Liberal Education

Why Are We Hiring So Many Non-Tenure-Track Faculty?

Why are we hiring so many non-tenure-track faculty? The answer may at first seem so obvious as to make the question itself seem absurd. Most department chairs, deans, and tenured or tenure-track faculty members would likely point to budget shortfalls, last-minute increases in enrollments, and the inability to win approval for new tenure-track faculty positions. Yet, these simple answers obscure a larger, systemic trend: the majority of the faculty at US colleges and universities has been moved off the tenure track. Non-tenure-track faculty now account for nearly 70 percent of all faculty members, and three out of four hires nationally are off the tenure track.1 Simple answers also hide the fact that hiring practices have changed in recent years; hiring decisions have become decentralized to departments, non-tenure-track faculty appointments are not tracked as tenure-track appointments are, larger strategic plans related to faculty hiring have been abandoned, and intentional and reflective hiring practices often are missing.

These changes in hiring practices were first documented by John Cross and Edie Goldenberg, formerly dean and associate dean, respectively, of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan. Cross and Goldenberg had noticed their own increasing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty in their college, but felt the reasons for this were not accurately reflected in claims that administrators were hiring more non-tenure-track faculty in order to “intentionally save money by hiring less expensive teachers” and further exploit them by providing little pay and benefits for many hours worked.2 So they undertook a study of ten liberal arts colleges in elite research universities whose faculties had, like their own, devolved with little intentionality or even awareness to include large numbers of non-tenure-track members.

Cross and Goldenberg wanted to understand how such a process could and did indeed take place. In fact, as they dug deeper into data from the ten campuses, they discovered that the hiring trends were worse than they had anticipated or understood. They found that campuses had decentralized hiring processes; that few people were involved in the hiring of non-tenure-track faculty members; that no one was tracking faculty hiring; that no staffing plans existed, non-tenure-track faculty were not included in staffing plans, or staffing plans were not followed; that data were not routinely collected, and, when they were, the data were largely inaccurate; and that hiring was largely random and followed poor management principles.

When we do not carefully consider hiring processes, we do not realize that they may be problematic—may even threaten the mission and goals of the institution. Moreover, the lack of consideration leads to a lack of accountability. Who is, or should be, accountable for composing a robust faculty that is supported in its work and can meet the needs of the institution? At present, the answer often is that no one is accountable. And that is the crux of the problem. Intentional hiring and support for faculty are essential to fostering an academy that has integrity.

Why might the increasing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty be jeopardizing the integrity of the academy? Various studies have shown that, largely due to an absence of supportive policies and practices that are aligned with quality teaching, non-tenure-track faculty members do not use student-centered and high-impact teaching practices.3 Furthermore, students who take more courses taught by non-tenure-track faculty are less likely to transfer, and institutions that have more non-tenure-track faculty also have lower retention and graduation rates.4 In order to meet the academic mission and uphold the values of higher education institutions, student learning outcomes must remain at the forefront. The trend toward hiring and not adequately supporting non-tenure-track faculty threatens this mission. By examining current trends related to the hiring and utilization of non-tenure-track faculty, we can begin to strategize about how to restore the integrity that is being lost through the lack of intentionality in hiring and supporting faculty.

The findings from Cross and Goldenberg’s study, which examined trends in faculty hiring at ten elite research universities only, led us to wonder how these trends are playing out in the broader academy. To expand on Cross and Goldenberg’s work, we designed a national study of deans that examined a much larger set of institutions in order to better understand and scrutinize the hiring trends occurring across American higher education. The results are presented below. But first, we set the context by discussing broad principles of sound decision making.

Sound decision making: Values, pressures, and processes

Research on decision making suggests that—particularly in resource-tight times and when there is uncertainty in the external environment—the best decisions, those that enhance the performance of an organization, result from a combination of processes: scanning the environment to identify future trends; collecting data to support understanding of the issue and the environment; analyzing internal and external data; planning; conducting a cost-benefit analysis and weighing alternatives; fostering broad participation in decision making at multiple levels; explaining decisions to affected groups; and maintaining open channels of communication in order to enable people throughout the organization to respond and provide feedback on decisions. In fact, studies suggest that organizations facing instability and uncertainty may benefit most from such processes.5

The effective promotion of these strong decision-making processes requires that the expertise of decision makers be utilized, that a proactive stance be taken in response to pressures, and that systematic organizational procedures be put in place. Accounting for the views, values, and expertise of decision makers is a key dimension of strong decision making,6 and the processes listed above offer ways to do that. Additionally, decision makers must respond to pressures that come from shifting environments, including tightening budgets and changes in enrollments. Strong decision making depends on awareness of these pressures and on a resolve to take proactive steps in order to mitigate their negative effects.

External pressures can overwhelm an organization. Therefore, to be proactive, decision makers must ensure that a solid infrastructure of support in place so that people do not respond reactively to crises, but are instead guided by sound decision-making processes—even in the event of turbulence.7 Such an infrastructure may include a capacity for collecting data, systems to tap into the collective wisdom of the organization, sound forecasting mechanisms (e.g., for enrollments), and flexible planning processes. Those in positions of authority are typically charged with putting such an infrastructure in place.

To what degree are these proven qualities of sound decision making reflected in faculty hiring practices? To what extent are those charged with making hiring decisions relying on consultation, data, and organizational planning? Are they tapping into the expertise and values of leaders? Do hiring decisions reflect an awareness of pressures, and do they constitute a proactive response? Answering these questions was the goal of our study.

The study

For this study, we utilized data from our 2012 survey of members of the American Conference of Academic Deans (ACAD) and the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), which was designed to evaluate college deans’ views on the professoriate, their values, and their beliefs pertaining to the use of non-tenure-track faculty.8 The survey also examined the pressures influencing deans’ decision making in relation to faculty hiring as well as policies affecting non-tenure-track faculty. It contained forty-seven items, which were grouped into the following categories: faculty composition, faculty hiring practices, data gathering related to faculty hiring, policies regarding full- and part-time non-tenure-track faculty, and demographics.

In the spring of 2012, the survey was sent to the membership of both ACAD and CCAS. These organizations were chosen because of their national representation of academic deans, the administrators most often responsible for hiring non-tenure-track faculty and for setting related policies. A total of 278 participants completed the survey, resulting in a 30 percent response rate after accounting both for members from institutions that do not have a tenure system and for multiple members from the same institution. Respondents were evenly divided between public and private institutions and represented a broad range of institutional types: doctorate-granting institutions (22 percent), master’s institutions (48 percent), baccalaureate institutions (25 percent), and associate’s or other institutions (5 percent). The results presented below focus mainly on trend data from the survey.

Using organizational processes to ensure sound decision making

We found that deans often do not adhere to practices that lead to sound decision making in the context of reduced resources. For example, they do not typically engage in participative decision making, planning, formal and systemic processes, or data collection.

When asked who has primary responsibility for faculty hiring, the deans who participated in our survey reported that provosts and deans are predominantly tasked with setting hiring priorities; this is not a shared responsibility. Given that broad participation is likely to lead to better outcomes, should presidents, department chairs, and faculty senates be more involved in the faculty hiring process? How would less pressure on deans and provosts and more shared governance affect faculty hiring? In terms of involving others in the hiring process, more than half of the deans surveyed said that they consult department chairs and provosts regarding the composition of the faculty. Less than a third reported consulting the faculty and the president, and less than one-quarter reported consulting the faculty senate or board of trustees.

Typically, any communication about hiring occurs through informal means, such as private conversation, rather than through formal discussion, release and review of data, or issuance of public statements. The exception is for provosts, who engage in more formal processes, such as presentations at faculty meetings and the release of public statements. Nonetheless, for presidents, provosts, and board members, private conversation is the predominant mode for communicating awareness of faculty composition. Additionally, the survey revealed that only a third of presidents are brought into conversations regarding the composition of the faculty. Could this informality and lack of presidential engagement contribute to the hiring of more non-tenure-track faculty than survey participants believe is best for the future of the academy? Could deans obtain greater support for their notion of the ideal faculty through more consultation and a more open process? It is difficult to say. Perhaps the involvement of more people in the process would lead to even more non-tenure-track faculty being hired. We believe that campus leaders ought to consider these questions. Clearly, stakeholders are not being engaged to the degree recommended in the literature on best practices in decision making.

Based on deans’ responses, it appears that data on hiring trends, salary, benefits, and contract renewal are being collected. However, we suspect there may be problems with these data—particularly with respect to the data on part-time faculty. Cross and Goldenberg found campus data on non-tenure-track faculty to be extremely flawed and inaccurate.9 Further, it is unclear how these data are used on campuses or how accessible they are, especially given that hiring processes seem mostly to be controlled by a single individual and involve minimal participation of others, and that data are not widely distributed or known about.

In addition to data collection, we asked about the amount of time available to reflect and gather information when deciding about non-tenure-track faculty hires. Most respondents reported either that they have little time for this or that they have time only occasionally, which suggests that the amount of time being devoted to these hiring decisions is less than ideal. Yet, most respondents also indicated that they have adequate time to strategize when hiring new faculty 90–100 percent of the time. This contradiction is worrisome, as it suggests that deans are unsure of the time they actually spend on hiring decisions. That is, despite indicating that they have adequate time to strategize, the deans reported having little time to reflect and gather information. So even if data exist, there is little time available to review them as part of strategizing. This leads us to hypothesize that data related to contract renewals are not used to recognize any ongoing need for faculty in certain positions, a recognition that could lead to multiyear appointments. Overall, we suspect that data could be used in more systematic and thoughtful ways. It is nonetheless important to acknowledge that the systemic collection of data does appear to be occurring, which is good.

In terms of planning, nearly 40 percent of respondents utilize a campus staffing plan, which can promote sound decision making. More than 80 percent of these plans include or consider non-tenure-track faculty, which is encouraging on the surface. However, only 28 percent of deans are held accountable for following these plans—a finding worthy of further examination. We also asked about accountability for hiring in general. The particular forms of accountability reported—such as reporting data to an identified office—suggest the prevalence of a relatively passive approach. Few respondents either receive direct feedback from the board or president or are held accountable for the plans they develop. In the absence of repercussions, faculty hiring practices are unlikely to receive additional attention and consideration.

In sum, there is room for improvement when it comes to the processes used for making faculty hiring decisions. Although it is good that data about non-tenure-track faculty are being collected, there is little planning, collective responsibility, or accountability for hiring decisions.

Tapping into expertise and values

For the most part, the process for making faculty hiring decisions does not appear to tap deans’ expertise or reflect their values. Survey respondents recognize that, on average, non-tenure-track faculty members comprise 50 percent of the faculty at their institutions and that the number of non-tenure-track faculty members continues to increase on their campuses. So unlike in previous periods, when academic leaders noted little awareness of the changing composition of the faculty, today there is an understanding of the sheer numbers of non-tenure-track faculty and their continuing growth. Moreover, the deans we surveyed believe that the faculty should be largely composed of tenured or tenure-track members and that, ideally, the proportion of non-tenure-track faculty should be closer to 25 percent. They are particularly concerned about part-time faculty. While most believe that only about 10–20 percent of the non-tenure-track faculty at their institutions should be hired on a part-time basis, they recognize that the proportion of part-time faculty has increased significantly in recent years. As these survey findings demonstrate, current hiring practices do not reflect the best thinking or intentions of deans.

Additionally, most of the deans who responded to the survey feel that the proportion of non-tenure-track faculty to tenure-track faculty should vary by academic discipline and that, indeed, such variations exist on their campuses. However, it is unknown whether internal evidence exists to show that non-tenure-track faculty are better suited to some disciplines than others. While we did not ask about this issue in greater detail, we did wonder about this trend. We are aware of no existing research suggesting that a varying distribution of tenure among academic disciplines is good practice, but perhaps deans have developed an understanding about how expertise can best be used that has not been articulated or shared.

We asked deans which courses non-tenure-track faculty are best suited to teach (see fig. 1). Most responded by saying that non-tenure-track faculty should be used for introductory, professionally oriented, and highly specialized courses that match their expertise (since some non-tenure-track faculty come from industry, business, or the professions). Additionally, respondents said that non-tenure-track faculty should not be used in remedial education or high-enrollment courses. Here, we were struck by the lack of alignment between professed values and the reality of the use of non-tenure-track faculty today. High-enrollment and remedial courses tend to utilize large numbers of non-tenure-track faculty, yet deans indicated that these are the courses where non-tenure-track faculty should be less concentrated.


We also asked deans about their views of the abilities of non-tenure-track faculty and the contributions these faculty members make to the teaching and learning environment. Respondents agreed that non-tenure-track faculty can bring special knowledge, add to flexibility in institutional offerings, and help meet institutional objectives. Yet, they also expressed serious concerns about non-tenure-track faculty, including their relative unavailability to students, the potential for limiting creativity in curricular design, and the effects on shared governance. However, although these concerns were registered by the deans who participated in the survey, they did not, in the end, shape hiring decisions nor were they brought into larger dialogues about institutional objectives. Clearly, there are competing values that make hiring decisions complex, but these competing values seem to be unbalanced, leaning in favor of the non-tenure-track faculty hire. If the composition of the faculty is not as academic leaders believe it should be, and if faculty members are not deployed in the best way possible, then what can and should be done? It is clear that the values and beliefs held by deans are not resulting in desired outcomes with regard to faculty hiring. The reason for this state of affairs may have to do with pressures originating in the external environment.

Reacting versus being proactive in responding to external pressures

Colleges and universities, like most organizations, have to respond to shifts in demand and to financial upheavals. We asked deans about pressures that affect them and that lead to the hiring of non-tenure-track faculty (see fig. 2). Respondents identified the following (listed in order of importance) as the most significant pressures: surges in enrollment, the need to fill positions at the last minute, the need to fill positions for faculty on leave or sabbatical, budgetary constraints, and pressure to meet institutional goals. The fact that these pressures stem from more or less regular phenomena suggests that careful planning and systematic processes could alleviate them. Indeed, recognizing the negative effects last-minute hiring can have on educational quality and student learning, accreditors are beginning to encourage institutions to implement better planning practices in order to avoid it.


In addition to regular pressures, the recent recession led to a period of unprecedented turbulence in higher education. In this context, we asked deans how they directly responded to the recession. Among those deans who altered practices due to the recession, more than half indicated that their institutions hired more part-time non-tenure-track faculty—the action most often cited by respondents to the survey. Additionally, among all campuses represented in our survey, hiring of full-time non-tenure-track faculty increased by 40 percent in response to the recession. It is not yet known whether these trends will be reversed as economic conditions improve. But in any case, the impact of these ongoing pressures can be alleviated by intentional planning and through the utilization of systematic organizational processes. Offering multiyear contracts, for example, or hiring faculty further in advance of the start of a semester may alleviate some of the worst practices related to non-tenure-track faculty, practices that have been shown to have negative effects on the quality of the teaching and learning environment.


It is understandable that deans are not taking the best approaches to decision making; campus environments are not ordinarily structured in ways that would support deans in making thoughtful and intentional hiring decisions. Theories of good decision making do not hold the individual responsible for creating such an environment. Rather, to support individuals, campus leaders at the highest levels are responsible for ensuring that appropriate decision-making mechanisms are in place—such as planning, data collection, and a broad governance structure. The buck has to stop with boards and presidents. Yet, there is also collective responsibility for faculty hiring, and we suggest that leaders throughout a campus are complicit in not pushing others to make the decision-making environment more robust and supportive. We do not mean to suggest that deans are to blame; boards and presidents need to be more active in taking responsibility for who the faculty are and for understanding how non-tenure-track faculty are negatively affecting student learning and educational outcomes.

It is often claimed that there is no time to collect data or to plan, that the current chaotic and unsystematic management approach is the only available option, or that more thoughtful approaches would be likely to have the same outcome. Perhaps. But these claims run counter to research findings from other sectors, and without trying alternative approaches, we will never know for sure. Nonetheless, it is clear that presidents need to take responsibility for fostering an environment that promotes sound decision making. It is also clear that deans need to push harder for decisions that reflect their ideals and values, and they need to respond to environmental challenges thoughtfully rather than merely reacting to them. And, finally, better processes need to be put be in place; better systems and better planning would likely result in better hiring.


1. Jack H. Schuster and Martin J. Finkelstein, The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 324.

2. John G. Cross and Edie N. Goldenberg, Off-Track Profs: Non-Tenured Teachers in Higher Education (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), viii.

3. See Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), Making Connections: Dimensions of Student Engagement (Austin, TX: CCSSE, 2009);
M. Kevin Eagan Jr. and Audrey J. Jaeger, “Effects of Exposure to Part-Time Faculty on Community College Transfer,” Research in Higher Education 50, no. 2 (2009): 168–88; and Daniel Jacoby, “The Effects of Part-Time Faculty Employment on Community College Graduation Rates,” Journal of Higher Education 77, no. 6 (2006): 1081–1103.

4. See Charles Harrington and Timothy Schibik, “Caveat Emptor: Is There a Relationship Between Part-Time Faculty Utilization and Student Learning Retention?,” Association for Institutional Research Professional File 91 (Spring 2004): 1–6,; and Jacoby, “The Effects of Part-Time Faculty Employment.”

5. Irene Goll and Abdul M. A. Rasheed, “Rational Decision-Making and Firm Performance: The Moderating Role of Environment,” Strategic Management Journal 18, no. 7 (1997): 583–91; Richard L. Priem, Abdul M. A. Rasheed, and Andrew G. Kotulic, “Rationality in Strategic Decision Processes, Environmental Dynamism and Firm Performance,” Journal of Management Inquiry 21, no. 5 (1995): 913–29; and Nandini Rajagopalan, Abdul M. A. Rasheed, and Deepak K. Datta, “Strategic Decision Processes: Critical Review and Future Directions,” Journal of Management Inquiry 19, no. 2 (1993): 349–84.

6. Patrick E. Connor and Boris W. Becker, “Personal Values and Management: What Do We Know and Why Don’t We Know More?,” Journal of Management Inquiry 3, no. 1 (1994): 67–73; Bruce M. Meglino and Elizabeth C. Ravlin, “Individual Values in Organizations: Concepts, Controversies, and Research,” Journal of Management 24, no. 3 (1998): 351–89.

7. See Mark P. Sharfman and James W. Dean Jr., “Conceptualizing and Measuring the Organizational Environment: A Multidimensional Approach,” Journal of Management 17, no.4 (1991): 681–700.

8. See Adrianna Kezar and Sean Gehrke, Values, Practices, and Faculty Hiring Decisions of Academic Leaders (Los Angeles: Pullias Center for Higher Education).

9. Cross and Goldenberg, Off-Track Profs.

Adrianna Kezar is professor of higher education, and Sean Gehrke is a researcher at the Pullias Center for Higher Education, both at the University of Southern California.

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