Change Requires Discipline

Disciplinary societies can lead the battle for the rights of non-tenure-track faculty members, say two leaders of the University of Southern California’s Delphi Project.
By Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey

Today, approximately seven out of every ten instructional faculty members at nonprofit institutions of higher learning are employed off the tenure track; nearly half of all faculty members providing instruction in nonprofit higher education hold part-time appointments. The characteristics that distinguish tenure-track from non-tenure-track faculty members are not limited to the latter’s lack of eligibility for tenure. Rather, most non-tenure-track faculty members, particularly those teaching part time, experience poor working conditions (no job security, low salaries, and little or no access to office space) and are denied many types of support that are provided to their tenure-eligible colleagues (professional development opportunities, access to resources for instruction and administrative personnel, and sometimes even e-mail accounts and library privileges). While many faculty members, administrators, and other higher education stakeholders surely know that large numbers of non-tenure-track faculty members are employed on some campuses or within particular disciplines, the implications for teaching and learning are often not considered or discussed. Yet recent research has documented how greater exposure of students to these faculty members, whose performance is often constrained by poor working conditions and a lack of support, is negatively affecting retention, graduation, and transfer rates as well as other indicators of student success such as GPA.

This is a systemic problem, but one that presents disciplinary societies with various opportunities to contribute in meaningful ways to the overall solution. One of the reasons that contingent faculty issues have not been adequately addressed is that responding requires the attention, support, and action of many different groups across higher education. No single group or coalition representing only a few stakeholder groups has the ability to act unilaterally to make the changes needed. Academic leaders control budgets and make many of the decisions that affect faculty work, boards and policy makers determine the priorities of institutions and systems, accreditation agencies hold institutions accountable to standards, unions decide who will be included in collective bargaining intended to improve conditions, and disciplinary societies influence how faculty members are socialized and which work is valued and rewarded. Although these groups and others often cannot act alone, there is sometimes little or no communication among them to align their efforts and goals. To address complex, systemic problems, a wide range of stakeholders need to participate and powerful levers such as disciplinary societies and accreditation must be used.

Collective Action

Although there has long been a paucity of attention to the growing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty members, individual researchers and activists and organizations such as the New Faculty Majority and the AAUP have recently been advocating for change. Now that teachers off the tenure track have come to represent nearly 70 percent of the faculty—and with some evidence of the adverse effects for students—this issue should be handled with urgency. One of the main reasons we started the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success was to work with a broad range of stakeholder groups. This national project engages disciplinary societies, organizations representing presidents and boards, unions, academic leaders, policy makers, accreditation agencies, faculty advocacy organizations, and other groups in discussion about how the faculty has changed and what the implications are for student success. We have also asked what the implications are for institutional missions, governance, curriculum development, academic freedom, and equitable employment among the full professoriate. The AAUP joined the project at its inception and has been a voice for the faculty in our work.

Two main questions are the basis for the Delphi Project’s core strategies: What steps can be taken to increase awareness about and improve the working conditions of non-tenure-track faculty members and thus create a better environment for teaching and learning? And how should the faculty model be reconsidered to ensure that we have the best faculty members in place to support the needs of students, institutions, and communities, now and in the future? Faculty members must also ask these questions, and disciplinary associations can have an important leadership role in raising awareness of contingent faculty issues.

An important early step for stakeholders (including disciplinary societies) seeking to change policies and practices is to recognize their roles as part of a collective effort, acknowledging and complementing others’ work toward achieving shared objectives. Faculty leaders should seek to identify who is already working to address contingent faculty issues, begin communicating with them, and align their efforts when possible. The Delphi Project is one such group that can provide resources and tool kits, data, and a well formed statement on the reasons for change that is based on research. Our tools provide campus leaders a clear explanation of the problem, the rationale for change, and step-by-step inquiry processes to rethink existing policies.

Several other groups have been involved in efforts to advocate for non-tenure-track faculty members nationwide. For example, academic unions have collected data and developed statements about advisable policies for campuses. New Faculty Majority, a membership organization serving non-tenure-track faculty members, has a strong advocacy mission but also conducts research and promotes policy change, often by collaborating with other groups. A few disciplinary societies, such as the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Historical Association (AHA), have taken steps to increase the participation of non-tenure-track faculty members. And the work of educational researchers who are studying contingent faculty issues can be used to help frame an evidence-based argument for change.

Identifying the work of active or potential change agents on individual campuses is important as well. Several examples of administrators, faculty members, accreditors, media outlets, students, and unions collaborating at the campus level can be found in Adrianna Kezar’s book Embracing Non-Tenure-Track Faculty as well as the Delphi Project’s Path to Change series. By working with other groups at the national and campus levels, rather than in isolation, faculty leaders and disciplinary societies can be more successful in their efforts.

Disciplinary Society Leadership

In the past, professors mobilized through their disciplinary societies to support broader efforts to create systemic change by taking actions that helped to remove barriers and facilitate reform. For example, in the 1990s, efforts to promote the adoption of service learning, an important innovation in teaching, appeared to have stalled after nearly twenty years of slow progress. Close to a hundred departments, mostly sociology programs, had integrated service learning into the curriculum, but a common obstacle was the belief that service-learning strategies could not be applied in meaningful ways in fields such as chemistry or physics. Proponents sought help from disciplinary societies; they called upon prominent scholars to produce monographs describing how service learning could be used in each field. The leaders of the disciplinary societies also helped to build a base of support for service learning by extolling its benefits and creating opportunities at conferences to share knowledge about its processes and strategies. The work of faculty members through disciplinary societies was only a part of a larger movement that included interconnected and interlocking strategies among different stakeholder groups. Still, these important contributions have helped service learning be adopted and integrated by more than three thousand campuses.

Learning the lessons of past efforts to support change, we offer some advice and strategies to address the non-tenure-track faculty issue: actively reaching out to non-tenure-track faculty members to include them in disciplinary societies; eliminating barriers that hinder participation of non-tenure-track faculty members; creating task forces to call attention to the issues; highlighting data and solutions in journals, websites, and other publications and at conferences; distributing data to raise awareness and enhance discussion; developing policy statements; and creating coalitions with other disciplinary societies.

Active outreach: One of the first steps disciplinary societies can take is to encourage participation of non-tenure-track faculty members in their activities. Greater involvement can help to make these faculty members more visible in the field and allow them to share not only their concerns but also their knowledge and ideas. Including them helps to create a culture of respect for all faculty members within the society that can spread as members carry the spirit of mutual appreciation back to their home institutions. Since many disciplinary societies tend to attract mostly tenure-track faculty members, a conscious and planned outreach effort may be needed.

Elimination of barriers: Inviting non-tenure-track faculty members to join disciplinary societies may not be enough to encourage their participation. Often, high membership fees and the cost of attending conferences is a barrier, particularly since non-tenure-track faculty members usually do not have access to discretionary or travel funds to help cover these expenses. Disciplinary societies such as the MLA and the AHA have thus created membership fee scales that reduce the cost of membership based on a salary scale. The MLA has also created a fund to provide grants for non-tenure-track faculty members to travel to and participate in major conferences. Societies can encourage departments to seek sources of travel funding as well.

Inclusion and engagement: As steps are taken to reduce or eliminate barriers to participation, disciplinary societies have to ensure that non-tenure-track faculty members are included and more fully engaged. Societies can seek out contributions from non-tenure-track faculty members for their publications and consider them for awards and honors given to members for outstanding contributions to their field of study and service. Conferences offer opportunities to invite non-tenure-track scholars to present their research on these issues and host panel discussions and workshops, and they are occasions for tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members to meet and engage one another in a conversation about the future of their field of study. Treating all members the same fosters a culture of respect, increases the visibility of non-tenure-track faculty members and of the issues they face, enhances the vitality of the disciplines, and generates new ideas and approaches to solving problems.

Use of publications and conferences: Disciplinary societies can also commit to expanding their efforts to advance dialogue about non-tenure-track faculty member issues through conference sessions, journal articles, commissioned reports, and other forums. These are important resources for building greater awareness among a disciplinary society’s membership. Faculty members can share their findings about conditions on their campuses with one another as well as the obstacles they face at home or efforts that have been successful. Panel discussions can highlight best practices or efforts to institutionalize the disciplinary society’s professional standards.

Use of task forces: Often, a lack of discussion about contingent faculty issues is related to a lack of data to demonstrate the nature and scope of the problem. Task forces are a good way to begin to collect data, identify trends, and examine the implications of findings for the future of the discipline. For example, a task force could lead an effort to collect data from departments in the field about the numbers of non-tenure-track and tenure-track faculty members employed, compensation and benefits, policies and practices such as programs for professional development, or access to office space and other forms of support. A few disciplinary societies have planned to conduct additional studies to follow up on their earlier efforts in order to examine how trends might be changing over time.

Dissemination of data: The efforts of task forces and similar entities often lead to reports that document current conditions, which can be widely circulated and used to make recommendations for leadership. They might also suggest actions that can be taken by members’ departments to improve faculty support and lessen inequities. Data and reports can provide a snapshot of conditions, which can help deans, department chairs, and faculty members better understand the nature of the problem. These academic leaders should consider the implications of policies and practices for student learning, equity, and risk management. Many of these concerns are summarized in the Delphi Project’s recent publication, The Imperative for Change.

Development of policy statements: Efforts originating from task forces sometimes lead to the development of policy statements and professional standards to inform the creation or revision of policies, such as those related to faculty working conditions. In 1982, for example, the MLA executive council adopted a statement regarding the use of part-time faculty members, which was expanded in 1994 to include full-time nontenure- track faculty members. The MLA Statement on the Use of Part-Time and Full-Time Adjunct Faculty Members called for an evaluation of non-tenure-track hiring practices, support and resources, compensation and benefits, professional development, and departmental and institutional governance. The 2003 Statement on Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members addressed the implications of converting increasing numbers of full-time positions to part-time ones and reiterated the importance of improving standards for professional practice. There have also been efforts to address inequitable compensation. Recommendations for full-time non-tenure-track faculty compensation emerged from the MLA’s delegate assembly and were adopted in 2002, followed by the addition of similar guidance on the salaries of their part-time colleagues. Both sets of recommendations have been maintained and are updated to reflect current levels of compensation. Another policy statement, the MLA’s 2011 Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure- Track Faculty Members, provides guidelines for evaluating the role of non-tenure-track faculty members in individual departments.

Formation of coalitions: Disciplinary societies can (and in some cases already do) make important contributions by forming or working with existing coalitions. The Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) has been one of the more active coalition groups. Its membership is composed of higher education associations, including the AAUP; disciplinary associations; and faculty organizations that are committed to addressing deteriorating faculty working conditions and their effect on students. The group has grown over the years, and today more than seventeen disciplinary societies are participating. Recently, CAW has garnered attention for its research efforts, notably the creation of a large data set on non-tenure-track faculty members’ experiences and working conditions that contains information collected from approximately twentynine thousand respondents. The group has conducted other research using national faculty databases and has compiled a list of policy statements from member disciplinary societies and organizations.

The Future of the Faculty

Disciplinary societies have long shaped norms for research, teaching, and service and for faculty roles and rewards. They can play an important role in future discussions about the changing nature of the faculty. Accepted methods and theories in research, approaches to teaching, and the type and intensity of service that is valued vary from one discipline to another. Yet, more recently, disciplinary societies seem to have had much less influence over shaping the roles and expectations of faculty members. Criticism of tenure and claims about publishing at the expense of teaching and about inattention to undergraduate education have grown throughout the past thirty years, yet the disciplines have typically had little part, if any, in rethinking expectations. Rather, some argue that we are failing future faculty members by training them for roles and expectations that no longer exist or have been—and likely will continue to be—dramatically changed. Faculty leaders and disciplinary societies must foster discussions about the future of faculty work and how faculty roles could be reconceived not only to address the concerns raised repeatedly by the public, policy makers, academic leaders, and students but also to ensure the future vitality and health of their profession.

Many might think that what we propose sounds too ambitious. Some will suggest that the issue is not really complex at all, retreating to the explanation that the problems related to our changing faculty are simply the result of constrained budgets in an era of economic uncertainty for educational institutions. But this is much more than a budget problem; the trends began long before the current decline in appropriations and other revenues, although today’s budgetary shortfalls have certainly exacerbated the problem. We are never fully constrained by budget issues, and with so much on the line, we should all be working together to address these problems collectively. Still, the evidence that suggests growing reliance on nontenure- track appointments has serious implications for students as well as for the individuals employed in those positions. We need to work within our disciplinary societies and collectively throughout higher education to achieve systemic change. Too many students—and too many faculty members—are being let down by the current system.

The Delphi Project has made a wide range of data and other resources available through its website, We encourage you to visit the site periodically, since we are continuing to work with our partners to improve our understanding of the problem.


Adrianna Kezar is professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success. She has written several books and articles on the issue of the changing faculty and served on the non-tenure-track faculty committee at USC. Daniel Maxey is dean’s fellow in urban education policy at USC’s Rossier School of Education and Pullias Center for Higher Education. His research focuses on faculty, governance, and politics and change in higher education.