PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - NOVEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 3
Above the Fray - By Thomas K. Grose - Illustration By Edel Rodriguez

By Thomas K. Grose


On the cover: Tenure Protection: Engineering education avoids the storm over part-time faculty. Illustration By Edel RodriguezFor more than a decade, Dwight Barnette has taught first- and second-year computer science courses at Virginia Tech. Each semester, he takes on a full load of four courses. It's a job he loves and expects to continue doing for some time. But his future at Virginia Tech isn't guaranteed. Barnette works year-to-year on a full-time, contract basis. He isn't tenured and isn't on a tenure track.

At first blush, Barnette, 46, seems part of a trend in higher education: the growing use of so-called "contingent faculty"—lower-cost, full- or part-time instructors and researchers who are not tenured and not in tenure-track positions. As of 2001, only 25 percent of all faculty hires in higher education, including community colleges, were for slots that offered tenure. And groups like the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which think many schools are cutting budgets by hiring contingent faculty for jobs once held by their tenured colleagues, are crying foul. It's an economizing that's putting academic freedom and quality education at risk, the AAUP says.

But when it comes to engineering education, Barnette is actually something of a rarity. The growth in contingent faculty has, for a variety of reasons, largely bypassed engineering schools, even as it has flourished in liberal arts departments. "We've been pretty immune to that," says Isaac Greber, AAUP official and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Case Western Reserve University. His university has no full-time, contingent engineering faculty.

And given the research-oriented structure of engineering education, its reliance upon tenured faculty isn't likely to change. "You just cannot have a high level of sustained institutional excellence in scholarship of any sort when a large portion of your faculty are contingent and come and go on a semester or yearly basis," says Richard W. Miksad, former dean of engineering at the University of Virginia. Of the 197 engineering faculty members at Virginia, only about 11 percent are full-time, contract instructors. Miksad thinks that level strikes a "healthy balance."

Tenure, by definition, implies an ability to sustain a high standard of academic performance. Tenured faculty members are expected to "do it all": teach classes, conduct research that moves the profession forward, and provide services to the campus community. First-class academics—the men and women whose cutting-edge research and well-burnished reputations are the lifeblood of engineering colleges—therefore want and expect the rewards that tenure offers, such as better pay, academic freedom, and job security. "It is very clear that the predominate number of faculty at a research institution have to be tenure-track," explains James Melsa, the recently retired dean of the college of engineering at Iowa State University, where only about 14 percent of the instructors could be classified as contingent. "That's the only way you get the top researchers."

Moreover, the highly specialized expertise of many engineering Ph.D.s means that demand for their talents will almost always outstrip supply. "How many Ph.D.s can teach computational fluid dynamics?" asks Berndt Bohm, assistant dean at Old Dominion University's Batten College of Engineering and Technology. "That's not someone you can find on any street corner." Meanwhile, holders of doctorates in such fields as English or history often are immersed in talent pools brimming with equally qualified competitors.

How engineering is taught also affords the tenure system some protection. Most first-year courses for engineering students are non-engineering classes. That means engineering schools need faculty members who can teach upper-level courses; that typically omits contingent instructors, who tend to handle the basics. "The very nature of engineering education doesn't allow for many contingent faculty," Bohm says. The engineering faculty at Old Dominion, for instance, numbers about 80, and of them, only a handful of instructors are contract "lecturers." Virginia Tech uses non-tenured instructors to teach courses like electrical engineering C++, a class students need, yet is not a major part of the discipline. And popular courses like computer science push some schools to use contract teachers to meet the demand for the classes.

Tenure grants academics superb job security, but it also gives engineering schools more freedom for long-term planning. Once a school has attracted a roster of top-notch faculty members, it can "build and plan around them for the long term," without worrying that they'll likely be gone in a few years, Miksad says. Research programs and curricula are built around a school's tenure and tenure-track academics. And well-anchored, tenured professors also tend to become a school's living institutional memory, helping to maintain program stability even if administrators come and go.

Money certainly plays a role, too. Tenured liberal arts professors are under threat because budget squeezes give an edge to lower-paid contingent faculty. But lack of funding is often less of a problem at engineering schools. To be sure, that's not always the case. As Melsa says, the lion's share of an engineering school's budget is for faculty salaries. So, if the university tells it to trim costs by 2 or 3 percent, "the only real place you can do that is the payroll, by not replacing someone."

Engineering schools still tend to get more cash because they offer tangible results to the folks who hold the purse strings: state lawmakers. "We get a reasonable amount of support for the program," explains Andrew F. Peterson, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and an AAUP officer, "because engineering is easier to market to state legislators." Adds Bohm: "Engineering schools can demonstrate economic development, and state legislators like economic development." Moreover, top academics often are research rainmakers who attract big grants from federal agencies and industry, which also benefits their schools. Because those same lab stars are also expected to do some teaching, schools are allowed to charge steeper tuition rates. "We prefer tenure-track faculty. That's what undergraduate students are paying to get," says Rodd Hall, associate dean for administration at Virginia Tech's engineering college. Out of a total faculty of 303, Virginia Tech has just 21 nontenured, full-time teachers. "And that number," Hall says, "is going down all the time." Indeed, five years ago, it had 30 full-time contract teachers.

Size Doesn't Matter

But if larger, research-oriented schools are inoculated from the contingent faculty virus, are smaller schools at more risk? "There might be more of a problem further down the food chain," Georgia Tech's Peterson says. And Melsa admits, "If I were at a small, run-of-the-mill, private school, I'd be worried." But a review of statistics compiled by ASEE that profile the faculties at U.S. engineering schools indicates that very few schools—regardless of size—have large numbers of contingent faculty. And one that does, the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, is moving to increase the number of its tenured faculty.

For some time, Stevens's instructors, tenured and nontenured, numbered around 50 each. Dean George Korfiatis explains that as courses at Stevens became more project-based, with less time spent in the classroom, students needed more time with individual faculty members. So he turned to contract teachers to help ease the load on tenured professors, who also had to make time for research and community service. Stevens also offers a good number of graduate-level courses at off-campus corporate sites that are taught by contract. But Korfiatis says he never uses contract instructors to replace tenured ones. "They just help us meet the needs of the school."

Stevens is hiring more tenured staff. The number is up to 55 now, and it's adding another 10 over the next five years or so. Nontenure hires, Korfiatis says, will be made only when necessary because "We want to grow our research program. And people who generate grants more often than not are tenured."

But Miksad says research needn't be the only route to excellence. "Outstanding teaching-focused institutions such as Rose-Hulman are as deeply committed to sustained excellence in scholarship—albeit of a different kind, perhaps—as research-focused institutions such as Berkeley or MIT are." Certainly contingent faculty members are scarce at all three schools. There are no contingents working among the 87 faculty members at The Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology or among the 356 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Of the 257 engineering faculty members at the University of California-Berkeley, only a dozen are full-time, nontenured instructors.

Dwight Barnette says he prefers to focus on the classroom. "I do like teaching and I like the campus atmosphere. I would not have kept doing it if I hadn't enjoyed it so much." He admits that he "probably could have earned more in industry." Academic life, he says, "allows me to be my own manager," which often isn't the case in industry. Within some school-set parameters, Barnette says, he can pretty much tailor and teach his courses as he sees fit.

Schools sometimes use a fair number of nontenured faculty members to teach courses that aren't technical, like writing and ethics. And many of these instructors have liberal arts diplomas. One reason they're not in tenure-track jobs is they can't do the scholarly research needed to advance the discipline of engineering. "They write a lot of books," Miksad says, "but it's not research per se." He notes that one of his teachers, working with engineering colleagues, recently published a book on ethics in nanotechnology. But the burgeoning area of engineering education is offering some of these instructors a chance to do research on how best to teach engineering. "It's an area of evolving scholarship," Hall says. Virginia Tech recently started a department of engineering education, and in the process, converted two writing instructors to tenure-track posts.

Whether full-time, untenured teachers are allowed—or encouraged—to dabble in research depends on the school. Virginia Tech says it hires teachers to teach. Nothing more. An instructor who is teaching four classes a semester and meeting regularly with students hasn't the time to do research, Hall insists. "It could weaken the system." Barnette, however, says that on his own time he usually is working as part of a team on at least one grant a year. Because he is based at a school with a sterling research reputation, he says, grant opportunities regularly present themselves. And Virginia Tech will, he adds, allow him to buy out some of his teaching time if he wants to devote more time to the lab. So far, he hasn't done that. "But I would if the right grant came along."

Virginia, however, expects its contract instructors to make time for research, even though they're hired only to teach. "We expect some research or intellectual scholarship," Miksad says. "If someone wants to be just a teacher, it's not going to work: They're doing themselves a disservice, and their students, too."

A recent policy statement issued by the AAUP noted that full-time, tenure-track faculty appointments usually result from rigorous national searches. "Contingent faculty, by contrast, are often hired in hurried circumstances," it said. Another problem, it said, is that contract faculty often are not properly reviewed and given a chance to develop professionally and advance. The deans interviewed for this story, however, say that while those lapses may happen elsewhere, they don't happen at their schools.

Melsa admits that searches for contract instructors may not be as demanding as those for tenure-track jobs. "We're not hiring for life, so initially there may not be quite as scrupulous a vetting process." However, he adds, "it is a pretty rigorous screening, and they have to prove themselves in the marketplace. If they're teaching badly, they're going to be thrown out." Miksad uses national searches for contract faculty, and once they're hired, they're reviewed by the same committees that review tenure-track faculty. The only difference: Teachers needn't show evidence of excellence in research. "But if they can, so much the better. It's icing on the cake."

Stopgap Profs

The trend within four-year institutions has been to hire full-time instructors and researchers on fixed-term contracts but not to rely on part-timers. And certainly few engineering schools have crowded rosters of part-time faculty. Many of them tend to use part-timers—sometimes called adjuncts—to fill in during periods when full-time, tenure-track jobs are vacant and haven't yet been filled. Those rigorous, national searches can take many months to conduct.

Moreover, engineering schools in particular often use part-time help gleaned from the private sector to teach specialist courses or to give students professional insights from industry. Iowa State has brought in experts from Boeing to teach part-time. Case Western Reserve has used NASA engineers. "We use outside expertise quite well," Greber says. Old Dominion, based in Norfolk, Va., makes use of the huge U.S. Navy presence there. Many upper-level navy officers are well-trained, well-schooled engineers. And since they're often relatively young when they retire, the school gladly brings them on board to teach specialized classes, like water courses or engineering management. Bohm says it has a stable of about 25 to 30 ex-Navy officer adjuncts it uses, though not all of them teach every semester.

Tenure doesn't guarantee a job for life, but it does offer a huge amount of job security. Academics working from contract to contract must contend with a weaker safety net. But administrators say that labor law and interpretations of the 14th Amendment's due process clause, now afford nontenured faculty strong protections, particularly those who have stayed at one place for a certain number of years or for a certain number of contracts. Besides, Miksad contends: "If anyone views tenure as job protection, you probably made a mistake tenuring them. For me, it meant that my career was in my hands, and no longer in someone else's hands. That's all I gained from it."

Schools like Virginia Tech and Stevens say they try to give contract faculty some extra help and security. Hall says Virginia Tech has hired some instructors on a full-time basis when they could have been brought in on a part-time basis. That way they earned full-time salaries and got some benefits. Stevens gives nontenured instructors multiyear contracts, not annual ones. Barnette notes that although Virginia Tech uses yearly contracts, state law requires that contract faculty members be given a year's notice ahead of each contract if they're going to be let go. That gives them and their contracted colleagues two years to find a new job.

Overall, tenure is a perq Barnette sees as unnecessary. "Out in industry, no one has tenure. I don't see it as a requirement for me to work." But, clearly, for the majority of engineering schools, tenure remains an academic tradition that keeps them strong and their reputations intact.

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Great Britain.


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