Delphi Report on Contingent Faculty: A Professor’s Response

The following is a guest post by Donald Rogers. Rogers is the chair of the Organization of American Historians Committee on Part-Time, Adjunct and Contingent Faculty, and serves as the OAH liaison to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce. He is currently serving as an Assistant Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University.

Recently, the Delphi Project brought an important report on “The Changing Faculty and Student Success” that demands our careful attention and discussion. Here’s what I personally think about it from my vantage point as a long-time contingent faculty member and as chair of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Committee on Part-Time, Adjunct and Contingent Faculty.

The Delphi Project is funded by various foundations and is spearheaded by Adrianna Kezar in conjunction with the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. As I understand it, Delphi’s report aims to think in big terms about the future shape of American higher education, given the radical changes in the composition of the faculty workforce that have taken place in the past fifty years. The report is thus premised on figures that we are all familiar with: tenure-track faculty nowadays constitute just 33.5 percent of faculty, as compared to 18.8 percent non-tenure-track full-timers and 47.7 percent adjuncts.

Based on this change, the report asks what I think is exactly the right question for those of us in higher education to ponder: what connection is there between poor working conditions of the 66.5 percent proportion of contingent faculty and student learning outcomes? The report is thus not about documenting contingent instructors’ difficult working conditions or about making them more equitable—we already know those details—but about addressing their impact is on the quality of education rendered.

On this crucial point, I am disappointed to say, the report is little more than suggestive. In my judgment, the report’s real strength is to propose processes to ferret out more reliable data about contingent faculty working conditions, to raise the consciousness of higher education leaders, to coordinate the activities of “stake holding” professional groups, and, most importantly, to re-envision not only the future role of the faculty, but also the future shape of higher education institutions themselves. The array of action steps suggested is very rich. Some of the more intriguing steps include rethinking the “three-tier” tenured/non-tenured permanent/adjunct structure of the modern faculty and adopting a multilayered approach to institutional change ranging from the campus level to university systems to accrediting agencies.

Having said all of this—and I am just speaking for myself here—three interrelated aspects of the report trouble me, and so I urge a very cautious reading of this report.

First, I am troubled by the report’s top-down methodology. The report talks about relying on the resources of “stakeholders,” defining stakeholders as “academic leaders and system heads, leaders from higher education professional associations and academic unions, disciplinary associations, and accrediting agencies, as well as education researchers, economists, and organizations representing non-tenure-track faculty.” (pp. 3-4) While the report does put unions and groups representing non-tenure track faculty at the table, the “stakeholders” are dominated by administrators and experts, while the voices of the real stakeholders, the work-a-day faculty and especially contingent full-timers and adjuncts, are largely ignored. Were faculty committees in various professional societies like the OAH or Modern Language Association to be included? What about students and their parents, the end users of the higher education system? The report shows a strong lack of perspective from operational level of higher education, which I think ought to remedied.

Second, I am concerned with the report’s “one-size-fits-all” approach to envisioning the problems of and solutions to the modern faculty workforce composition. Those of us at the OAH are very sensitive to vast diversity of higher education institutions, some of which employ few contingent faculty and some of which hire many, and all of which use them in different ways from place to place. When I presented the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) issue brief to the OAH executive board several years ago, the esteemed faculty on the board confronted me with very pertinent worries that the brief did not adequately consider different kinds of institutions. Their well-taken point ought to be applied to the Delphi Project report. More attention, in my judgment, needs to be given to tremendous diversity and complexity of modern American higher education, especially the very uneven way in which faculty workforce restructuring has affected different institutions and different kinds of institutions.

Third and finally, I was especially disappointed at the report’s sparse treatment of the big question—the impact of a contingent workforce on student learning outcomes. Surprisingly, given this question’s centrality, the report has just a little to say. At one point, the report asserts that measuring student learning outcomes is elusive and that relating it to the contingent labor force difficult (p. 17), and at another point it just hints at ways that contingent hiring affects teaching quality, such as late scheduling of courses (obviating preparation time), lack of professional development support, lack of contingent faculty accessibility outside of class, or lack of contingent faculty role in curricular decision making (p. 3).

These suggestions are good, but they just barely expose the tip of the iceberg. Other considerations ought to include the way in which underpaid contingents’ struggle to make a living hinders their teaching efforts, the manner in which spotty office space and administrative support affects their instructional duties, or the fact that most contingents teach survey classes over and over among beginning students, putting contingent faculty out of touch with advanced work in their disciplines. There is a real need, in my judgment, for the investigators of the Delphi Project to take a much closer look at the operational level of higher education. They need to look at changing student capabilities, the size of classes, the day-to-day interactions between students and contingents, and the effect of contingent faculty members’ concrete working conditions on instruction. Most important is student learning. Is there really a difference between learning outcomes in contingents’ classes and full-time tenure track faculty’s classes? Data on this is scarce and vague.

In sum—again, just speaking for myself—I found the Delphi Project report to be very stimulating, and a good starting point for discussion, but not by any means the final answer to the problems that we face with the contingent workforce. In my view, CAW and professional societies need to steer the attention of projects like this one much more toward the day-to-day work of contingent faculty and their students, and to look much more persistently at the nitty-gritty employment conditions that contingent faculty endure day-by-day to do their teaching jobs well.

3 thoughts on “Delphi Report on Contingent Faculty: A Professor’s Response

  1. I agree that attention needs to be toward “the nitty-gritty employment conditions” of contingent faculty but, to really move towards solution of the problem, we need to move discussion away from frameworks of industry and business that include concepts like “stakeholders” and “clients.” Contingent faculty aren’t simply temporary hires any more than tenured faculty are permanent employees. The needs of education and education professionals are different from the needs of businesses and employees. Until we recognize that, addressing the problems of contingent faculty (let alone of education as a whole) is going to be extremely difficult.

  2. Don,

    Thank you so much for reading the Delphi meeting report and offering up constructive criticism. I did want to provide a little bit of background that might help you and others in understanding our purpose and goals. The overall purpose of my note is to invite people to visit our website and get a better sense for the evolving goals of the project. The report from the meeting is just the beginning of a much longer process, and it was not offered as any type of final solution or word on the issue.

    I am very much a supporter of bottom up change and two different books I have authored (one co-authored with several non-tenure-track faculty) – Understanding the new majority of non-tenure-track faculty in higher education and Embracing non-tenure-track faculty describe the strategic efforts of contingent faculty leaders across the country in leading changes. But one of the other findings that emerged from these studies and analyses is the very precarious nature of these hard won changes and this finding has made me concerned that we need more stakeholders involved.

    The Delphi approach is not a top-down one but brings together various stakeholders (which is not a business term but a community development and organizing term) across a system to address a difficult and vexing problem that has existed for a long time. The focus was on developing a process, that can lead to solutions. Because, to be honest, we know what needs to be done for the most part. The statements by academic unions and disciplinary societies provide strong guidance on some of the important policies and practices that can be put in place. And there’s a lot of research that exists about the poor working conditions as well as the impact of these poor working conditions on student learning. I was interested to see that Don found the report wanting in terms of the impact of the contingent workforce on student learning. All of that data is provided in an appendix referred to on the first page of the report, referenced several times in the report, and four other resources are also listed on our project website. Because we have so much information on the issue of student learning, we could not include all of it in the report so it was added in as an appendix and a variety of resources placed on our website. In fact, all of the meeting participants were given an extensive notebook with all this data before the meeting to help inform the discussion. So the report doesn’t review this information again because it is provided in all these other resources. Instead our task was to focus on creating a process to address the operational issues and problems that have been so well documented over the years and that we synthesized in preparation for the meeting. So the meeting report was not intended to provide these recommended policies and practices (that have been documented) but instead to address how we can get those policies and practices implemented.

    The intent was not for this to be a bottom-up approach — but to have people who generally do not communicate and problem solve together but that are critical to addressing the complex problem come together and work collectively. I wholeheartedly believe that unless higher education stakeholders come together we will not come up with a solution that is in the best interests of students or the learning enterprise. We were much more focused on thinking through the system that needs to be altered. So it is good to see that the strength of the report was identified in terms of examining a process to address the contingency problem. How will we ever get accountability for campus policies unless accreditation agencies or boards are involved? How can we develop sound policies to address contingency unless non-tenure track faculty are involved in developing policies? How can we alter the socialization of faculty without involving disciplinary societies? How can we create better campus policies unless we involve administrators? All of these issues were on the table.

    We contacted all of the unions and many different disciplinary societies ( There simply were too many disciplinary societies to include everyone’s since the working meeting could not include many more than 30 people to have discussion and to problem solve). We asked unions and disciplinary societies for representatives that understood non-tenure-track faculty issues strongly and had been involved with them. We also involved the New Faculty Majority and several faculty who have been in or currently are in non-tenure-track faculty roles. Robert Townsend, from the American Historical Association did attend and while a member of the MLA could not officially attend, they were invited and several people in attendance are MLA members. Out of the 30 individuals, 4 were from unions, 4 were disciplinary societies, and 3 represented non-tenure-track faculty specifically. We also had people who have been in the trenches, supportive of non-tenure-track faculty, like Gary Rhoades.

    Throughout our process, we reminded all the stakeholders about the diversity of higher education and they were represented within the room. In fact, one of the community college organizations came up to me and said: “ thank you for having such a diversity of stakeholders here, usually I’m the only community college person in the room.” Land grant institutions, community colleges, for-profits, research universities, liberal arts colleges, doctoral institutions, all institutional types were represented. In addition to the institutional diversity that was present in the room, in the resources we developed for the meeting, we made sure to cite research from all sectors and to ask the Delphi stakeholders to think about the diversity of higher education as they were brainstorming ways we might address contingency. I was surprised to see the report read as a one-size-fits-all solution. Several times within the report we articulate the importance of acknowledging the multiple sectors represented in the room and we talked about the importance of institutional diversity of higher education to any emerging process. Also, our emphasis on creating data tools and audits for individual campuses to use to assess their environments was intended to help diverse types of campuses come up with unique solutions.

    I have done lots of research on grassroots leadership and been involved in several efforts. Individuals need to be suspicious and cautious of efforts that seem unaligned with their interests and particularly when individuals with power are involved, some skepticism is important. However, I hope that some of these comments help to clarify our purpose of identifying a process for change, to bring together a cross-section of stakeholders, to create a collective responsibility for the problem of contingency, and to build off of the good work that has already occurred within academic unions and disciplinary societies that help point us to needed policies and practices. And I hope that people will support this effort and see it as one among many good efforts to make important changes. Many thanks for reading my response.

    Respectfully, Adrianna Kezar, USC

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