Under the Radar Screen

May 9, 2011

Are Contingent Faculty Transforming Higher Education?

Roger Baldwin

The American college faculty is undergoing a major transformation that has gone largely unnoticed. In recent years, the number of faculty eligible for long-term (tenured) appointments has declined while the number of faculty on short-term (contingent) contracts has ballooned. Today, more than half of the instructional workforce in U.S. colleges and universities holds contingent appointments, either full-time or part-time (American Association of University Professors, 2010). In other words, fewer faculty have long-term relationships with their institutions, colleagues and students.

This transformation of the academic profession is not the result of a thoughtful public dialogue on the future of higher education or research on conditions that promote effective teaching and learning. Nor was it mandated by government policy or fostered by well-reasoned analysis by independent foundations. The move to greater use of contingent faculty (full-time and part-time) has been a gradual process resulting from incremental staf?ng decisions in an era of tight budgets. This trend has also been driven by the need to preserve program ?exibility in a time of rapid change with shifting enrollment patterns. Over the course of two to three decades, the American faculty has tipped from a largely stable workforce to one that is rapidly evolving as conditions change.

Just what this staf?ng shift means for students and for the quality of education is unclear because this change in faculty staf?ng has occurred with little attention to its educational impact. This should be a major concern for academic leaders and policymakers. As increasingly diverse students come to higher education with varied levels of preparation and skill, it is essential that they work with educators who are well prepared to deliver quality instruction and able to give students the time and attention essential to their academic success.

Research my MSU colleague Professor Matthew Wawrzynski and I report in a forthcoming special issue of the American Behavioral Scientist suggests that this staf?ng trend may have negative consequences that have been overlooked as institutions hire growing numbers of contingent faculty.  Our analysis of data from the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty identi?ed signi?cant differences in the teaching practices of contingent part-time faculty and faculty (both tenure-eligible and contingent) with full-time faculty appointments. We learned that part-time faculty were less likely than their full-time colleagues to use learning-centered teaching methods (e.g., essay exams, course papers, group projects, multiple drafts of written work). Part-time faculty were also less likely to employ technology in their teaching (e.g., communicating with students via e-mail, using web pages in instruction). There clearly is a need to look more deeply at the instructional practices of full-time and part-time faculty. However, these initial ?ndings suggest that the trend toward more part-time contingent faculty may inhibit the use of instructional practices that can make education more learning centered and more responsive to diverse students. This is a worrisome trend as many institutions hire more part-time faculty to cope in a time of limited resources and increasing demands for new educational programs.

The quality of an educational institution is directly related to the expertise, skill and working conditions of its faculty. As colleges and universities navigate a challenging environment, they must monitor trends in their faculty staf?ng to insure a healthy balance of instructors with different types of appointments. In addition, institutions should require and support quality teaching by all faculty, not just those with long-term or full-time positions. Finally, colleges and universities should consider converting part-time positions to full-time faculty jobs when possible. Institutions can recruit from a larger, and probably higher quality, pool of applicants when they offer a full-time rather than a part-time appointment. In addition, full-time faculty can concentrate their energy on the responsibilities of just one job rather than two or more which is often the case for part-time faculty. Full-time positions can give faculty the time to invest in enhancing their teaching and develop supportive relationships with their students—key hallmarks of a quality higher education institution.