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Student Success as Faculty Profiles Radically Shift: Creating Institutional Solutions for Non-Tenure Track Faculty Majorities and Student Learning

Thanks to the Teagle, Carnegie, and Spencer Foundations, we may make some headway on this difficult challenge. In partnership with the Association for American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), I will examine solutions for creating a new professoriate that best supports student learning through a process called a Delphi study. AAC&U has a longstanding agenda of supporting student learning and quality undergraduate education. It is not surprising that they have noticed the connection between the poor conditions of faculty and student learning, as this is core to their mission.

Each of these foundations has provided support to bring together key stakeholders and experts from across higher education to address this issue. In the Delphi method, a group of experts is consulted via survey and then brought together in-person to help develop solutions to complex national problems. The method involves four key processes: identifying key experts (usually somewhere between 20–40 individuals) that represent very different perspectives and interests; framing and presenting the problem to the various experts; asking for written responses to a variety of key questions (e.g., what are policy alternatives); and then meeting face-to-face to discuss policy alternatives. This Delphi project will bring together policymakers, accreditors, unions, experts from national projects related to faculty or policy, researchers on faculty, non-tenure-track faculty leaders, higher education association leaders, disciplinary society leadership, campus and system leaders, and leaders on teaching and learning, to reform projects in higher education. It will bring together leaders from the two-year, four-year, liberal arts, and research university sectors to examine solutions that transcend these boundaries.

While a Delphi study may focus on best practices or policies, we will be attentive to asking experts to develop solutions within the context of the challenges facing higher education including shrinking state budgets, rapid changes within fields of study, changing student interests and demographics, and other issues that have led to the rise of non-tenure-track faculty. Most solutions offered to date have not been developed in thinking about the overall system and have not always examined what is best for student learning. We will also ask participants to be attentive to disciplinary and institutional differences—rather than developing simplistic solutions unlikely to gain traction or that have been offered through prior proposals. While small and disparate efforts have been made to address this issue through the rise of new groups, unionization, research on particular facets, and conferences, no project has attempted to bring together the varying perspectives on this issue. We believe this is necessary to move toward solutions.

A second phase of the project is to brainstorm with various existing AAC&U projects and campuses about integrating the ideas and solutions from the Delphi Report. AAC&U is working with a variety of projects that focus on the importance of faculty and curriculum to student learning. These projects have already expressed concern over how to best work with non-tenure-track faculty and are seeking guidance on this issue—ensuring a ready audience for the ideas that will emerge from the Delphi Study. Also, some campuses participating in these projects have their own promising practices that can be shared with the group and drawn upon for the Delphi study. These projects are perfect testing grounds for the policy alternatives that develop as a result of the Delphi study.

For example, the project titled Developing a Community College Student Roadmap: From Entrance to Engagement in Educational Achievement and Success, also known as the “Roadmap Project,” is an expanded effort of AAC&U’s flagship initiative, Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP). The Roadmap Project (involving 12 campuses across a host of states) addresses student success in both persistence and achievement of essential learning outcomes early in the college career. Additionally, this project needs to engage faculty—track and non-track, full-time and part-time—to make substantive changes to the curriculum and co-curriculum simultaneously.

Stay tuned for more on the project! We will begin releasing the results of the project in July 2012.

About the author

Adrianna Kezar is an Associate Professor of Higher Education in the Rossier School of Education and Associate Director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education. Her work focuses on higher education leadership, governance, and equity.


William G. Tierney is director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, University Professor and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at the Rossier School of Education.

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