Practical Alternatives to Tenure: Lessons Learned for Best Practice

By April Mason and Jean Wyld

This post is the sixth in a series from the Association of Chief Academic Officers.


As chief academic officers, we are all familiar with the real and perceived concerns about traditional tenure-track faculty appointments. At many of our institutions, these concerns are enhanced by constraints in funding and tenure quotas that limit our ability to make tenure-track appointments. Statistics show the percentage of tenured and tenure-track appointments has declined across all sectors of higher education in recent years. In fact, the American Association of University Professors reports that the actual number of full-time, non-tenure-track faculty hired in 2016 exceeded the number of tenure-track faculty.

While not advocating for or against this practice, we recognize that provosts may need to make non-tenure-track (NTT) appointments to address enrollment trends and to recruit specialized faculty, particularly in new degree programs. Making such appointments may be critical to your success in ensuring the academic quality of your programs.

Start by defining expectations: Titles matter

The first step in developing a system for NTT appointments is to define the need for the types of faculty members you may need. By defining the need, you can create an intentional system for such appointments rather than an ad hoc series of titles or positions.

To define your need, ask the following kinds of questions: Is the position we need intended to be a short-term replacement for a faculty member on sabbatical? Do we need full-time faculty to work at off-campus locations rather than our main campus? Do our programs require faculty members with unique credentials to provide specialized instruction? Will the new positions be focused on teaching only or will the focus be more on research?

While tenure-track appointments have comprehensive expectations for teaching, scholarship, and service, well-conceived NTT appointments should have distinctly different expectations that provide clarity on the nature of the position. Common options include:

Teaching appointments. Designed to meet current or future student enrollment; common titles include lecturers, instructors, teaching professors. Typically, the focus is on effective teaching with limited if any expectations for scholarship or service.

Research appointments. Designed to support research activity in a specific laboratory, center or institute; common titles include research associate, research professor, project faculty. These positions are frequently supported by soft money or institutional grants and rarely include teaching or service expectations.

Professional appointments. Designed to support specialized fields that may require different credentials and experience than traditional tenure-track faculty; common titles for these positions include clinical professor, professor of practice. These appointments vary widely but are most common in fields such as engineering, healthcare, law, and other specialized programs. The role of these faculty in teaching, clinical work, research, and service will vary and should be clearly defined.

Appointments for specific locations or modes of instruction. Designed to support a specific location or part of the institution’s academic programs; these may include extension faculty, faculty assigned to specific instructional locations, or faculty hired to support alternative format instructional programs such as evening or online programs. These appointments are very specific with titles that should reflect the specific nature of their appointment, e.g,. “university extension faculty” or “evening college faculty.”

This is not a comprehensive list but should help you begin to construct an intentional framework for current and future appointments. If any of the positions needed will be temporary in nature, simply add a specific designation such as “visiting” to the title and to make clear that this is a term appointment in all contract or appointment documents.

Once you have established the framework for NTT appointments and created titles that communicate the role of each faculty member, you can begin to recruit. The next key step is to develop the policies and support these faculty members will need to ensure they are successful as members of the larger faculty community.

Policies and practices that promote quality

Because every institution is different, policies for NTT faculty may vary by institution, discipline, and governance system. However, there are some common practices that can be helpful for recruiting and retaining the best NTT faculty members. While every institution may not be able to offer all the benefits described, ideally, you may be able to achieve some of the following:

Multiyear or renewable appointments: while institutions have different rules governing the use of multiyear contracts, you can enhance your recruitment if you can offer NTT faculty the option of multiyear or renewable appointments based on satisfactory performance. Some institutions have recently created a tier system allowing new NTT faculty members to progress from one-year, to two-year, to extended-term appointments. Such systems offer both the faculty member and the institution security, which can enhance their relationship.

A formal evaluation system: if one does not already exist, you should create a formal evaluation system for NTT faculty members that mirrors policies for tenure-track faculty but is based on the specific expectations of each position. Ideally, the evaluation process should not only be linked to the renewal of the appointment but also to professional development opportunities, salary, and potential promotions. Evaluation criteria should be clear and evaluations conducted at least annually.

Involvement in shared governance: while governance systems vary, involving NTT faculty members in governance is an important goal that will help you create a fair and equitable system of policies and procedures. In some institutions, these faculty serve with tenure-track faculty in a common governance system. In others, NTT faculty have their own council or senate. Whatever system can be adopted will enhance the role of these faculty members.

Support for academic freedom: key policies that guarantee NTT faculty the same professional regard as tenure-track faculty should be adopted as soon as possible. Support for the academic freedom of non-tenure-track faculty should be an established part of your institution’s basic faculty policies.

Dealing with challenges

Creating NTT appointments and establishing policies and practices to support these faculty members is not an easy task. Many provosts may find that tenure-track faculty, faculty unions, and even academic staff members have reservations, both philosophical and practical, regarding such appointments. We suggest you engage governance and/or union representatives early and often while developing policy initiatives and work closely with them to determine what is possible at your institution.

As part of these discussions, it is our experience that you need to be clear about the future of tenure at your institution. If non-tenure-track appointments are viewed as the “end of tenure as we know it,” you will gain little support for creating an equitable system. We suggest that you assure tenured faculty that such appointments are not back-door tenure appointments, but rather that these faculty are fully viable, contributing members of the faculty community with different roles. To maintain clarity and support the existing tenure system, however, you must carefully adhere to the hiring criteria and the credentials defined for these positions.

The support and respect of the tenure-track faculty is important to the NTT faculty members. As tenure-track faculty come to understand the different roles, you may find that the tenured faculty become champions for the fair treatment of their NTT colleagues. This is most likely to happen when both groups spend time with each other in normal pursuits such as department meetings, although defining who comes to “faculty” meetings is critical to avoid misunderstandings. Providing NTT faculty members with office space within the department as well as staff support and services also contributes to a positive collegial atmosphere.

Conclusion

We have personally seen the benefits of NTT faculty in clinical areas, in teaching high enrollment undergraduate courses, in time-intensive laboratory and studio settings, in highly specialized fields, and across different instructional locations and formats. Many institutions recognize the important role played by these faculty and are now enhancing their policies and expanding the benefits for these appointments. Their experience, and ours, suggests that at institutions with a clear, fair, and equitable system, full-time faculty on both the tenure track and non-tenure track can work together to make valuable contributions to the academic programs of the institution.


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