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In my opinion

Rethinking faculty roles for a new era

The three-tiered faculty system is not working and must change.


As the article “Sessionals, up close” describes, the faculty in Canada, the U.S and worldwide is changing rapidly toward a more contingent faculty. While the numbers of contingent faculty positions continue to increase (even more so in the U.S. than in Canada), there has been little systematic discussion, leadership or policymaking related to the issue.

The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success aims to address this void in leadership and policy by engaging stakeholders across the higher education enterprise in the U.S (academic leaders, unions, disciplinary societies, accreditors and policymakers) in a thoughtful discussion about the imperative for change. Our work highlights the way the shift in faculty creates equity concerns, negatively affects student learning, and creates legal and risk management concerns ranging from worker misclassification to violations of fair employment laws. We also focus on levers to achieve change, such as data collection and accountability mechanisms like accreditation. And, ultimately, we are looking for long-term solutions, including the development of a faculty model that best meets institutional and the broader enterprises’ goals.

The initial aim of the project was to survey stakeholders to determine their perspectives and any consensus views that might be used to create an alliance or coalition of change agents. We also collected data and research on non-tenure-track faculty (or NTFF), particularly how the poor working conditions of part-time faculty resulted in negative impacts on student success. In fact, our data resources and summaries of existing research point to many trends that are similar to those highlighted in the article on sessionals – the extreme pay inequities wherein part-time faculty are paid as much as 60 percent less than full-time faculty, the fact that over 50 percent of part-time faculty do not receive benefits, and the lack of rehire rights and job security.
We convened stakeholders to discuss the results of the surveys, their views on the research, and possible action to promote change in May 2012. The group created two meta-strategies to move forward:

  1. Creating a vision for a new faculty for student success
  2. Developing data and resource toolkits for use by campus stakeholders to address the poor working conditions of NTTFs

(Copies of our reports, data tools, and resources detailing conditions among U.S. institutions can be downloaded from our website. The Report on the Project Working Meeting also can be found on the site, with details about these meta-strategies.)

We have begun implementing the second strategy and spent the last six months creating various data tools and resources.

Resource toolkits for stakeholders

While in other countries, a broad policy mandate might work effectively, American higher education is extremely decentralized. Changes have emerged historically from the bottom up, particularly those that are lasting because they have achieved buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders. With this history and context in mind, we are working to create campus guides and the right data tools (for policymakers and busy leaders) to make an impact.

The resource guides we created focus on helping leaders on campuses to imagine a process of inquiry that can create better awareness of how NTTF practices are affecting teaching and learning on individual campuses to support efforts for change. Our goal now is to disseminate the guide and resources, to go to conferences to help academic leaders better understand the need for change, and to provide leaders with the tools they need to begin a process for change. We are also engaging large national projects, including Achieving the Dream, to promote action among networks comprised of hundreds of campuses.

We are addressing the funding concerns that are often raised, asking campuses to explore their budgets and question stagnation or declines in instructional expenditures over the last 20 years. Academic leaders need to re-examine their priorities, rather than just saying that there aren’t any funds to hire full-time faculty. For the long term, strategic planning is needed. Our survey of deans, which is also summarized on our website, shows how better forecasting and enrolment management can help alleviate some of the current needs for last-minute hiring and the use of part-time employees.

But as Trevor Tucker notes in the University Affairs article, so many changes to better support NTTFs – by creating a culture that values their contributions as members of the campus community – do not cost any money.

Changes that are free-of-charge

Such changes include allowing non-tenure track faculty to participate in governance, professional development and meetings. Other costs are nominal, such as access to supplies and administrative support. But, most importantly, getting rid of harmful policies such as the last-minute course scheduling costs the institution no money at all and can improve student learning and institutional outcomes. So, much can be done by just being more intentional and thoughtful about employment practices.

Ultimately, there is harder work to be done determining what faculty complement is needed for the future and how we can implement this new faculty across such a complex system. We must address graduate-school socialization and training, hiring processes, institutional norms and expectations, unions’ roles, and even faculty members’ own views about the possibility and desirability of a new model.

Right now, a three-tiered system is not working. We have a shrinking tenure-track faculty with increasing workloads that many feel is often not focused on student success and remains research and publishing absorbed; we have a small but growing full-time, non-tenure track with limited policies, practices or career trajectory; and we have an ever-growing group of part-time faculty with substantial inequities and lacking support.

All the participants in the Delphi Project agree that this three-tiered system is not working, but they could not agree upon one vision for the future. This challenge is at the core of the hard work ahead for the Delphi Project. While this is an extremely complex challenge, we are working on this issue every day and would welcome any comments or views. We hope our campus guides prompt some action to improve the work lives of people within this three-tiered system, but we also know deeper systemic changes are needed.

Dr. Kezar is professor of education at the University of Southern California and leader of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.

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