The Future of Faculty: Supporting Adjuncts to Create High-Quality Teaching and Learning

For decades, Adrianna Kezar has studied higher education’s ever-growing reliance on adjunct and contingent faculty. According to her research, nearly two-thirds of United States faculty exclusively teach, but few of them receive enough professional support to create high-quality teaching and learning environments for students.

headshot of Adrianna KezarThat’s a problem and an opportunity, she says, because the faculty’s role in student success is critical.

“There is an incredibly strong connection between faculty and their ability to support student success. This is one of those really important factors that we need to understand,” says Kezar, director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California and a national expert on faculty changes. Kezar’s Delphi Project is committed to raising awareness about faculty trends and their impact on student success through research and data.

In this interview, she shares insights and takeaways from her research, as well as examples of innovative faculty models being implemented across the country.

What is the Delphi Project?

The Delphi Project started as a conversation to learn about changing faculty trends, particularly the move towards more part-time and contingent faculty. I thought it was important to bring together different stakeholder groups– board members, presidents, and faculty of different types, policymakers– to give visibility to these trends, look at emerging data, and discuss how it was shaping student success.

Out of this original set of meetings, we agreed on a few things. First, that faculty who are off the tenure track were not supported in ways that created the best teaching and learning environments. And second, we agreed to explore new faculty models that plan for a future where there may not be just adjunct faculty and tenure-track faculty.

What are some takeaways from the Delphi Project’s State of the Faculty report?

The most important thing to highlight is how large part-time faculty, or adjuncts, have grown as a group. They now represent 52% of all faculty. That’s 52% of all faculty who are adjuncts whose jobs are just focused on teaching.

And then there’s another 18% that’s full-time but contingent and can be let go at any time. Not all of them are teaching faculty, but a large proportion are. Some also are on research appointments. Then there’s the tenure-track faculty, which represents about 30% of all faculty.

The biggest change, and this cuts across all faculty types, is what I see as the de-professionalization of the faculty role. Their work is unbundled, so you don’t get the professional synergies where faculty have a hand in teaching, research, and service work. Adjuncts are often not involved in shared governance, they’re often not eligible for awards or recognized for their work. They don’t have access to professional development and they don’t get any benefits. And they make, on average, $24,000 a year.

What has been the general response to this problem?

Up until recently, there has been this overarching blindness to the changes in faculty. The general public and even some campus stakeholders still have this idea that college faculty are these stodgy old tenure-track professors out of the 1960s. That’s problematic, but it’s starting to erode away.

Institutions are stuck in tough situations because funding has been going down for 30 years. And when faced with budget cuts, they have always done the easy thing to pull this adjunct model off the shelf and treat it like a short-term quick fix. Well it’s not short-term. We’ve been doing this now for three decades.

How can professional development address these challenges?

There is an incredibly strong connection between faculty and their ability to support student success. This is one of those really important factors that we need to understand.

And professional development is critical to creating quality teaching and learning environments. Yet almost 70% of faculty, largely, cannot get access to it. Campuses need to recognize that it is not enough to just offer it. We need to offer it in different modalities, in-person and online, and in ways that incentivize faculty to want to participate.

Think about institutional recognition. So many campuses exclude non-tenure track faculty from their teaching awards. If you want non-tenure track faculty to participate in professional development, how is it encouraging to say that they can’t be awarded or recognized for being good at their jobs?

I’m very excited to see different groups, like ACUE, that are taking up this mantle to improve teaching and learning in higher education, and that are thinking about it at scale, so that we can reach lots of people. And that we’re not just thinking about tenure-track faculty, which is so often the focus of professional development.

But the bigger issue is that if we want a quality teaching and learning environment, we fundamentally have to rethink faculty models. As it exists, the adjunct faculty model is not designed in a way to create a quality teaching and learning environment.

How can institutions promote policies and practices that support non-tenure-track faculty? What are some specific examples worth highlighting?

One thing we’ve done is create The Delphi Awards to capture and recognize the good work happening across the country to better support non-tenure-track faculty.

  • Harper College won the award the first year for its adjunct faculty evaluation model that gave non-tenure track faculty feedback and options for how they wanted to be evaluated.
  • Penn State, one of the winners in 2019, is an example of a whole system making changes to support adjunct faculty. They overhauled promotion procedures to make them more standardized for non-tenure-track faculty and established a consistent title and rank system for teaching faculty.
  • Santa Monica Community College has done some really important work with contingent faculty by doing adjunct-specific orientations, mentorship, and providing professional development.
  • Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges, a finalist this year, is a consortium of six institutions in Pennsylvania that is working together to provide professional development for their adjunct faculty. By pooling resources, they have been able to create some really important, meaningful professional development, and also build a sense of community across these different institutions.
  • You can read full case studies on our web site, including for this year’s winners, Louisiana State University and Northcentral University.

Other examples include California State University, San Bernardino, which is using ACUE as part of its model to offer and scale up professional development that recognizes adjunct faculty with a national certificate.

What COVID-19 trends are you seeing?

This year has been really hard for adjunct faculty. They’re easy to let go, so we’re seeing more unemployment as a result of the pandemic. That will likely change after the pandemic, when hiring increases again, but my hope is that we take this opportunity to rethink faculty models more broadly.

One trend I have noticed during COVID is that we’re seeing professional development being offered much more broadly to non-tenure track faculty members. Campuses are recognizing that they need to support their faculty in this work. Instead of going back to the existing model, what if we explored approaches that would truly create a quality teaching and learning environment by continuing to offer professional development broadly to all our faculty of all contract types – to invest in faculty to ensure student success?

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