Professors of Practice

The statement that follows, prepared by a subcommittee of the Association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, was approved for publication by Committee A in November 2004. Comments are welcome and should be addressed to the Association's Washington office.

This subcommittee has been asked to comment on a category of full-time non-tenure-track faculty appointments known as "professors of practice." While appointments to these positions and similarly titled positions such as "practice professors," "professors of the practice," and "professors of professional practice" have commonly been reserved for practitioners who are appointed because of skills and expertise acquired in nonacademic careers, such appointments are also being offered to individuals with academic backgrounds. These latter professors of practice are principally engaged in teaching and are not expected to be significantly involved in research activities, but they can be distinguished from the large majority of other full-time non-tenure-track teaching faculty in a number of ways. They are usually appointed following a national search. Their academic performance is regularly evaluated according to criteria appropriate to their positions. The length of their renewable term appointments is typically five years rather than one year. Their salaries and benefits often approach those of probationary and tenured faculty members, although they do not match them. They may also have more opportunity to participate in departmental and institutional structures of faculty governance than is ordinarily the case with full-time faculty not on the tenure track, including the opportunity to serve as department chairs.

By 2001, the number of all full-time non-tenure-track faculty in U.S. colleges and universities was just over 213,000, or 34 percent, of nearly 618,000 full-time faculty members.1 The actual number of professors of practice is unknown, but their current number appears to be relatively small. The administration of a major research university in the South estimates that some 10 percent of its entire faculty consists of professors of practice, with their numbers spread across all fields of study (more than one-third of this institution's faculty, most of them in the medical school, are not eligible for tenure). At a research university in the Northeast, limits have been placed on the number of professors of practice; for example, they cannot exceed 20 percent of the institution's law school faculty.

This new category of appointment, while small, merits comment not only because it might grow substantially, as has been true of other full-time appointments off the tenure track since the late 1960s, but also because the category illustrates an anomaly in how colleges and universities treat faculty members who are not eligible for tenure. On the one hand, institutions have sometimes taken steps to improve the professional status of non-tenure-track faculty. This happens, for example, when part-time appointments are converted to full-time appointments, or, as with professors of practice, when salaries and benefits approach those received by probationary and tenured faculty. The AAUP has encouraged these efforts.2 On the other hand, the more closely the responsibilities, benefits, and privileges of full-time non-tenure-track faculty come to resemble those of faculty who have tenure, the more anomalous is the failure to accord to these faculty members the safeguards for academic freedom that accrue with tenure. A university president has described professors of practice as "premier participant[s] in the education of students," but notwithstanding their crucial role in carrying out this fundamental activity, he proposes to deny them the procedural protections that the tenure system provides.

The AAUP has long held that all full-time teachers, irrespective of their titles, should either be tenured or probationary for tenure, except for those appointed under special circumstances (for example, short-term replacements for faculty members who are on leave). Following from this basic position, the AAUP has been sharply critical of full-time non-tenure-track appointments, pointing to the adverse effects of these appointments for individual faculty members, for students, for academic freedom, and for the academic profession as a whole.3   We see no need to repeat these arguments here. The argument that non-tenure-track appointments endanger academic freedom is yet more compelling, however, when aimed at professors of practice.

Some advocates of establishing professorships of practice have joined with recent critics of tenure to argue that the protection of tenure is appropriate only for research scholars and is unnecessary and inappropriate for those faculty members whose primary obligation is instruction. This argument demeans instruction, especially in institutions where teaching is valued as more than the retelling of what is discovered through research. Even the presentation of a subject that simply recounts what is widely accepted in an academic field of study may incur controversy at a particular time or in a particular locality. More important, the argument fails to appreciate the need for teachers to be free to express themselves fully and frankly in the classroom. Colleges and universities seek to instill in their students a mature independence of mind. Teachers guide students in learning, through instruction and example, how to think independently in order to form their own judgments. Independence of thought is also a characteristic of the successful teacher in higher education. The student thus learns from the teacher, but the learning is diminished if the academic freedom of that teacher is not secure. Freedom in teaching, no less than freedom in research, suffers if faculty, subject to periodic review and serving in positions renewable indefinitely at the pleasure of the administration, fear losing their positions because their opinions are deemed too controversial. Nor is the freedom of faculty to speak their minds without fear of reprisal limited to what they might say in the classroom. Their academic freedom encompasses the right to express opinions on all manner of issues having to do with their institution and its policies and practices.

Professors of practice are expected to be deeply engaged with students, colleagues, and administrators on a myriad of controversial educational issues, many of which will almost certainly arouse strong opinions. At the same time, professors of practice are necessarily beholden to others—senior tenured colleagues, department chairs, deans, provosts, or presidents—for continued appointment. Because they serve indefinitely at the discretion of others, professors of practice might reasonably assume a stronger need than their tenured colleagues to be cautious in expressing their opinions. The safeguards of tenure are intended to reduce this threat to academic freedom.

We think it important to observe, however, that providing professors of practice with the opportunity to participate meaningfully in institutional governance carries its own limitations. On the one hand, the faculty's voice, including the voice of those faculty who are not eligible for tenure, should be heard across the range of issues that bear on its responsibilities for teaching and research. On the other hand, participation in governance by faculty who can never have the protections of tenure, and who therefore occupy positions of permanent insecurity, can erode the independence of the faculty's voice. The fundamental solution to this problem is neither to reduce nor to expand the role of professors of practice in the governance of their institutions, but to ensure that they are accorded tenure's protections.

We think it also important to emphasize what AAUP investigating committee case reports have concluded about the termination of appointments of long-serving full-time nontenured faculty members.4 Consider the following situation. A professor of practice is notified in her fourteenth year of full-time service that her appointment will not be renewed beyond the next academic year. She is provided an explanation in writing for the decision and is offered the opportunity to file an appeal with a faculty committee to contest the notice. If the action against the faculty member is viewed as a nonreappointment, then her having been provided with a written statement of reasons and an opportunity for faculty review would be in accord with Association-supported standards of academic due process in a case of nonreappointment.

AAUP investigating committees have consistently concluded, however, that an action of the sort described above should not be viewed as a case of nonreappointment. The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure calls for a seven-year maximum period of probation, to be followed by either tenure or nonretention. Faculty members who are continued in full-time service beyond the probationary period are considered by the Association to be entitled through length of service to the safeguards of academic due process that accrue with tenure, even in the absence of institutional regulations to that effect. In the case described above, the AAUP would expect the professor of practice to have the opportunity to contest the stated grounds for nonretention in an adjudicative proceeding before a faculty hearing body, with the burden of proof on the administration to demonstrate adequacy of cause for the proposed termination of her services.

We recognize that those who support professor-of-practice appointments, while they respect principles of academic freedom and tenure, would prefer to carve out an exception to these principles with regard to full-time teachers who are not expected to expand knowledge through research and publication. But severing the connection between teaching and tenure impairs the freedom to teach. Academic freedom is essential for the protection of the rights of the teacher, and freedom and tenure together are, in the words of the 1940 Statement of Principles, "indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society."

ERNST BENJAMIN (Political Science), Washington, D.C.
DAVID A. HOLLINGER (History), University of California, Berkeley


1.U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Staff in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2001, and Salaries of Full-Time Instructional Staff, 2001-02 (Washington, D.C., 2003). Back to text

2. See "The Status of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty," Policy Documents and Reports, 9th ed. (Washington, D.C.: AAUP, 2001), 77-87, and "Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession," Academe: Bulletin of the AAUP (September-October 2003): 59-71. Back to text

3. "On Full-Time Non-Tenure-Track Appointments" (1986) in Policy Documents and Reports, 69-76, and "Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession." Back to text

4.See in Academe: Bulletin of the AAUP the reports on the Maryland Institute College of Art (May-June 1988): 49-54; Alabama State University (May-June 1989): 46-56; and Tiffin University (January-February 2002): 53-63. Back to text

(posted 12/06)