Open Mike: Our Nontenured Faculty

As my two-year anniversary as president of the University of Oregon approaches, enough time has elapsed for me to do some assessment and make some course corrections. Over the past 21 months we have achieved quite a number of things. We have hired great new deans for five of our eight schools and colleges; we have worked with all members of our community to increase diversity and inclusion on campus; we have begun the hard process of putting the university and each of our schools and colleges on a firm financial foundation; we have received the largest gift in the history of flagship public universities to launch the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact; and we laid the cornerstones for increasing student success and timely graduation. With each dean and faculty member we have hired, each gift we have received, each change to our administrative practices, and each student we have enrolled, we have emphasized our single-minded aspiration to become a great research-intensive university.

I am proud of what we, collectively, have achieved. But today’s Open Mike will focus on a failure, rather than a success. I am concerned that in my rush to change the trajectory of our school, to replace the chaos of five years of revolving presidencies, and to build our academic core, I have not appropriately acknowledged and articulated the valuable contributions of all members of our community. In this Open Mike I would like to write specifically about our non-tenure-track faculty (NTTFs) and discuss some of the issues we are grappling with that involve this important part of our community.

Instructors, lecturers, and professors of practice have always played a role in American universities. In recent years, however, their proportionate numbers have grown tremendously. Many provide valuable instruction to our students throughout the university, especially in the arts and sciences. Some do sponsored research, particularly in the natural sciences and College of Education. And, a significant number bring unique skills and perspectives to the classroom. Increasingly, as universities offer students experiential opportunities, NTTFs, particularly in professional schools, can tie what students learn in class to the work world beyond college.

The impetus for most of the growth of NTTFs at the UO and elsewhere, however, has been financial. Cash-strapped universities, particularly in the public sector, have increasingly substituted NTTFs for tenure-related faculty to save money and increase flexibility. Full-time NTTF salaries at public universities, on average, are 22 percent lower than assistant professors; 47 percent lower than full professors according to data from the American Association of University Professors. Part-time and pro tem NTTFs are often paid much lower salaries and many find it necessary to put together jobs from more than one university to make ends meet. At the UO, our reliance on NTTFs followed a two-decade wave of public disinvestment in higher education in Oregon. The number of NTTFs continued to grow, peaking in 2015-16, even as undergraduate enrollment shrunk.

The value of our NTTFs and the high esteem in which they are held here are reflected by the fact that the University of Oregon is a leader in professionalizing the role of nontenured faculty. For example, the first collective bargaining agreement negotiated between United Academics and the university reclassified hundreds of part-time “adjunct” faculty jobs as career positions, removing the old “up and out” system. Salary floors were created, career paths were set forth, multi-year contracts were offered, and significant promotional salary increases were agreed to. These were important advances for NTTFs, many of whom have dedicated their entire careers to the UO. An important role in shared governance was also fortified; indeed, last year the president of the University Senate was an NTTF. These changes enhanced the stature of NTTFs on campus, but they also greatly increased their cost.

For a variety of reasons the University of Oregon’s reliance on NTTFs is greater and began earlier than our peer public research universities. The effects of our disproportionate dependence on NTTF faculty are many. With respect to the quality of teaching, the picture is ambiguous. Some early studies indicate that students who are taught in environments with more NTTFs (compared to tenure-related faculty) are less likely to graduate on time.[1] On the other hand, a recent article coauthored by our former colleague David Figlio shows that at Northwestern University, teaching quality (as measured by course evaluations) was actually higher for NTTFs than tenure-line faculty.[2] There can be no doubt that for many classes, especially those offered in the professional schools, NTTFs play a unique and vital role in imparting wisdom that only years of professional experience can provide. And in all schools and colleges, NTTFs offer years of valuable experience in teaching and advising our students, and they increase students’ access to classes.

Perhaps I am biased by my own identity and history, but I believe that research-active (usually tenure-related) faculty can offer something unique and special to our students. In my experience, there is a certain magic that takes place in the classroom when faculty members share with the students the results of their own research. In addition, having an active researcher as one’s professor creates opportunities for students to engage in original research, which, in turn, enriches their experience and positively impacts student retention and successful graduation. Teaching and research can and should go hand in hand.

I have made hiring additional tenure-related faculty one of my top priorities. One consequence of our disproportionate reliance on NTTFs has been our underperformance in research. The hard truth is that with some notable exceptions the University of Oregon has not distinguished itself among its peers in research productivity. Whether the measure is dollars of research support obtained, citations earned, or the qualitative judgments of our peers, we are not performing at the level to which we all aspire, nor are we making the impact we would like. There are many things we can do about this, but focusing more of our resources on hiring research-active (tenure-related) faculty is one of the principal strategies we are pursuing.

Increasing our tenure-related faculty to promote our role as a great research university is not inconsistent with maintaining a strong corps of dedicated and talented NTTFs. For those NTTFs whose primary role is teaching, however, continued employment is highly sensitive to student demand. Given the gross underfunding by the state of our university over the past two decades and the more recent steep tuition increases for in-state students, we simply must use every dollar we have efficiently and effectively. We cannot be in a situation such as exists in some departments at the UO where NTTFs do the bulk of our undergraduate teaching, leaving our TTFs to staff upper level courses with few students. That is not fair to state taxpayers, to our students, and, quite frankly, to faculty members in other departments who teach large numbers of students. While some may argue that it is beneficial to our research productivity to shift teaching responsibility to NTTFs, this jeopardizes our students’ access to faculty engaged in research and is beyond the financial capacity of our university.

Our deans are currently grappling with how to balance their budgets, engender student success, and promote research excellence. In areas of declining enrollment we have and will continue to experience a reduction in NTTFs. In areas of growth, we will likely see increases. These fluctuations have nothing to do with meeting a “metric;” they have everything to do with making sure that our scarce faculty resources are appropriately deployed, and that our twin missions of teaching and research flourish.

As the schools and colleges make these necessary adjustments, we must understand that we are affecting valued members of our community. The same respect that caused the UO to greatly improve the working conditions and compensation of our NTTFs needs to be accorded to those who will lose their positions in the coming months and years. Indeed, I do not feel that I have been sufficiently attentive to this principle, and for that I apologize.

There will always be an important role for NTTFs at our university. Their teaching, their research activities in areas such as the sciences and the College of Education, their mentorship of students and connection to our professions will always be something we value even as we move forward in emphasizing the importance of our research mission.

Sincerely,

Michael H. Schill
President and Professor of Law

[1] See, for example, Ronald G. Ehrenberg and Liang Zhang, “Do Tenure and Tenure-Track Faculty Matter?”  Journal of Human Resources, Summer 2005.

[2] See David N. Figlio, Morton O. Schapiro, and Kevin B. Soter, “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” Review of Economics and Statistics, October 2015. The authors attribute this disparity in part to the fact that some tenure-track faculty are poor teachers whereas NTTFs who teach badly are not renewed.