Trends toward non-tenure-track faculty at the University, across the nation

Provost's office task force considers employment policies

Employment of adjunct professors at universities is on the rise, sparking concern about the effect of this new hiring model on universities nationwide.

Bethany Nowviskie, director of digital research and scholarship and chair of the general faculty council, acknowledged the trend has had effects on the University.

“U.Va. and its peer institutions have not been immune to longstanding, global shifts in the academic workforce,” Nowviskie said in an email. “ The nationwide trend — at least since the 1970s — has been toward an increasing ‘contingency’ of academic labor — that is, a growth in reliance across all colleges and universities on part-time instructors, or on full-time faculty who work on fixed-term contracts rather than with tenure.”

In the strictest sense, the University has no faculty “known as adjuncts,” said Asst. Engineering Prof. Peter Norton, who was formerly an “adjunct” professor.

“Faculty at U.Va. who are not tenured or on the tenure track are called ‘non-tenure-track faculty,’” Norton said in an email. “The word ‘adjunct’ is not recognized in university policy. The distinction is important. An adjunct is a supplement, something not integral to the system it serves. Like its tenured and tenure-track colleagues, U.Va.‘s NTTF are full faculty members, not adjuncts.”

Non-tenure track faculty can be both full-time and part-time workers. In 2013, nearly 300 faculty members at the University were classified as non-tenure-track instructors — 240 of whom work full time. By comparison, in 2008, the University had 269 non-tenure-track faculty, 201 working full time.

“The benefits [of non-tenure-track faculty] are you get to draw on a really qualified pool of people who may not want to be full-time, tenure-track faculty,” said Assoc. Education Prof. Walt Heinecke, who leads the University chapter of the American Association of University Professors, an organization that works to promote economic security for higher education employees. “And the drawbacks are you don’t want a school or university to be overly dependent on adjunct professors.”

Heinecke said non-tenured teaching and research faculty staff can create instability in the academic world. One potential solution to the problem is an “expectation of continued employment” contract, whereby in the sixth year of employment, following a major performance review and evaluations, non-tenure faculty can sign a contract offering increased job security. But both Heinecke and Norton said the ECE is not a perfect solution.

“There’s a strange misconception that says that ECE can protect underperforming faculty members,” Norton said. “This is wrong. First, even with ECE, a faculty member may be denied reappointment on grounds of poor performance. Second, to qualify for ECE, a faculty member must undergo a major performance review. The review is just like a tenure review, except that the areas reviewed are adjusted to match the allocation of responsibilities of the particular faculty member.”

If professors are constantly worried about their contract being terminated — or if they don’t have an ECE at all — they may not have the ability to teach or research freely for fear of unpopular opinion, Norton said.

“Occasionally [there have] been cases in which a department refuses to reappoint [NTTF] so that [he or she] won’t qualify for ECE,” he added. “While this problem seems to have improved, the gains have been offset by the now-widespread practice of compelling NTTF to sign waivers of eligibility for ECE as a condition of reappointment. This practice might possibly be justifiable in certain circumstances, but it has grown far too common.”

Norton said rapid faculty turnover, increasingly likely with the increase in non-tenure track faculty, may ultimately affect the quality of academic life at the University.

“By increasing turnover, it is a threat to the quality of U.Va. faculty,” Norton said. “It is also contrary to principles of academic freedom maintained by the American Association of University Professors.”

If two faculty members are essentially equal in rank, stature, teaching performance and other factors, but one is tenure eligible and the other is not, Norton said, one can assume with a high degree of confidence that the tenure eligible faculty member will be paid more, facilitating an arbitrary inequity.

Efforts to respond to these concerns about non-tenure track faculty have been made mainly in coordination with the University Provost Office.

“Connections between the [General Faculty Council] and Faculty Senate are stronger and more productive than ever,” Nowviskie said, “and I anticipate many good developments emerging from the Provost’s Task Force on the Non-Tenure-Track Faculty.”

Heinecke said the AAUP sent a letter to the Provost Office asking for significant clarification regarding the roles of teaching and research faculty, professional research faculty and lecturers.

“What we’re looking for is … a task force to address problems with non-tenure track like hiring policy and to ensure that faculty who are essentially doing the same types of things as tenured professors have protections that come along with ECE,” Heinecke said.

As part of the University’s five-year strategic plan, about 400 professors new professors will be hired to replace a wave of retiring faculty as well as to anticipate enrollment growth.

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