Colleges and universities are not known for making rapid changes, although many who work in higher education – especially faculty members — have strong feelings about the ways others need to change. Yet with change happening so quickly and in so many ways, the role of faculty members has to change.

This blog – the 7th in our series about the future of higher education – examines three key issues related to the role of faculty members – tenure, adjunct faculty, and unions.

The Challenge to Tenure

Is tenure dated? That question is posed by Samantha Bernstein and Adrianna Kezar in their essay for The Conversation. They point to State College of Florida, which ended tenure for incoming faculty several years ago and now is giving new professors annual contracts. In addition, a University of Wisconsin policy made faculty vulnerable to layoffs in 2016.

That trend has continued. Earlier this year, a proposed addition to the Kentucky state budget would allow public colleges and universities that were facing budget cuts to fire tenured faculty members. A University of Tennessee System proposal called for tenured faculty members to undergo a post-tenure review. In addition, the University of Arkansas system considered changing its tenure policies based on faculty members’ collegiality.

Not surprisingly in today’s hyper-partisan world, one in which higher education’s purpose is questioned, some thought leaders loudly question the need for tenure. For example, Tom Lindsay wrote in Forbes, “…too many professors at too many schools—far from ‘challeng[ing] the norm’ and getting ‘students to think outside the box’ —are instead enforcing principles and practices designed to keep students in the ideological box in which campus propagandists would entomb them.”

Therefore, with shrinking financial resources and the call for a more business-like model for higher education, the case for tenure will continue to be debated and new models need to be considered. Some suggest reconceptualizing the traditional tenure system so that excellent teaching is rewarded through teaching-intensive tenure-track positions, instead of the nearly singular focus on research and publication as the basis for tenue. Bernstein and Kezar wrote, “Under an incentive system, when considering whether to grant tenure, committees can take into account excellence in teaching, by way of student evaluations, peer review, or teaching awards. For faculty on a teaching-intensive track, tenure decisions would be made based primarily on their teaching, with little or no weight given to research.”

Another option would be to change the length of tenure. Instead of being awarded for a faculty member’s lifetime, tenure could be renewable after 5-10 years to ensure faculty are adding value to the institution and its students, and not on the ROAD (retired on active duty) program.

Using Other Staffing Options

Many institutions have turned to adjunct faculty members in place of tenure-track faculty members. However, this goes counter to the initial purpose of the adjunct faculty position. These positions were originally designed to bring practitioners into the classroom – especially in professional and vocational subjects – so they could ground students in the day-to-day experiences. These individuals initially held another position outside the university so the fact that they received modest pay and no benefits – and were left out of the institution’s decision-making processes — was not considered an issue. However, this initial model has morphed into a situation where administrators use these positions as a way to save money and to have more flexibility in staffing their workforce without hiring tenure-track faculty.

This effort to save money has become a double-edge sword. “The increasing reliance on low-paid, part-time instructors has eroded the availability of tenure-track institutions at many positions. Moreover, the same desire for cost savings that has motivated colleges to rely heavily on adjunct faculty has led, at many institutions, to worsening working conditions for tenure-track faculty in the form of growing teaching loads, a lack of administrative support, and diminishing funds for research,” write Kristen Edwards and Kim Tolley in a Chronicle of Higher Education column.

The increased use of adjunct faculty members also creates far-ranging issues. For instance, a number of studies suggest that having increasing numbers of adjunct faculty teaching classes leads to a negative effect on student success outcomes. This is due to poor working conditions and a lack of support, which makes it difficult for adjunct faculty members to create a quality learning environment for students.

Adjunct faculty members, for the most part, do not make a living wage if they teach for only one university, and are forced to take on multiple classes each term.  In fact, most adjunct faculty make 25-40% the amount that full-time faculty make per class. For example, one university in the Midwest pays full-time faculty $85,000 per year, for which they are required to teach 8-10 classes plus administrative duties; this same university pays adjunct faculty members who teaches 10 courses $30-35,000 per year.  Another university in California pays full-time faculty $65-85,000 to teach 12 courses per year (about 240 students) but pays adjunct faculty $100 per student – for a total of $24,000 per year for the same number of students. And of course, this does not include benefits for adjuncts, which in many cases adds 40% on top of the salary – they must pay these out of their own pockets, which further reduces their income.  

What ends up happening is that adjunct faculty must take on far more courses than they can possibly teach effectively, and thus do not devote the time they should to helping individual students just to make ends meet.  This ultimately hurts students.

Adjunct faculty members often cannot tap into professional development opportunities. This gap limits these faculty members’ knowledge and use of effective pedagogies, classroom practices and strategies as well as their knowledge of their disciplines.

Adjunct faculty members also often do not receive constructive evaluations. Instead, their only form of feedback comes from student evaluations. Thus, these instructors miss out on getting meaningful feedback on how to improve their instruction.

Ultimately, dependence on this staffing model hurts universities and colleges. Institutions who rely more on adjunct faculty members not only lower their level of instruction, but also experience difficulty in meeting broader institutional goals related to service, community engagement and leadership.  Most importantly, they do a disservice to their students, who deserve more dedicated attention given to them.

The Rise of Unions

Not surprisingly, adjunct faculty members are beginning to turn to labor unions to use collective bargaining to improve their working conditions. Interestingly, the increase in adjunct faculty joining unions is bucking the national trend, in which unions are at their lowest rate in the post-World War II era. To date, many adjunct faculty are among the 54,000 faculty on 60 campuses that organized with the Service Employees International Union.

These employees’ involvement in a union is bearing financial and professional fruit. A 2018 survey found that unionized faculty have negotiated steady increases that are significantly higher than the average increase of 1.7 percent. In addition, benefits, including health-insurance plans and participating in basic retirement plan, have also increased. Job security and access to staff training also have increased.

Wrapping Up

This blog addresses three emerging areas related to faculty — tenure, adjunct faculty and unionization – areas that are of concern to institutional leaders, primarily due to the financial bottom line. However, these aren’t the only issues related to faculty that universities and colleges will need to consider going forward. Our next blog will look at the trends that are emerging in relation to the faculty’s role in strategy, curriculum development and governance.