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New report explores full-time and contingent faculty roles and composition

October 3, 2016

LAWRENCE - The decreasing number of full-time faculty in colleges and universities is one of the most discussed issues in higher education. An illuminating new report from three researchers, including Lisa Wolf-Wendel, professor of higher education and associate dean at the School of Education, recently investigated the matter in the institutions that belong to the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC). Wolf-Wendel, along with colleagues, Christopher Morphew, professor and executive associate dean in the College of Education at the University of Iowa, and Kelly Ward, professor and chair of higher education at Washington State University, were commissioned by the CIC to study the topic for the report, which was published in June 2016.

Is the number of full-time faculty decreasing at CIC schools? If so, what does it mean for the independent colleges that make up the council? The researchers used three different research approaches to help answer these questions, the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and two surveys sent to all member CIC schools, one directed to the main institutional research officer and one to the chief academic officer.

The researchers divided faculty into two groups. One was full-time faculty, comprised of all faculty who teach full-time and hold multi-year appointments, whether they are tenure-track or not. The second group, contingent faculty, may be full-time or part-time, but are hired either on an annual or semester basis, for one-class or many.

Defining the types of faculty, however, is insufficient to explore the question; what and where the faculty teach is also central to understanding the situation. Their discoveries? Contingent faculty numbers have risen at almost the same rate in CIC institutions as in other higher education institutions (including research-centered universities and other private colleges.) However, looking at the types of programs shows a more nuanced picture of the phenomenon.

Wolf-Wendel explains: “CIC member institutions are not immune to the trend. They hire contingent faculty in similar percentages as other institutions. The use is greater in certain fields, usually professional ones (those that prepare students for professions such as nursing, education, business) and in certain programs.”

In traditional undergraduate residential programs, the ratio of full-time faculty to contingent faculty has remained fairly stable. Wolf-Wendel notes, “Many of these colleges have full-time residential, traditionally aged liberal arts programs. The majority of classes taught to that population are traditional full-time faculty. The hiring of contingent faculty has not largely had an effect on the experiences of these traditional students.

“Most of these colleges are tuition-driven. They are having a difficult time making ends meet by only providing traditional on-campus experiences. As a result, many have expanded their programs to serve adult, online, and graduate students,” says Wolf-Wendel. “It’s these programs that are staffed predominantly by contingent faculty.”

The authors raise important questions about the use of contingent faculty in addition to their rising numbers. How does their hiring process differ from that of full-time faculty? What sort of support from the institution do they receive? What are the institution’s expectations of these faculty? Not least, do all of these factors support the core mission of the institution – critical to the survival of these small schools?

The authors found that contingent faculty were treated differently than their full-time counterparts. More than 90% of the schools used the following for new full-time faculty: a national search, extensive on-campus visit, teaching demonstration, teaching and research statements, and reference checks. The same percentage looked at prospective full-time faculty to see if they fit with the mission of the institution. Searches for full-time faculty on annual contracts used the above, but in lesser numbers. The real difference can be seen in contingent faculty who were hired for part-time or only contracted to teach a course or courses for a semester at a time. References were checked in half of the schools. Mission fit was considered in just over 40% of the schools. A teaching philosophy statement was by fewer than 20 percent of institutions.

In addition to the differences in hiring, substantial differences were found in the resources available for full-time and contingent faculty. The contingent faculty are not provided the training, professional development or support that full-time faculty get. There is limited access to professional resources – many schools do not provide office space, a few do not even provide institutional email accounts.

Expectations and the role the two groups of faculty play in the life of the institution varied as well. Says Wolf-Wendel, “Relatively limited access to professional resources and different expectations for teaching and service can mean that contingent faculty members are less likely to be engaged with their colleagues or to participate in student learning experiences outside the classroom. This can be a challenge for independent colleges that emphasize student engagement and shared governance as central to their mission.”

All of this suggests that not only are the contingent faculty less engaged in the life of the school, it also means that full-time faculty have greater demands. Less full-time faculty mean there are fewer faculty to take on traditional faculty tasks – engage in shared governance, be part of student life, take on roles to engage and retain students through advising, research, and presence at institutional events.

The authors state in the report: “All faculty members play a vital role in the teaching and learning process and in the expansion of campus missions; thus, all faculty members need to be integrated into the fabric of institutional life.” Their recommendations to do this include “clarifying faculty roles; updating hiring, orientation, and evaluation procedures; providing resources; and reviewing the impact of contingent faculty on both students and long-term faculty members.”

The full report is available as a PDF at

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