tenure-line faculty thought that this “would somehow diminish the value of their own professorial titles,” said Angela Linse, executive director and associate dean of Penn State’s Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.

Though Penn State’s senate ultimately voted in favor of the proposal, the president rejected it.

Since 2007, the number of non-tenure-line faculty has increased significantly on the university’s twenty-four campuses, making them more visible in department meetings, in the senate, and across campus. Over time, it became clear that many non-tenure-line faculty have significant expertise in teaching and learning and “chose this route because of their love of teaching and because of their commitment to students,” Linse said. “There’s been a shift in how [non-tenure-line] faculty are looked at by the tenure-line faculty, because they’re interacting with them on a much larger scale.”

Starting in 2015, committees in the faculty senate began drafting and debating a new proposal to revise the promotion system for non-tenure-line faculty. Tenure-line faculty were instrumental in supporting the plan, and both tenure-line and non-tenure-line faculty “spoke passionately on the senate floor about how important this was for the dignity of the faculty,” Linse said. “The tenure-line faculty were completely supportive of their colleagues using the terminology [of 'professor'] and having a promotion pathway.”

With the support of a new president, the senate voted yes.

“It made me really proud of the faculty and the senate,” Linse said.

In the new promotion system, all non-tenure-line faculty have been reclassified as “professors” to bring them in line with tenure-line faculty. Most importantly, a third tier of full professor was added for faculty promotions.

“We have a lot of people who’ve been here twenty or thirty years, and after they became senior lecturers, that was it,” said Michael Bérubé, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and immediate past chair of the faculty senate.

Now, non-tenure-line faculty can earn ranks of assistant teaching professor, associate teaching professor, and teaching professor.

To populate the third tier, the university had to create a new evaluation system. Before, non-tenure-line faculty were evaluated by tenure-line faculty, often based on end-of-course student ratings surveys. Many faculty never had a peer observation, and processes differed across Penn State’s many campuses and colleges.

“It was chaos,” said Joshua Wede, teaching professor of psychology.

Now, teaching faculty evaluate other teaching faculty. But until there were enough full teaching professors to evaluate junior faculty for advancement, the senate assembled an ad hoc committee to review dossiers that included professors’ teaching statements, peer evaluations, and models of assignments and syllabi. The provost had to provide a special exception for each faculty member promoted to the new tier.

“It was worse than building the ship as you’re sailing,” Bérubé said. “It was more like building the spaceship while you’re in space.”

To further support faculty, new proposals are currently under review to provide multiyear contracts for teaching faculty. While most faculty seem to feel secure in their positions, many people on campus “don’t see the point in having someone be at Penn State for thirty years on thirty one-year contracts,” Bérubé said.

While these changes have affected faculty at Penn State’s twenty-four campuses (except the law schools and the College of Medicine, which have different policies), they were perhaps most important at smaller campuses that often enroll higher percentages of low-income, first-generation, or minoritized students.

“Making sure that the teaching faculty there, who are doing the introductory classes and are some of the first people the students see when they come to college, have greater job security and more professional support as teachers is really critical,” Bérubé said.

“Treating your faculty well, in a professional sense as well as a personal sense, can filter to those first-generation, first-time at college students,” Linse added.

Adding the third tier had an immediate impact, with 184 faculty promoted to teaching professor in year one and 204 in year two.

“Adding this third tier demonstrated Penn State’s support for how important teaching is for this university,” Wede said. Now, teaching faculty are exploring “what we can do to become better” through discussion groups and list-servs, and many participate in teaching communities to help each other as they create dossiers for evaluation.

The Schreyer Teaching Institute also supports in-person discussions and online professional development for teaching faculty to share innovative teaching strategies.

“There is a groundswell of interest and participation in a teaching and learning scholarship community,” Linse said. “Evaluation creating community? That’s like magic.”

A Grassroots Effort for Faculty Development at Santa Monica College

Though part-time adjunct instructors teach more than half of the courses at Santa Monica College, a public community college in California, many still feel like second-class citizens in higher education.

In 2016, three part-time faculty—Joelle Adams, Catherine Matheson, and Diane Arieff—began a grassroots effort to change existing structures from the inside. (Adams and Arieff recently accepted positions as full-time faculty at the college.)

Their initiative “grew organically out of our need” as adjuncts, Adams said. “That passion that we were able to bring was really helpful.”

The adjunct committee gathered data through a literature review and faculty survey, which helped them develop the principles that guide their work: (1) faculty working conditions are student learning conditions, (2) all faculty should be treated as professional equals, and (3) faculty should be compensated for all of their work.

In the faculty survey, many adjuncts reported that they lacked the time or opportunities to attend department meetings, learn about the institution and available resources, or attend training on using course management software. More than 80 percent expressed interest in professional development on topics like syllabus creation, course management software, pedagogical practices, information on campus resources, and assessment strategies.

With this data, the adjunct committee planned and budgeted for two projects: creating an orientation event for new faculty and developing a mentoring framework within academic departments.

To win over the top-level administrators, they made sure to bring more than the usual faculty complaints. “We had a clear, specific ask for the district to fund certain things for a certain amount of money,” Adams said.

They also courted support from tenured professors who knew the institution’s history and could help them anticipate roadblocks.

“The community college context can be challenging in a lot of ways, but that smaller, more student-focused feel was really helpful,” Adams said. “We were able to have closer relationships with the people who could help us.”

In 2016, the team implemented Adjunct 411, an orientation program held during the college’s fall professional development day. That first year was basically an “info dump,” Adams said, with a two-hour question-and-answer session. But they continued to listen to faculty feedback and revised the format in subsequent years to be more like a career fair. Now, adjuncts (both new hires and veterans of twenty years) can meet more privately with representatives from human resources and benefits, academic and student affairs, distance education, and many other offices across campus.

The committee is also working with academic departments to create a system for all new adjuncts to be paired with a veteran faculty mentor. The program had great success with the education department, and the committee is working to institutionalize it across the college by helping departments match mentors and mentees together.

“We’re trying to make it easier for the department chairs to implement that mentoring by doing that legwork for them and essentially handing them a premade package that they can tailor for the needs of their department,” Adams said.

Unfortunately, as the committee has worked with other adjuncts to create these new opportunities, they have realized that it is adding to the unpaid work—such as office hours, meetings, and service projects—that adjuncts were already doing.

“That’s the kind of culture that we’re trying to change,” Adams said. “People say, ‘We need more part-timers involved.’ Well, then pay them. They can’t volunteer their time to make this college a better place when the college isn’t investing in them.”

The faculty senate is now paying part-time faculty for some of this work, but “that’s essentially still faculty paying for ourselves,” Adams said. The faculty association, a union that represents faculty of all ranks, “really recognizes the unfairness of it all” and is negotiating with the district to directly fund work outside the classroom.

The adjunct committee is also working with the faculty senate to give governance rights to part-time faculty, especially those who have demonstrated their commitment to the college. They believe that adjuncts should have more voting rights in department chair elections

If part-time faculty banded together to assert their rights and insist on proper pay, “the whole system would collapse,” Adams said. But maybe that’s what the system needs. “This hierarchical, fear-based system plays real havoc with people’s well-being. It’s not sustainable, it’s not morally correct, and it’s just not cool.”

Photo courtesy of Martin Springborg and Penn State, 2015.


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.