An Exploration of Contingent Faculty Experiences at a Private, Liberal Arts College.

AuthorVicente, Erin


As colleges continue to strive to remain financially sound by growing student populations and campuses, it seems their budgets consistently dwindle, which includes cutbacks to full-time faculty hiring (Maldonado & Riman, 2009). More than ever, colleges are relying on contingent faculty to excel not only in teaching, but other institutional goals (Maldonado & Riman, 2009). Contingent work is defined by Labor Economists as "any job in which an individual does not have an explicit or implicit contract for long-term employment or in which the minimum hours worked can vary in a nonsystematic manner" (Umbach, 2007, p. 93). According to the U.S. Department of Education's Digest of Educational Statistics, higher education institutions now employ over half a million contingent faculty nationwide (Maldonado & Riman, 2009). Contingent faculty includes both full- and part-time positions that are off the tenure-track and represent three out of four new faculty appointments (Kezar & Sam, 2013). There is little doubt that with college enrollments increasing, employment of contingent faculty will continue to increase (Maldonado & Riman, 2009). Both internal and external factors have incited appeals for reform in higher education and its contingent faculty employment policies and practices (Baldwin & Chronister, 2001). Department and institutional work environments of contingent faculty tend to be negative because of outdated policies and practices that do not support contingent faculty (Kezar & Sam, 2013).

Contingent faculty offer institutions flexibility by increasing or decreasing the number of courses being offered based on student enrollment numbers (Meixner, Kruck, & Madden, 2010). Further, contingent faculty hiring allows institutions tractability in hiring at lower costs (Waltman, Bergom, Hollenshead, Miller, & August, 2012). As such, contingent faculty salaries are much lower than full-time faculty (Kimmitt, 2009). Even so, many contingent faculty make the choice to teach and their vulnerability to an institution's exploitation is evident (Modarelli, 2006). Contingent faculty cannot continue to be a means to service an end (Modarelli, 2006). Demands to teach a wider range of students with diverse needs, as well as teachers being held accountable for learning outcomes, puts tremendous pressure on contingent faculty to perform to high standards with little support (Waltman et al., 2012). While some disciplines have larger percentages of contingent faculty, many contingent faculty consistently experience the same common problems. They lack the compensation, benefits, inclusion in departmental social events, curriculum decision-making, professional development, respect, well-equipped offices and supplies, and overall open lines of communication that full-time faculty members enjoy (Fagan-Wilen, Springer, Ambrosino, & White, 2006). However, although contingent faculty can be a valuable resource in helping an institution achieve its mission, such experiences have led many contingent faculty to feel a sense of low job security and for their teaching standards to be compromised (Wallin, 2004). Research suggests contingent faculty who feel undervalued will not bring the same quality of teaching compared to those that feel valued and a part of the department team (Milliken & Dustin, 2008). Umbach (2007) states most contingent faculty spend less time with students and use less engaging teaching methods than tenure-track faculty. Furthermore, such minimal job security for contingent faculty can lead to relying heavily on positive student-teacher evaluations and possible grade inflation (Fagan-Wilen et al., 2006). As such, contingent faculty have just as much opportunity as full-time faculty to impact and influence an institution and its members either negatively or positively. With the increasing hiring of contingent faculty, institutions' understanding of contingent faculty experiences and how contingent faculty perceive their institutional support systems, plays an integral role in how institutions will reform their practices and policies for contingent faculty.

Current literature and research has yet to truly explore what contingent faculty are experiencing (Meixner et al., 2010). In order to equip institutions with the necessary understanding of contingent faculty, and practices and policies that provide institutional support systems for their contingent faculty, more qualitative studies that explore the experiences of an individual institution's contingent faculty, are needed. One-on-one interviews with contingent faculty at their specific place of employment will strengthen current research by giving lived-perspectives from various contingent faculty on their day-to-day experiences at their institutions. By describing, explaining, and finding common themes in the sample participants' language, the research will offer a concrete picture of contingent faculty's experiences relevant to their specific institutions. Such research will aid in advancing the specific institution's awareness of how to include, manage, evaluate, and recognize their contingent faculty (Waltman et al., 2012). In doing so, contingent faculty may be given opportunities to feel more valued through their institutional support systems which include their interpersonal relationships with members of their institutional community.

In recent years, the broader social, economic, and political landscapes in which colleges and universities operate has changed (Baldwin & Chronister, 2001). Both external and internal influences such as lack of government support, new technologies, competition, rising costs, and changing characteristics of students are some of the few reasons for the need to re-evaluate the employment practices and policies at higher education institutions, such as the use of contingent faculty to meet institutional missions (Baldwin & Chronister, 2001). Significant transformations in the American workplace, because of market changes, have led many types of organizations to restructure their current employee-employer relationships through new policies and practices (Baldwin & Chronister, 2001). Therefore, many higher education constituents feel that colleges and universities should make the same types of transformations in restructuring antiquated contingent faculty-institutional relationships and the policies and practices that influence such relationships (Baldwin & Chronister, 2001).

David W. Leslie and Judith M. Gappa, are two of the pioneers and prominent researchers on contingent faculty working conditions and job satisfaction. The social and demographic environments have changed little since Leslie and Gappa's beginning research of part-time faculty in 1982 (Merriam, 2010). Much of their research developed in the 1990's and 2000's, and continues today. However, most of their research has focused on contingent faculty at community colleges through both qualitative and quantitative research, which has not yet gotten to the core of faculty perception through their own description (Leslie & Gappa, 2002; Meixner, 2010). While Leslie and Gappa note the discrepancies that exist between contingent faculty and full-time faculty, their research hasn't yet fully developed contingent faculty's voice with regard to their own experiences at a small, four-year, private liberal arts institution (Gappa, 2008).

Although research on contingent faculty working conditions and job satisfaction began in the late 1970's and early eighties, today, the research remains vague at dissecting contingent faculty's own perceptions of what they are experiencing at their individual workplace (Umbach, 2007). Much of the research classifies faculty as a generalizable, homogenous group, and most institutions treat all contingent faculty alike (Baldwin & Wawrzynski, 2012; Gappa, 1993; Umbach, 2007). As such, research suggests institutions often fall short in supporting their contingent faculty by assuming all contingent faculty identify and connect with their institutions in the same way (Arsdale, 1978; Hoyt, 2012). Various institutions act as unique "labor markets" and yet, if stakeholders in higher education could distinguish the differences in experiences and perceptions between contingent faculty at different institutions, much could be learned in order to improve contingent faculty's connection to their specific institution (Conley & Leslie, 2002). Exploration of contingent faculty experiences at their individual institution will provide stories of rich dialogue that will address issues beyond compensation to interpersonal relationships within the contingent faculty member's place of employment. Therefore, a study that focuses on one specific institution will answer precisely what support systems are in place that encourage or discourage their contingent faculty from making a deep connection with their institution (Arsdale, 1978).

Theoretical Framework

Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory (SET) suggests "that individuals form relationships with those who can provide valued resources. In exchange for these resources individuals will reciprocate by providing resources and support" (Umbach, 2007, p. 93). Further, individuals who feel supported and rewarded will have greater commitment to an organization (Umbach, 2007). As Homans (1982) argued, social exchange will not likely continue unless each party rewards the other. Social exchange happens under two provisions: there is a goal to meet an end through social interaction with other people, and means must be adapted to foster achievement of such ends (Blau, 1964). One can think of these provisions with contingent faculty having the end goal of providing students with a sound learning experience through their teaching, thus the social interaction lying between contingent faculty and their students. Further, contingent faculty may adapt their teaching methods and style, thus their means of...

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