Reprofessionalizing the Faculty

Lessons from Delphi Award–winning campuses.
By Adrianna Kezar and Jordan Harper

The Old Man building at Penn State University.

The composition of the higher education workforce has fundamentally shifted in the last fifty years from mostly full-time tenure-line faculty to mostly faculty on contingent appointments, who now make up 68 percent (19 percent full time and 48 percent part time) of the faculty as a whole, according to the AAUP’s analysis of the latest federal data. Contingent faculty appointments are typically classified as either “adjunct” (fixed-term or temporary) or contract-renewable (usually fulltime non-tenure-track), but all are non-tenure-track. Adjunct faculty usually teach less than a full load, may be employed at several institutions simultaneously, have term-to-term contracts, and are often hired on very short contracts with little job security. While numbers vary at different institutions, faculty on contingent appointments make up an average of 55 percent of the faculty at doctoral institutions and over 60 percent across most other institutional types. New faculty appointments across all institutional types are now largely contingent, and the numbers of faculty on contingent appointments will continue to grow unless trends change.

Contingent appointments are highly insecure, and the faculty members holding them face poor working conditions. Book-length studies have documented the shameful institutional policies and practices for such faculty members, particularly adjuncts: last-minute hiring; limited or no orientation, professional development, mentoring, or opportunities for promotion; lack of clear guidelines about their work, of evaluation or feedback, of secretarial or administrative support, and of access to office space or even a computer or phone; insufficient academic freedom protections; and lack of voice in departmental decisions and shared governance. These various poor working conditions are spreading to other employee types on campus, part of what has been labeled the “gig academy.”

The trajectory of faculty employment is becoming untenable as campus leaders realize that they cannot fulfill their institution’s mission, provide a high-quality education, and meet their goals for student success with a largely non-tenure-track faculty. Research conducted for the 2019 book The Gig Academy demonstrated that, because of the poor working conditions outlined above, student outcomes are negatively affected by the increase in contingent faculty appointments. The pandemic and the move to online education made these cracks in the system more apparent.

The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success provides an award to campuses that are making progress to address the changes in the faculty. In recent years, bolder changes have been occurring across higher education as faculty members and administrative leaders begin to tackle the problem of a largely contingent academic workforce. Campuses and campus systems undertaking such reform are models for others. In this article, we highlight three Delphi Award winners and describe the changes they have made, which are representative of the types of changes we are increasingly seeing across the country. While there are no data on how widespread such changes are, we do know that the efforts being made on some campuses are creating a wave of change for institutional support of faculty.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

WPI represents the most transformational type of change occurring: the university has moved to reduce contingency significantly. To do so, WPI (1) created a teaching track for tenure to grant job security and academic freedom to historically contingent faculty and (2) secured longer-term contracts for those who could not or chose not to pursue the new tenure-track positions. WPI also sought to increase the participation in academic governance of faculty members on contingent appointments.

The university’s transformation was the result of faculty leadership, and the progress faculty made at WPI might not have been possible had another approach been taken. Two secretaries of the faculty (the highest-ranking elected faculty representatives at WPI) assembled a task force to reimagine the status and work culture of faculty members on contingent appointments. The task force included equal numbers of tenure-track or tenured and non-tenure-track faculty members and did not include administrators. The absence of administrators from the task force was deliberate. The secretaries of the faculty wanted to ensure that discussions were open and unguarded and that ideas could freely surface without task-force members fearing that administrators would strike them down. The task force also undertook extensive outreach, identifying and meeting with deans, department heads, and groups of tenure-track and tenured as well as non-tenure-track faculty members. The task force worked for a year before reporting its initial recommendations to the full faculty.

Task force members identified academic freedom as a significant issue, particularly in today’s political environment, and proposed establishing a tenure path for teaching faculty to address the lack of academic freedom protections and to support good teaching. They focused their efforts on developing new tenure criteria for this teaching path. The new tenure criteria for “professors of teaching,” as they are called, are based on “teaching practice”—focusing on the quality and impact of faculty interactions with students—as well as “professional growth and currency” as it relates to teaching, teaching innovation, and participation in professional communities (see Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth’s 2015 book The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom for more details about a proposed teaching-intensive tenure track). The criteria aim to push teaching faculty to do innovative work in the classroom that fosters a stronger learning environment for all students.

Those faculty members interested in moving to the new tenure track went through a well-thought-out process that involved completing an individual self-assessment and discussing the move with department heads. Deans and finally the provost reviewed the requests. WPI has a goal of moving 40 percent of the full-time teaching faculty to the newly established tenure track by August 2023.

WPI also adopted a policy to provide secure contracts for non-tenure-track faculty members who cannot or choose not to pursue tenure. After a one-year probationary term and a subsequent performance review, WPI offers non-tenure-track faculty members three-year appointments. In some cases, the department head or program director can allow them to skip the probationary period and start the three-year appointment immediately. After the first three-year term, non-tenure-track faculty members can be granted a second three-year term, which is followed by subsequent reappointments to terms that are no shorter than five years each. These contracts offer more stability by providing clear conditions for reappointment and protection against retaliation.

Faculty members on the new teaching tenure track and full-time non-tenure-track faculty members who have secured contracts also now participate in shared governance at WPI. Expanded participation in governance allows both tenure-track teaching faculty and full-time non-tenure-track faculty the opportunity to engage in leadership at the institutional level by opening up all governance roles and positions to any full-time faculty member. Expanded participation in governance also reflects WPI’s commitment to the unity of the faculty by acknowledging and affirming that faculty members, regardless of rank or role, are equal partners in enhancing the educational environment and setting the direction of the institution.

Pennsylvania State University System

The Penn State system, like WPI, has made bold transformational changes. As at WPI, part of the impetus for these changes was a desire to affirm that all faculty members on and off the tenure track were seen as equal partners on campus. The system’s campaign to improve the work lives of non-tenure-track faculty members was called We Are One Penn State.

For years prior to the start of this campaign, Penn State faculty had watched the number of non-tenure-track faculty colleagues increase, to the point where a majority of the faculty members teaching across the system were on fixed-term appointments. And as at WPI, it was the faculty senate—made up of faculty members from all campuses and ranks—that made a decision to address the growing problem by altering system policy to better support non-tenure-track faculty. The faculty senate focused its efforts on HR21 (now known as AC21), Penn State’s policy regarding faculty appointments. HR21 explicitly laid out the difference between an instructor and a tenure-track or tenured professor and detailed the promotion process. The policy reforms developed by the faculty senate attempt to recognize and reward non-tenure-track faculty colleagues as the dedicated professionals they are by expanding promotion opportunities, increasing wages, creating multiyear contracts that make their positions more secure, honoring and rewarding the scholarship of teaching and learning, and including them in professional development.

The first element of the reform plan required creating a framework for promoting non-tenure-track faculty members. This framework mirrored the tenure-track promotion system and offered the opportunity for a more meaningful, robust review process. This process included, for the first time, tiers of non-tenure-track faculty rank similar to those for tenure-track faculty (assistant, associate, and full professor). Crucially, nontenure-track faculty members were to elect and serve on their own promotion committees, allowing them simultaneously to participate in more service opportunities and to hear about and assess the work of non-tenure-track faculty colleagues going up for promotion. Having non-tenure-track faculty peers on promotion committees is also helpful because they understand what it means to be a non-tenure-track faculty member at the institution. Many non-tenure-track faculty members have now gone through this process—almost four hundred in just the first two years. All promotions come with merit raises. Penn State’s policy reforms also established multiyear contracts for non-tenure-track faculty members, who now receive a three-year contract with a provision for longer contracts following successful three-year appointments.

In response to a survey of full-time non-tenure-track faculty members in which almost 80 percent of respondents reported using scholarly research on teaching and learning to improve their own classes, Penn State committed to increasing the collective output of such scholarship and rewarding faculty members who produce it. Penn State created a new, permanent research faculty position dedicated to supporting faculty members engaged in scholarship on teaching and learning; this person also conducts large-scale projects on teaching and learning for the university. Lastly, the university system sought to recognize non-tenure-track faculty members as valued teaching professionals by creating peer-to-peer initiatives. One such initiative is the Innovative Teaching at Penn State Lunch Series, which highlights the innovative teaching happening at Penn State across disciplines, departments, and campuses. This series of talks seeks to build a community of faculty, staff, and administrators interested in improving student learning. Another initiative led to the development of faculty learning communities, formed around specific topics, that aim to transform teaching and learning in a positive, enduring way. Faculty learning community leaders are given a $500 stipend and another $500 for resources and meetings. Learning community meetings are held on various system campuses and are open to non-tenure-track faculty members from across the system.

University of Denver

A third campus that that has made comprehensive changes aimed at improving the working conditions of faculty members on contingent appointments is the University of Denver. While the initiatives at WPI and Penn State were largely faculty-driven, administrators and faculty members worked together at DU to create a teaching faculty line with more job security and promotional tracks. DU also ensured full participation in governance and instituted stipends to support professional development. When these changes were implemented, they transformed the lives of more than two hundred full-time lecturers almost instantly. DU’s efforts were guided by an equity-minded approach that involved revisiting many of the institution’s policies, procedures, and initiatives and asking, “What does this policy, procedure, or initiative mean for teaching and professional faculty?” In answering this key question, DU introduced a series of reforms that sought to institutionalize a culture of respect for faculty members on contingent appointments.

One of the reforms created a new category of full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, which DU refers to as teaching and professional faculty. These faculty members can be appointed on renewable contracts for up to five years; after five years, they can be promoted to assistant teaching professors, assistant clinical professors, or assistant professors of the practice, all new titles for full-time non-tenure-track faculty. Eventually they can be promoted to full professors in these lines, with seven-year contracts. The evaluation criteria for appointment, annual review, reappointment, and promotion are based on either excellence in teaching (teaching professor) or teaching and participation in shared governance and service (clinical professor and professor of the practice).

Teaching and professional faculty at DU can also participate in academic governance and have representation in the governance structure. They serve in leadership roles within DU’s faculty senate: in 2021, thirty-seven teaching and professional faculty served on the faculty senate and five served on the faculty senate’s executive committee. As a result of these sweeping changes to governance, academic units also began giving teaching and professional faculty more say in departmental governance. For example, the Graduate School of Social Work reevaluated its appointment and review processes to ensure that these faculty members could play a more active role in selecting and evaluating both their tenure-track and their non-tenure-track colleagues.

DU offers stipends to non-tenure-track faculty members to support participation in professional development. Teaching and professional faculty, along with part-time non-tenure-track faculty members, are also eligible to receive instructional design support and funds for materials, equipment, and software. Access to this money gives teaching and professional faculty opportunities to grow as instructors and improve classroom learning for all students. Furthermore, the faculty senate initiated a Teaching Excellence Task Force, with half of the committee consisting of teaching and professional faculty. These committees and working groups give teaching and professional faculty additional opportunities to assume leadership roles and influence decision-making on campus.

Learning from Delphi Winners

Underpinning all of these campuses’ change efforts was an acknowledgment of the problematic working conditions of non-tenure-track faculty members and a commitment to forge a new culture built on respect, collegiality, and inclusion, where faculty are united instead of divided. Additionally, all these initiatives used an equity-minded approach in examining current policies and practices, which led institutions to make changes ranging from greater job security to tenure or multiyear contracts, increased pay, promotion opportunities, inclusion in shared governance, new titles that reflect professional status, and professional development. These reforms reprofessionalize a segment of the faculty that has been devalued and deprofessionalized over the last several decades.

The three case studies presented above, which represent very different types of campuses, demonstrate that policy reforms that improve the working conditions of faculty members on contingent appointments can be made in any type of context. In fact, Delphi Award winners from the last five years represent every sector and type of institution across higher education—unionized and nonunionized, public and private, large and small. And they demonstrate that changes can happen from the bottom up (initiated by the faculty) or through shared leadership in a fashion including both faculty members and administrators. Large systemic changes can happen when a few people come together and articulate a shared vision and strategy—one of our awards recognized an initiative that began with a group of just three faculty members. The Delphi website ( provides case studies of dozens of campuses that have taken paths similar to those described here. Higher education can do better to support contingent faculty, but it takes will, a vision, and a strategy to do so, as all these cases demonstrate.

Adrianna Kezar is the Wilbur-Kieffer Endowed Professor, Rossier Dean’s Professor in Higher Education Leadership, and director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education and the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California. Jordan Harper is a research assistant at the Pullias Center and a PhD student in the urban education policy program at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.