By Thomas K. Grose
BUCKING THE TREND IN HIGHER EDUCATION,
ENGINEERING DEPARTMENTS HAVE YET TO EMPLOY NONTENURED, "CONTINGENT"
FACULTY IN SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS.
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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