Finding a Balance Between Freedom and Job Security: Study Explores Contingent Faculty's Experiences Working Off the Tenure Track

May 12, 2010

Researchers at the University of Michigan's Center for the Education of Women recently released a study exploring the work environments of non-tenure track faculty. They found that while these professors have a passion for teaching and enjoy many of the freedoms of working off the tenure track, they also desire greater job security and support from college administrations.

Contingent Professors

The University of Michigan's Center for the Education of Women (CEW) has been studying non-tenure track (NTT) faculty since 2007. They recently conducted a series of focus groups with NTT faculty exploring what these professionals desire from their careers and work environments. Focusing on professors at research universities, the study targeted two subsets of NTT faculty:

  • Instructional: This group made up 64% of the total sample. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), two-thirds of university professors were NTT in 2007. This means that professors off the tenure track play a significant role in undergraduate instruction in the U.S.
  • Research: This group made up 36% of the total sample. Although NTT research faculty have a less direct impact on students, they are still closely involved with the core mission of academia: 'The creation and dissemination of knowledge,' in the words of the CEW.

In 24 90-minute focus groups, the CEW spoke with 343 NTT faculty working at universities across the country. The sample size was relatively small, but the focus group format offered researchers a chance to get detailed responses from participants. The sample included 80% full-time faculty, 55% female and 88% white faculty with an average age of 48 years (range: 26-68 years). They averaged 9 years as an NTT faculty member (range: 1-35 years) and 28% reported also having outside employment. Eighty-four percent of research faculty were in science, math, technology and engineering (STEM) fields, but the instructional faculty were relatively evenly divided between STEM, humanities and the social sciences.


Working Without Tenure

The CEW conducted the current study in an attempt to address the question: 'What can we do to optimize the NTT career path for everyone: institutions, administrators, tenure-track colleagues, students, and the NTT faculty themselves?' In order to answer that question, they felt that it was important to understand both the experiences of non-tenured faculty and what they desire from their position. During the focus groups, researchers discovered nine key themes that emerged in all of their conversations: job security, supportive practices and policies, love of teaching, job flexibility, inclusion and respect, opportunities for professional growth, importance of the department chair, unionization and the unique needs of research faculty.

Job Security

This is a major issue for most NTT faculty. Tenure is the primary - and often only - source of job security for university faculty. Without even a tenure track position, NTT faculty never know if or when they'll have to uproot themselves and their families and search for another position. NTT faculty often have contracts that must be renewed each term and they may receive extremely short notice regarding whether or not their position will be renewed. Many also feel that their positions are overly-reliant on student evaluations, and they're forced to take on excessive administrative tasks in order to become 'indispensable' to the university.

One member of the CEW focus groups commented: 'I'd like to see not even a tenure position, but just the opportunity to get the University to say 'We like you. We'll keep you on.' And that opportunity isn't afforded to non-tenure faculty.'

Supportive Practices and Policies

NTT faculty who work at universities that have campus-wide established policies for progressively longer contracts and other forms of advancement up the non-tenure track ladder reported feeling a greater sense of security and belonging at their institutions. Other faculty spoke of a need for specific and transparent policies regarding the terms of their employment, including career ladders, job titles, relevant evaluation procedures and longer contracts - most desired contracts of at least three years. The CEW report notes that the National Clearinghouse on Academic Worklife offers sample best practices for terms of employment.

Love of Teaching

One of the most common reasons that NTT (instructional) faculty cited for joining the profession is a love of teaching. Many noted that they chose NTT work over the pursuit of tenure-track positions because it allows them to devote more time and energy to teaching. As one professor put it: 'I think I find this work more meaningful in some ways than I would as someone with a tenure track position who is primarily focused on my own research.'

This finding suggests that it may not be such a bad thing that the majority of postsecondary instructors are off the tenure track. Professors who love teaching and don't feel constantly pressured to 'publish or perish' are likely to devote more time and energy to their students. However, this underscores the importance of efforts to gain equal treatment for non-tenure faculty in areas like compensation, benefits and administrative support. In support of this movement, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) released a brief earlier this year calling for a 'one faculty policy' at American colleges and universities.

Balancing Work and Family

Personal Life and Work Flexibility

Freedom from the demands of the tenure process doesn't just give NTT faculty more time to focus on teaching - it makes it much easier for them to balance work and their personal lives. Their stress levels are lower, they put in fewer extracurricular hours and they have more flexibility to accommodate family responsibilities. For many, these freedoms are worth sacrificing job security. One member of the focus groups commented, 'I've been approached informally by members of our faculty to go tenure track, and I just said 'Forget it.' I don't need that stress.'

Inclusion and Respect

For many, the one faculty movement isn't just about improved benefits and compensation - it's about acknowledging that faculty off the tenure track deserve equal respect for their hard work and commitment to the profession. The CAW brief calls for more opportunities to teach upper-division and graduate courses for qualified faculty, as well as inclusion in departmental activities such as curriculum planning and student advising.

Some of the focus group members felt that they were fully enfranchised by their institutions: 'I feel very much a part of my department… I feel that I can speak up in faculty meetings, and I don't have any sense that I'm different.'

However, others perceived both a lack of inclusion in administrative activities and a lack of respect from colleagues. One participant noted feeling supported within his program, but like he lacked a voice in the rest of the institution.

Professional Growth Opportunities

Many study participants felt that they would benefit from more opportunities for professional growth. They described a range of ways in which universities and their academic departments could provide more support, including eligibility for university grants and awards, funding to present at conferences and release time from teaching to write and research. Even those faculty members who felt that instruction was their primary goal noted that the opportunity to take a sabbatical to research, write and develop more professional connections would help their careers - and improve their teaching - immensely.

Professors with the Chair

Importance of the Department Chair

NTT faculty repeatedly noted that the degree of respect and security in their positions is highly dependent on their department Chair. This is both through the direct setting of employment policies and practices and the indirect influence that the Chair exerts on the tone of the department.

Even in colleges with campus-wide non-tenure employment policies, implementation can vary dramatically depending on the department Chair. For some NTT faculty, this is a sign of disrespect at the university level: 'I just want to say that I feel seriously disrespected by the College and by the University as a whole. The fact that we're all so vulnerable to who is Chair is just evidence that above the level of Chair, nobody cares…'


NTT faculty who are already union members express many of the same concerns regarding their work environment as non-union faculty. However, they see the union as both a means to address grievances and a supportive force in developing policies that have a positive impact for professors off the tenure track.

One participant noted that even though she was lacking contractual or statutory job security, the union had helped her increase the longevity of her position. It had even intervened during a university-wide budget crisis when she'd been afraid that her cohort would simply be eliminated.

Research Faculty

Research faculty can play a variety of roles. They may be hired just for specific funded projects or be employed long-term as lab and equipment managers. Some indicated that their central role was mentoring graduate students, either formally or informally.

Although research and instructional faculty share many of the same concerns about job security and institutional respect, they also face a set of challenges that are unique to their position. They often have to generate their own funding between grants and feel isolated from each other and other campus groups. Many research faculty also noted significant confusion regarding employment policies, job title and career ladders.

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