Tenure-track Positions Continue to Feel the Pinch

As college teachers, most of us know that the profession is changing, but we aren’t always as up on the details as we should be. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, between 2001 and 2003 only 54 percent of the faculty hired were appointed to full-time positions, and 35 percent of all full-time appointees were not in tenured or tenure-track positions.

A very well-documented recent book (reference below) highlights these changes by describing three different kinds of faculty appointments. What these appointments are called at the local institution does vary a great deal, but virtually all colleges and universities employ faculty who teach in each of these categories.

The first and easiest to understand is the traditional tenure-track appointment. Because there has been such an influx of new faculty entering higher education (primarily as retirement replacements), new tenure-track appointees have been surveyed and interviewed at length.

Much is known about their experiences as beginners in the academic community. Taken together, research indicates that new tenure-track appointees are concerned about three aspects of their jobs:

  1. the lack of comprehensive, clear and rational guidelines and procedures for the tenure process,
  2. their sense of a lack of community at their institutions and among their colleagues, and
  3. the difficulty of balancing the demands of their personal and professional lives. A significant number of new faculty are not finding these traditional appointments as attractive as former faculty did.

In 1978, 58 percent of all faculty were in tenure-track positions. Now, 32 percent of all full-time faculty have contract-renewable appointments and 46 percent of all faculty members teach part time. These full-time non-tenure-track positions increased by 88 percent between 1975 and 1998.

Institutions use these more flexible positions in a variety of ways. In some fields and professional programs they are used to hiring experts who have lots of experience but may not have the academic qualifications for a tenure-track position. Some institutions have responded to concerns about the number of part-time teachers by converting formerly part-time positions into full-time jobs.

For some professionals, this kind of appointment represents a viable career alternative. However, the ways that faculty are treated in these positions depends very much on the institution. In most places, salaries are lower than for those holding tenure-track appointments and teaching loads are heavier. But at some institutions, these positions are permanent (with multi-year contracts), promotions are possible, and full fringe benefits accompany the positions. Faculty holding these positions may have voting privileges and be eligible for professional development opportunities. In other places, faculty in these positions are marginalized by both the institution and their faculty colleagues.

Finally, institutions appoint some faculty to fixed-term positions. Here the work is mostly part-time, for a specific time period, like a semester or year, and these contracts come with no guarantee of renewal. The percentage of faculty in these positions depends both on the type of institution and the academic discipline. Thirty-seven percent of faculty with fixed-term contracts teach only one course, although 16 percent teach more than three classes. Most receive less than $3,000 per course and no benefits for their teaching services. Most teach with virtually no institutional support. There is little or no office space, equipment, or support services available to them. There are few professional development opportunities provided. Seventy-one percent of part-timers do have jobs outside academe, and their college teaching, on average, provides about 27 percent of their total income.

Reference: Gappa, J. M., Austin, A. E., and Trice, A. G. Rethinking Faculty Work: Higher Education’s Strategic Imperative. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.

Excerpted from Changes in the Academic Profession, The Teaching Professor, May 2007.