New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with Education Scholar Adrianna Kezar on the Changing Faculty

Adrianna Kezar

In April 2013, NEJHE launched its New Directions for Higher Education series to examine emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices.

Past installments of the series featured Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviewing: Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk about the future of the credit hour; and Publisher Mark Kantrowitz about student debt; Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie P. Merisotis about Lumina’s commitment to enrolling and graduating more students from college; American Council on Education (ACE) President Molly Corbett Broad about the efforts ACE is making to raise educational attainment in the U.S. and around the world; AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider on liberal education; Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses; Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), on the growing challenges facing higher education governance; Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based labor market analytics firm, on the inextricable link between higher education and the economic well-being of New England; Council for Higher Education Accreditation President Judith S. Eaton on self-regulation; the American Association of State Colleges and Universities President Muriel Howard, on the challenges and opportunities facing public higher education; and Teagle Foundation President Judith Shapiro on strategic philanthropy.

In this installment, DiSalvio interviews Adrianna Kezar, professor of higher education at the University of Southern California (USC) and director of the Delphi Project, a partnership between USC’s Pullias Center for Higher Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).

The context

In 1969, tenured and tenure-track positions made up approximately 78% of higher education faculty, and non-tenure-track positions accounted for 22%, according to The American Faculty by scholars Jack H. Schuster of Claremont Graduate University and Martin J. Finkelstein of Seton Hall University. By 2009, data from the National Center for Education Statistics show these proportions had nearly flipped with tenured and tenure-track faculty declining to 34% of the professoriate, and 67% of faculty were ineligible for tenure. Of those 67%, 19% were full-time, non-tenure-track, and 48% were part-time.

This shifting reliance on non-tenure-track faculty, with the non-tenure track group now constituting two-thirds of all faculty providing instruction at nonprofit higher education institutions, has led to concerns about the impact on student learning, student success, retention and graduation rates.

Recent attention to the growing ranks of the non-tenure track professoriate has informed academic leaders about the potential negative implications and significant problems stemming from this state of affairs. Problems resulting from poor hiring and recruitment practices—and lack of orientation, professional development and formal evaluation—point to potentially disastrous effects on instructional quality. Moreover, discrimination claims based on practices that have a “disparate impact” on certain types of employees could pose significant risk to institutions.

Citing poor working conditions, significant inequities and power imbalances, some aggrieved non-tenure-track faculty have joined the adjunct activism movement. Organizations such as the New Faculty Majority, founded in 2009, have arisen with a mission of educating the public and policymakers about the changes needed in higher education to ensure equitable working conditions for adjunct and contingent faculty.

The question of whether campus policies and practices have kept up with these shifting numbers continues to be debated. In keeping with the issues swirling around this, The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success has sought to gain a better understanding of the factors that have led to a majority of faculty being hired off the tenure track and the impact this new majority has on teaching and learning.

The Delphi Project research has produced data showing that the increased numbers of adjuncts in higher education has, in fact, led to diminished graduation and retention rates, reduced faculty-student interaction, the use of high-impact teaching practices and drops in student transfers from two-year to four-year institutions.

Kezar, a national expert on higher education change and leadership, observes that institutional leaders should be concerned with such effects. Observing that academe needs a new model for the professoriate that better supports the growing number of instructors who are off the tenure track, Kezar shares her insights and perspectives on the nation’s changing faculty and its effects on student success.

The interview

DiSalvio: ​Full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty were once the norm in higher education. However, the numbers and proportions of non-tenure track faculty as a segment of the professoriate has crept higher over the past decade and adjunct faculty now make up the majority of the higher education workforce. Does this shift of faculty constitute a growing and critical problem for higher education?

Kezar: ​Yes, it appears that this shift might be presenting a critical problem for higher education. The growth in part-time adjunct faculty is particularly problematic. Much of the research demonstrates that adjunct faculty are often associated with negative student learning outcomes. The challenge of somebody working at multiple institutions or otherwise committed to another job to provide the kind of commitment and involvement with the institution as expected is difficult. This is especially true in terms of understanding the learning goals and the curriculum to maintain the level of educational quality most higher education institutions are interested in.

We certainly know that a full-time commitment is positively correlated to educational quality and the creation of a robust learning environment. So the erosion of full-time faculty should be of deep concern. However, it’s a complicated issue. I’m concerned about the move to very large numbers of adjunct and part-time faculty.

But we’ve had a mix of faculty within our institutions for a long time, so it’s not as if the only model of faculty we’ve had are tenure-track faculty. It’s really the shift that’s happened so rapidly without intentional synchronization of full and part-time faculty. There does not seem to be plan for many institutions. In the corporate world, they talk about human talent development. We don’t have a plan around that resource, which is really our most significant resource for creating the learning environment on our campuses.

Many campuses do not have a thoughtful staffing plan. And even if they have a staffing plan and a strategy, many do not keep to it. Many campuses do not have plans around what is the best faculty model in terms of composition: how many full time or how many part-time; whether they have the optimum amount of full-time; and whether faculty are dedicated to the right areas of teaching, research and service. We see in our research that the majority of higher education institutions do not have a strong sense of intentionality and planning around faculty roles.

My biggest concern is that we haven’t changed policies and practices to support non-tenure-track faculty. That is much of what the Delphi Project research delves into. If we are going to hire these faculty, then certainly we must support them such as providing appropriate opportunities for orientation and professional development. So it’s not just the shift of faculty that presents a problem but rather the absence of intentionality around the issue and the lack of policies and practices that support a shifting faculty composition.

DiSalvio:​ The American Association of University Professors has expressed considerable concern that this market growth in non-tenure-track faculty can undermine education quality, academic freedom and collegiality. Is the association’s concern valid?

Kezar:​ Our research supports the validity of their concern. In looking at college campus cultures around the nation, issues of collegiality seems to be coming to the forefront. There seems to be a growing sense of isolation among many non-tenure-track faculty, particularly the adjuncts. There is—and has been documented for years—a sense of invisibility among these faculty and in some cases, active hostility toward non-tenure-track faculty.

I’ve looked at how this negative kind of culture affects learning. When there are faculty members who are in hostile—or what I call neutral cultures, where they are invisible and isolated—it means they are isolated from mentoring, and those kinds of aspects of collegiality that we know enhance learning.

Research indicates that a positive collegial culture with different types of faculty, including adjuncts, full-time non-tenure tracks and tenure tracks, might have a positive influence on faculty and student learning. However, this seems to be rare.

I’m particularly concerned about the collegiality and academic issues that are being eroded and the issues around educational quality. We now have a large body of research from over a 20-year period that demonstrates that students who take large numbers of courses with non-tenure-track faculty or who are in institutions with large numbers of non-tenure-track faculty members, tend to have lower graduation rates and retention rates.

I always preface that with the statement that this is not necessarily because these individuals are poor teachers, but that these individuals might very well be hired last minute or not supported in their jobs.

There is an extensive amount of research related to the working conditions of adjunct faculty. Much of the research shows that it may be very difficult for adjunct faculty to perform in the same way that a full-time faculty member or someone with a regular job security might invest into their jobs. Other research suggests that students taking most of their courses from non-tenure-track faculty in their first year have higher attrition rates.

In two-year colleges, those students who have more courses with adjuncts tend to be less likely to transfer from their two-year institution to a four-year institution—so that is affecting transfer rates. We have studies that look at that sort of success and the impact that might have on student ability to perform strongly in future courses. We know that there is less student access to faculty if they are not on the tenure track. There have also been studies of actual teaching practices, which demonstrate that fewer of the teaching practices that we know are related to student learning are used by contingent faculty. These faculty appear to be less likely to teach in-service learning courses or involved in undergraduate research or in active or collaborative learning. Our research indicates that tenure-track faculty are the most likely to use those practices that we know are more strongly associated with student learning.

DiSalvio:​ Why haven’t these issue received more attention on a wider scale and what’s it going to take to achieve real change?

Kezar:​ This is a question I have been pondering for at least a decade. When I first began to investigate this issue, I observed that many people in higher education were living in a double reality. I would visit campuses and it was apparent that people realized that there were non-tenure-track faculty members on their campus but had little idea as to the extent to which non-tenure-track, adjunct and part-time faculty comprised the total faculty. I have been on campuses where 50% to 70% of the faculty are off the tenure track, yet many seem to completely ignore the non-tenure-track faculty, referring only to their faculty as only tenure track. Despite the data, many still picture the professoriate on their campuses as tenure-track rather than as adjunct. With that reality in mind, it’s often difficult to change policies and practices and strategy.

This is changing somewhat with many provosts and presidents now acknowledging the shifting composition of higher education faculty. My concern remains awareness is paramount and that, in fact, is much of what the Delphi Project has explored. Our research poses questions about what changes might be put in place and what needs to be done to support adjunct faculty. But to see real progress, we believe a series of issues must be addressed. The first issue is acknowledging the changing composition of the faculty; the second is to think about what should be done in light of that changing composition; and the third is to figure out how to allocate resources to support and synchronize changing faculty composition with institutional strategic planning.

DiSalvio: In addressing the fundamental shift in the American academic workforce from tenurable to contingent faculty, the Delphi Project provides institutions and policymakers with recommendations drawn from emerging practices and policies. Have some higher education institutions begun to implement policy changes that respond to the needs of non-tenure-track faculty?

Kezar:​ Yes, we have seen some institutions responding. One of the studies we undertook was to identify campuses that have made some effort. On the Delphi website, we profile campuses such as California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and Villanova University that have made notable changes. However, one of the things that emerged from the research was that there appeared to be few campuses that have made adequate enough comprehensive changes. While some campuses have begun to address some issues they haven’t really addressed all the issues.

We have seen some campuses, for example, address issues around salary and multiyear contracts, but ignore issues around governance or involvement in curriculum planning. So, we are seeing some campuses addressing the issues piecemeal rather than full scope. With that in mind, the “Delphi Guide” was created to provide institutions with a broader set of policies and practices that should be addressed. Particularly exciting is the fact that we are now seeing campuses that are using the Delphi Guide, and putting in place a comprehensive set of changes that address all the areas mentioned in the Guide.

Institutions are also beginning to understand that a whole set of issues needs to be put in place. For example, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, now has a comprehensive set of policies that address the full spectrum of issues. There are other campuses attempting to put into action more comprehensive solutions that will address the issues around educational quality and collegiality and involvement in curriculum planning. Questions such as who is responsible for the overall student learning environment as we move to this largely adjunct faculty and whether these comprehensive changes really help in insuring a quality learning environment, go unanswered on many campuses today.

DiSalvio: ​Recent Pew Research Center surveys of presidents and CFOs report shrinking support for tenure. If this does foreshadow a future faculty role showing little resemblance to the traditional model, will there be a need to rethink the professoriate?

Kezar: The numbers speak for themselves. We estimate that only about 30% of the faculty in postsecondary institutions today are on the tenure track. With apparent little support for hiring a large number of tenure-track faculty, a number of new viable faculty models are emerging. There seems to be general agreement that in any but elite institutions, the tenure-track model will not be the dominant model for faculties of the future. I think that the full-time non-tenure track may be a viable model, but we do not see any widespread consensus on a number of important issues. For example, issues such as the types of contracts, the kinds of roles we want for these individuals and how even some of these models might differ across different types of institutions with different missions must be explored.

Perhaps bringing to life the late educator Ernest Boyer’s concept of scholarship reconsidered with full-time faculty taking on much more flexible and diverse roles with longer-term contracts may be in store. I am hoping that new faculty models will emerge around a model that builds on Boyer’s work with a design based on what is best for student learning.

DiSalvio:​ What compelling reasons might there be for boards of trustees to fully understand the policies and practices related to adjunct contingent faculty and to understand how those policies affect the attainment of the institution and its students’ learning goals?

Kezar: In my discussions with higher education stakeholders it appears that different people are compelled by different reasons to address the changing professoriate. I have always thought that the impact on student learning would be compelling enough for boards of trustees. In matters of educational quality and student success, boards should be particularly concerned.

There are other important reasons boards of trustees should fully understand the policies and practices related to adjunct contingent faculty. Risk management and legal issues associated with the increasing number of adjuncts are also factors that should compel attention.

Adjuncts and part-time faculty do not generally receive the same kind of training and monitoring as full-time faculty and that may result in a number of legal complications. For example, adjuncts may not receive regular HR training in areas that might open up risk for the institution. FERPA training and harassment training are two examples.

Areas related to fair labor laws for hiring individuals continuously on part time appointments are beginning to be examined. Another compelling reason is the equity issue. When we hear discussion among adjunct groups that higher education employment practices are worse than Wal-Mart, it should give boards of trustees pause.

For more on the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, see


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