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How Effective Are They? Exploring the Impact of Contingent Faculty on Undergraduate Education

From: The Review of Higher Education
Volume 30, Number 2, Winter 2007
pp. 91-123 | 10.1353/rhe.2006.0080

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Researchers and faculty groups have become increasingly concerned with the changing mix of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty appointments (American Association of University Professors, 2001, 2003; Baldwin & Chronister, 2001; Benjamin, 1998a, 1998b, 2002; Chait, 2002). Between 1975 and 1995, the number of part-time faculty increased by 103%, and the number of full-time tenure-ineligible faculty by 93%. Meanwhile, the number of probationary, tenure-track faculty decreased by 12%. The most recent estimates suggest that more than half of all instructional staff are contingent faculty—working in part-time or in full-time, but tenure-ineligible, positions (American Association of University Professors, 2001; Baldwin & Chronister, 2002; Gappa, 2001; U.S. Department of Education, 2000).

Why has higher education become so reliant on contingent workers? Critics are quick to point to problems with the tenure system. They suggest that tenure increases costs, stifles faculty productivity, and decreases the ability of colleges and universities to adapt in a rapidly changing society (Baldwin & Chronister, 2001, 2002; Gappa, 2001; Leslie, 1998; Massy & Wilger, 1992; Tierney, 1998). Others argue that an aging faculty and a surplus of aspiring academics have created a labor market that forces institutions to turn to contingent faculty for undergraduate instruction (Baldwin & Chronister, 2001; Gappa, 2001; Gappa & Leslie, 1993). With declines in public trust, decreases in governmental funding, and sharp increases in student enrollments, institutions have sought more flexible and less expensive sources of instruction (Baldwin & Chronister, 2001; Fairweather, 1996; Gappa, 2001; Gappa & Leslie, 1993; Rhoades, 1996; Tierney, 1998).

While reasons for the increases in the number of contingent appointments are various, few have examined the unintended consequences of employing large numbers of tenure-ineligible faculty. Researchers argue that the shrinking number of tenure-track positions will erode academic freedom and irreparably damage the academic profession (Clark, 1987; Finkin, 2000; Tierney, 1998). Although some have asserted that the reliance on contingent appointments negatively impacts undergraduate education (Benjamin, 1998, 1998, 2002), little evidence supports this conclusion. Several scholars have suggested that contingent faculty are as effective—and in some cases, more effective—in delivering instruction when compared with their tenured or tenure-track counterparts (Baldwin & Chronister, 2001; Chronister & Baldwin, 1999; Gappa & Leslie, 1993; Roueche, Rouche, & Milliron, 1995). Few, if any, of these claims, either positive or negative, are supported by empirical evidence, thus leaving unresolved the issue of the effect of employing contingent faculty on undergraduate education (Baldwin & Chronister, 2002; Benjamin, 2002). In fact, "What is known on this subject up to this point is . . . not very much" (Schuster, 2003, p. 19).

Purpose and Research Questions

The purpose of this study is to explore the impact of the use of contingent faculty on undergraduate education. A long line of inquiry suggests that faculty play a central role in undergraduate education (Astin, 1993; Kuh & Hu, 2001; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). However, most of this research treats faculty as a heterogeneous group and does not examine the impact that appointment type has on faculty engagement in good practices. Therefore, this study asks three questions:

  • To what degree do contingent faculty members engage students in good practices less frequently than their tenured and tenure-track counterparts?
  • What effect does the proportion of contingent faculty on a campus have on the frequency that faculty engage in good practices?
  • Does the effect of having a contingent appointment vary between institutions? If so, can these differences be explained with institutional characteristics?

Conceptual Framework

Framing this study are theories from labor economists and research on best practices in higher education. Labor economists define contingent work as "any job in which an individual does not have an explicit or implicit contract for long-term employment or in which the minimum hours worked can vary in a nonsystematic manner" (Povlika & Nardone, 1989, p. 11). The normal or standard arrangement for workers during the twentieth century was performed full-time and was thought to continue indefinitely (Kalleberg, 2000). In recent years, however, the demand for nonstandard work arrangements, commonly called contingent, has grown dramatically (Barker & Christensen, 1998; Connelly & Gallagher, 2004; Kalleberg, 2000; Liden et al., 2003; Matusik & Hill, 1998; Pfeffer & Baron, 1988).

The dramatic growth of contingent faculty in American higher education since the mid-1970s mirrors the increases observed...