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Faculty Positions: A Tale of Two Systems - Tenure v. Adjunct

Colleges and universities hire faculty as adjunct or tenure-track. The adjunct approach provides desirable flexibility for the employer and, sometimes, for the employee, too. Still, most academics seek tenure-track positions. The experts interviewed here discuss the pros and cons of tenure and adjunct systems.

Mike May

Brown University (
The University of British Columbia (
Whitman College (

Almost every student pursuing a career in academics desires the same ultimate goal: a tenure-track position. This achievement means essentially a life-time position, intellectual freedom, and a sort of status in the field. Nonetheless, searches to fill tenure-track positions grow continually more competitive, as the number of jobs dwindles. According to “Staff in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2003, and Salaries of Full-Time Instructional Faculty, 2003-04,” which was issued by the U.S. Department of Education, the total number of postsecondary faculty grew by 26 percent from 1995 through 2003, but the number of full-time faculty on the tenure track increased by only 17 percent. During the same period, the number of part-time faculty increased by 43 percent. Consequently, anyone seeking a tenure-track position faces a significant challenge. Still, the experts interviewed here see strength in the tenure system and great career options now and in the future.

In essence, the divide lies between tenure-track and adjunct positions. Patrick Keef, dean of the faculty and professor of mathematics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, clearly draws the distinction. He says, “A tenure-line position is a permanent commitment by a college, presuming that a faculty member meets the standards of excellence for the duration of a career.” He adds, “An adjunct position is temporary in time and may be unstable in the amount of teaching classes given to the individual.”

An Adjunct Overview
Although tenure-track is the most common goal, adjunct positions offer benefits too. Rajiv Vohra, dean of the faculty and professor of economics at Brown University, says, “An adjunct position is often a good way for people with an interest in teaching related to their professional jobs to teach without giving up their main careers.” Keef adds that “some employees are interested in the flexibility of being an adjunct. They may not be interested in the pressures of a full-time position.”

In addition, Vohra points out that adjunct positions benefit an institution. He says, “There are areas in which demand may be more than academic. It could be a professional interest, such as accounting.” Vohra also states that adjunct positions let institutions balance faculty needs with student interests. He says, “If the popularity of some fields changes over time, it is easier for an institution to hire adjuncts in areas of new interest. It provides a university with financial flexibility to manage things.” Keef agrees, saying, “Most institutions use adjuncts for flexibility.” For example, adjunct faculty members might fill in when tenured members take sabbaticals.

Institutions might also use adjunct positions to keep a tenure-track employee. Keef says, “With a dual-career couple, where one is in a tenured position, the other might be able to contribute in a part-time capacity. That might assist the couple with a better income.” He adds, “That happens a lot.”

Despite the benefits of flexibility, adjunct positions do not always create a desirable situation. “Sometimes, people have part-time positions because of the reality of the marketplace, not because they want this kind of position,” Vohra says. “The job market could be very tight. Some people even have several adjunct positions because that is the only way to put together a full-time salary.” He concludes: “That is not something a faculty member would take as a first choice. It leads to a situation that can be difficult as a long-term plan.”

Employers, for the most part, avoid too many adjunct positions. Vohra says, “The more positions that are part time or short term, the less loyalty there is toward the institution. That has a negative impact on the institution.” In addition, he says, “It’s difficult to specify exactly what it is that you are contracting for, in the sense that the responsibilities of a faculty member go beyond what transpires in the regularly scheduled classrooms. One is looking for a commitment that involves advising, helping students with research opportunities, and everything that happens outside the classroom.”

Tenure: Higher Dedication

For faculty members, getting tenure offers many benefits. For one thing, tenured faculty play fundamental roles in developing the future of a department, according to Michael Hayden, director and senior scientist at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics and professor in the Department of Medical Genetics at The University of British Columbia. He says, “Tenured faculty members play a big role in recruitment and voice their opinions. They have a much bigger stake all around.”

Keef adds that tenure includes much greater expectations for scholarship than do adjunct positions. In addition, he says, “Tenure positions are better paid, provide better benefits, and better job security.” He adds, “Tenure is the gold standard.” Vohra adds, “For all practical purposes, tenure is a permanent job.” But he continues: “Also, the university makes tenure decisions with a long-term view, so that is the reason for the elaborate procedures to grant it.”

The tenure system, though, might not always benefit an institution. “In hiring a tenure-track faculty member,” says Vohra, “an institution makes a long-term commitment, but circumstances—like the needs of the institution—might change over time. So this system comes with some baggage, to a degree.” Still he adds, “The benefits turn out to be significant enough that institutions accept the idea of tenure. Anyway, the most sought-after researchers today would not accept a position that did not come with tenure.”

Modern Modifications

Some positions land a bit between adjunct and tenure. For example, Hayden points out that departments at The University of British Columbia often include associate members. He says, “These are people with some relation to a department, but not active members. These faculty have a primary focus outside the department and either collaborate or work with someone in the department where there is a mutual benefit.” In general, though, such associate members are usually tenured in another department or center. Hayden says that this sort of connection between departments and centers improves opportunities for collaborations. He adds, “It gives strength to a department. It adds credibility.”

For any sort of position, people on the job market wonder what opportunities exist. The experts interviewed here point out open positions. Hayden says, “We are recruiting three new faculty to our Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics.” He adds that this search will involve candidates from around the world. Currently, this center employs 150 people from approximately 35 countries. Likewise, Vohra says, “We are going through a fairly significant expansion, hiring 100 faculty positions, and those are tenure-track positions.”

The figures from the U.S. Department of Education, however, indicate a decrease in tenure-track positions over the past few years. Nonetheless, the experts interviewed here do not see a significant increase in the use of adjuncts at their institutions. Vohra says that Brown University relies mostly on tenured faculty. He says, “We have some adjuncts and some visiting professors, but there is no sense in which we have tried to increase reliance on adjuncts. Most of our faculty have tenure-track positions. We have some lecturers, but they are a small fraction of the faculty.”

Although Keef concedes that the tenure system might not be as healthy as it was 30 or 40 years ago, he still sees it as a very strong system. He says, “It’s my impression that people have been predicting the demise of tenure since I have been in academics, but it seems to be doing just fine.”

Mike May ( is a publishing consultant for science and technology based in Minnesota.

DOI: 10.1126/science.opms.r0600003

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