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Use of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members Is a Long-Term Trend, Study Finds

Monday, April 5, 1999
By Courtney Leatherman

Copyright 1999, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Posted with permission on This article may not be posted, published, or distributed without permission from The Chronicle.

For anyone who hoped that academe's growing use of non-tenure-track, full-time professors was a temporary solution to short-term, budgetary woes, a new study takes the long view: The hiring practice will be a staple in the new millennium. "This is a trend; this pattern is going to stay," says Jay L. Chronister, a professor of higher education at the University of Virginia.

He and Roger G. Baldwin, a professor of higher education at the College of William and Mary, have conducted what is thought to be the first comprehensive study of the expanding pool of faculty members who work full time but are not on the tenure track. Plenty of studies have focused on the growth in the number of part-timers on college campuses, but little attention has been paid to the full-timers who are not eligible for tenure.

At a news conference today, the researchers were to release findings from their study, based on a survey of 88 four-year institutions and interviews with 385 academics on 12 campuses. The researchers also analyzed some old data -- from the U.S. Education Department -- in new ways. All of their findings are to be published in the next year in a book by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mr. Chronister and Mr. Baldwin conducted their study to learn more about the information behind the raw numbers that the Education Department had released in its "National Study of Postsecondary Faculty" in 1993 and in two smaller studies the department released in 1996 and 1998. The department studies found that from 1975 to 1995, the proportion of full-timers working on contract climbed from 19 per cent to 28 per cent, while the proportion of those on the tenure track fell from 29 per cent to 20 per cent.

The Education Department is conducting a new national study of postsecondary faculty members, but the results are not likely to be available for two years. In the meantime, the study by Mr. Chronister and Mr. Baldwin provides the clearest indication that the practice of hiring full-time faculty members off the tenure track is a permanent fixture of academe. From their survey, the researchers found that officials at 37 per cent of the institutions expected the number of non-tenure-track instructors to increase by 2000; 51 per cent predicted that the ranks of the non-tenured would stay the same on their campuses.

One institution that Mr. Baldwin visited had been criticized by its accreditor for employing too many part-time instructors. The institution's solution: Convert the part-time posts into full-time, non-tenure-track ones. "Based on what we saw, I think the two-tiered system is here to stay," Mr. Chronister said.

Employing faculty members on annual or multiyear contracts lets institutions save money and maintain flexibility, the argument goes. But many faculty groups have criticized the practice, accusing institutions of exploiting Ph.D.'s and scheming to diminish the faculty's role in governance by eroding tenure.

"I wouldn't deny that some of this is an attempt to do away with tenure eventually," Mr. Chronister said. But he also talked to administrators who envisioned a tenure system and a contract system working side by side.

At 9 per cent of the doctoral universities surveyed, he said, non-tenure-track professors earned higher salaries than did those on the tenure track. That was true at 4 per cent of the research universities. Administrators at those campuses considered that a fair trade -- a quid pro quo -- as Mr. Chronister described it.

Speaking of the two-tiered system, Mr. Baldwin added: "We don't see this exclusively as a negative development." Non-tenured full-timers are often hired to teach introductory or intermediate courses to undergraduates -- courses that most tenured and tenure-track professors, caught up in the publish-or-perish world, don't have the energy or inclination to take on. "Some people have developed instructional areas of expertise that the tenured faculty, working in research areas, don't have the time to develop." Undergraduates may be better served by this system, he said.

But Mr. Chronister and Mr. Baldwin want to make sure that institutions serve the new breed of faculty members well, too. "If these positions are going to remain in place because of the changing environment, we need to do something to raise the status of these people," said Mr. Baldwin. "They're doing valuable service and they're doing it for a long time."

The researchers found that most institutions had only ad hoc policies for dealing with full-time professors on contract, and even those policies often varied by department.

Some of the full-timers interviewed for the study said they had worked at their institutions on contract for more than 20 years, and yet they had never received more than a year-long contract and they had gotten only little support for professional development. For example, only 22 per cent of the institutions surveyed granted sabbatical leaves to non-tenure-track professors, while 89 per cent granted such leaves to tenured and tenure-track professors.

The non-tenured full-timers were offered some benefits. Nearly 80 per cent of the institutions surveyed provided them with some travel expenses for attending professional conferences. However, 96 per cent of the campuses gave such benefits to those on the tenure track.

When it came to faculty governance, doctoral institutions gave non-tenure-track faculty members the least opportunity to participate -- 50 per cent allowed it at the department level, only 10 per cent at the level of the faculty senate. By comparison, at baccalaureate institutions surveyed, 94 per cent allowed full-timers on contract to participate in departmental governance, and 58 per cent allowed these employees to take part at the faculty-senate level.

Using the Education Department statistics, Mr. Chronister and Mr. Baldwin found that private liberal-arts colleges employed the largest proportion of full-timers on contract, 28.6 per cent. Public comprehensive institutions employed the smallest proportion, 14.8 per cent.

As it turns out, that's probably a good thing for the faculty members. The researchers found from their survey that full-timers on contract get the best deal teaching at liberal-arts colleges, where they will earn better salaries, play a bigger role in governance, and teach more courses across the curriculum than do contract professors at other types of institutions.

Nearly 30 per cent of all female, full-time faculty members work in non-tenure-track posts, compared with 14 per cent of all male full-timers, according to the Education Department statistics. Mr. Chronister and Mr. Baldwin believe that the statistics for women partly reflect the phenomenon of the "trailing spouse." The researchers found that many of the women had taken contract jobs at institutions that had recruited their husbands for tenure-track posts.

While some contract employees were happy to avoid the tenure track, the researchers also talked to many who felt bitter and exploited.

Along with their findings, Mr. Chronister and Mr. Baldwin issued seven recommendations for changing the current practices of employing non-tenure-track faculty members. They call for equitable pay, more support for professional development, and a system of faculty ranks for non-tenure-track employees that would recognize good performance and long-term service.

Mr. Baldwin said his research into hiring non-tenure-track faculty members "puts a human face on the issue." He added: "It gives a lot more in-depth information about who these people are, what they do, and what kinds of problems they're coping with. It helps us think through strategies that are necessary to make sure these people are a healthy, vital component of the profession."