Tenure and Promotion: The F.A.T.E. of Adjunct Faculty in Higher Education

Tenure and Promotion: The F.A.T.E. of Adjunct Faculty in Higher Education

Tenure and Promotion: The F.A.T.E. of Adjunct Faculty in Higher Education

By: Dr. Michelle Witherspoon


The fate of adjuncts in tenure/promotion in education (F.A.T.E.) has become an ongoing topic of discussion in higher education. Nica (2017) defined “adjuncts as part-time teaching staff who are employed to lecture for one or more courses in a semester or academic year” (p. 213). Adjunct faculty positions have increased at an alarming rate in all types of institutions and learning environments at the postsecondary level. Why? According to the research conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, institutions of higher learning face challenges with “shrinking operational budgets, shriveling endowments, and increasing amounts of financial aid needed for students to enroll” (Stenerson et al., 2010, para, 1). The multiplication of adjuncts is most notably due to fiscal constraints in higher education. The decrease in resources for higher education has led to “shifts in organizational structure with the increase of outsourcing and partnerships” (Howell, 2003, para. 36).

Subsequently, Nica (2017) contended that a main partnership has pertained to “shifting to overworked and underpaid adjunct faculty” in higher education, due to administrators’ claims that this is an inexpensive budgetary alternative for universities. Nica (2017) found that “three quarters of nontenure-track faculty in the United States are part-timers” (p. 213). This is a huge fraction for faculty compared to earlier years where a larger portion were considered full-time, tenure-track employees. Additionally, these same faculty might even be provided with a graduate teaching or research assistant to help facilitate larger class sizes with academic tasks, depending on the institutional structure. This article contemplates the following inquiries based upon these initial insights:

  1. Has online learning (i.e., distance education) and/or global universities contributed to heightened percentages of the hiring of adjunct faculty?


  1. Has the thought of not receiving tenure and/or promotion for adjunct faculty dampened their spirits and impacted their fate in higher education?

Online learning or distance education has caused institutions of higher education to become more competitive, especially when it comes to enrollment. According to Howell (2003), “students are shopping for courses that meet their schedules and circumstances” (para. 7); and, “more courses, degrees, and universities are becoming available through distance-education programs” (para. 46). Now, cyber-students are able to be more selective because they can attend colleges and universities online without having to geographically relocate. Eom et al. (2006) discovered that cyber-students are generally satisfied with their online education, and it can be a superior mode of instruction. In order to accommodate this increase of potential cyber-students, some institutions are having to hire additional adjunct faculty to keep up with enrollment trends in distance education alone.

Regardless if courses are being taught virtually or conventionally, adjunct faculty are being employed in an effort to save money. Some recent concerns in this hiring practice is that adjunct faculty tend to get discouraged or have dampened spirits about their fate in academia. Adjunct faculty usually do not receive comparable benefits, as defined by Mayhall et al. (2016), that are oftentimes afforded to full-time, tenure-track faculty. Job security is problematic. Adjuncts usually do not receive permanent employment, especially with the rise of application pools. Nica (2017) explained that this is troublesome because “even after adjunct faculty have undergone rigorous examinations during college to gain their PhDs, they find themselves downgraded to the correspondent of migrant employees on their campuses” (p. 213). Many adjunct faculty are having to perform duties of full-time employment, work at multiple universities, drag bags around campus because they do not have an office, and commit to outlandish schedules in an attempt to earn a decent salary. Adjunct faculty instruct the lower level, undergraduate courses with bigger class sizes; whereas, full-time faculty teach the upper level, smaller classes in the discipline. Paulson explained why these acts are being executed with regards to distance education:

Rather than incorporating the responsibility for all technology- and competency-based functions into a single concept of ‘faculty member,’ universities are disaggregating faculty instructional activities and assigning them to distinct professionals… Doing this involves a ‘deliberate division of labor among the faculty, creating new kinds of instructional staff, or deploying nontenure-track instructional staff (such as adjunct faculty, graduate teaching assistants, or undergraduate assistants) in new ways. (Howell, 2003, para. 17)

No distinct answers exist to the questions posited in this article. The fate of adjuncts in tenure/promotion in education (F.A.T.E.) will undeniably continue to be an ongoing topic of discussion in higher education as colleges and universities continue to transform. A major change has already occurred with the diminishment of traditional faculty roles. Distant-learning state universities have already commenced to eliminating tenure altogether. An even newer prediction is that trying to “maintain faculty roles and tenure will be the least desirable characteristic of a twenty-first century university” (Howell, 2003, para. 19), which is the fate of all faculty.


Eom, S., Wen, H., & Ashill, N. (2006, July). The determinants of students’ perceived learning outcomes and satisfaction in university online education. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 4(2). Retrieved from


Howell, S., Williams, P., & Lindsay, N. (2003, September). Thirty-two trends affecting distance education: An informed foundation for strategic planning. Retrieved from


Mayhall, B. Katsinas, S., & Bray, N. (2016, December). The impact of collective bargaining and local appropriations on faculty salaries and benefits at U.S. community colleges. Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy, 8. Retrieved from


Nica, E. (2017, March). Has the shift to overworked and underpaid adjunct faculty helped education outcomes?. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 50(3), 213-216. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857

Stenerson, J., Blanchard, L., Fassiotto, M., Hernandez, M., & Muth, A. (2010). The role of adjuncts in the professoriate. Peer Review: The Future of Faculty Collaborating to Cultivate Change, 12(3). Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org

Wang, A., & Newlin, M. (2002). Predictors of performance in the virtual classroom: Identifying and helping at-risk cyber-students. T H E Journal (Technological Horizons in Education). Retrieved from



Dr. M. L. Witherspoon is an Associate Professor and Dissertation Chair for the University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies, a member of the Center for Leadership Studies and Educational Research Hub, and a college professor in the communication, education, and research disciplines. 

Feel free to reply here with questions, insights, and additional commentary on this topic.



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