Evaluating Teaching Faculty Positions: Part 2

18 min read
I'm recruiting a Ph.D. student. Find out more here.

Winter has arrived as a step function out here on the prairie. So it’s time to return to the topic of evaluating teaching faculty positions.

Because this started getting long, I broke it into multiple parts. This is part two of three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. For more context, please see the first post in the series. And, at the suggestion of a reader, you can also access all three parts as a single shareable and commentable document.

As a brief reminder, here are eight questions I would consider when evaluating teaching faculty positions:

  1. How many teaching faculty are there in the department? (Covered in Part 1.)
  2. How does the department evaluate teaching, and how are teaching faculty evaluated for promotion? (Covered in Part 1.)
  3. What are the details regarding contract length and security of employment? (Covered here.)
  4. Does the department pay teaching faculty and research faculty equivalently at the same rank? (Covered here.)
  5. Are there departmental leadership opportunities available to teaching faculty? (Covered here.)
  6. How are teaching assignments done? (Covered in Part 3.)
  7. Ask for details about the department’s commitment to broadening participation in the discipline. (Covered in Part 3.)
  8. What type of institutional support for innovative instruction is the department willing to provide? (Covered in Part 3.)

Here I’ll pick up where we left off last time, and discuss contracts, pay, and leadership opportunities.

Contract Length and Security of Employment
Contract Length and Security of Employment

As most people reading this are likely aware, most universities offer a form of job security to research faculty called academic tenure:

A tenured post is an indefinite academic appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances, such as financial exigency or program discontinuation.

It requires a great deal of self control, but I am going to avoid discussing all the ways in which the tenure system has failed. I’ll save that for some other time.

There are some institutions that provide tenure-like indefinite appointments to teaching faculty—notably the University of California system, the University of Toronto, and a few others. However, not all of them will call it tenure, because apparently you can fool ostensibly brilliant research faculty and overpaid administrators into providing tenure to teaching faculty simply by employing a synonym. The UC system refers to their tenure equivalent as Security of Employment. Toronto calls it Continuing Status. Whatever it takes to fool those crafty administrators!

If an indefinite appointment is attractive to you, focus your search on the small number of institutions that provide this guarantee.

Personally I think that lifetime employment produces pretty negative outcomes, and so tenure isn’t something that matters that much to me. If an indefinite appointment is attractive to you, focus your search on the small number of institutions that provide this guarantee. Or consider applying to jobs at small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) instead, where teaching is typically more highly valued and research expectations are substantially reduced.

But providing tenure-like guarantees to teaching faculty is still pretty unusual, and so at most schools you’ll be on a contract.

At the risk of coming off as too inured in the academic hiring system—yes, there are many other options for employment agreements on the broad spectrum between contract employment (little to no security) and lifetime tenure (infinite security). I remember my father being mystified by this system. “Why can’t they just hire you like a normal employee?” Great question. Honestly, I don’t know.

Among contract teaching faculty positions, there’s still a fair amount of variation in the contract details. At the bad end, you have your 10-month deals—which frequently won’t even be renewed before the academic year begins. Before my department moved to multi-year contracts, it was common for teaching faculty to be several months into the fall semester before receiving confirmation that they were, in fact, employed for the rest of the year. You can do better than this kind of annual sign of disrespect.

Many departments are now offering multi-year contracts, with the longest I’ve heard of being a ten-year contract(1). These are definitely a step in the right direction compared to one-year deals.

Departments that are doing better in this area are usually finding ways to work this into their ad. So you may not need to ask about their current contract policies during the interview process. However, it never hurts to ask whether they can do better! You may or may not find this surprising, but it turns out that frequently nobody in the department has actually spent the time and energy to figure out whether longer contracts or different contract structures are even possible.

I’ll use my own department as an example here. When I arrived in 2017 they were just starting to explore the idea of multi-year contracts. If I remember correctly, some people in the department were not sure whether these were possible under the current university bylaws. Which I found fairly interesting, since I happened to know that one of my teaching faculty colleagues had already negotiated a multi-year contract. It would seem strange if such a formal agreement was, in fact, illegitimate.

And, sure enough, we discovered that multi-year contracts were possible. Great news! But there’s more. The department also realized that it could renew these contracts annually, providing teaching faculty in the department with a bit more stability, and more notice of any intention by the university to terminate our employment. Now we’re on three-year contracts renewed annually, and there’s some talk of trying to extend those to five years at the full Teaching Professor rank. So rolling contracts are another thing to ask about. My sense is that this mainly involves the paperwork to submit new contracts each year—extra work that I’m very pleased that the department is willing to do on our behalf.

It goes to show how teaching faculty can benefit from having a strong advocate within their department

I don’t know exactly what else went into this change, but I credit our department head Nancy Amato for being willing to continue to ask questions and press the issue. It goes to show how teaching faculty can benefit from having a strong advocate within their department, particularly when it comes to issues like contracts and pay that need to be hashed out at higher levels of university administration.

Pay and Pay Equity
Pay and Pay Equity

That brings us to the topic of salary. I was going to add nicely, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression about what follows.

Unlike contract details, which most universities will be happy to discuss during the hiring process and provide details about in their ad, salary information can be harder to obtain before or even during the interview process. Many institutions will expect you to wait patiently for a formal offer, which will be the first time that salary details are disclosed during the protracted interview process.

Overall there’s a distinct reticence to discussing salary during academic hiring—both for research faculty and teaching faculty positions. One reason for this is that, at least for assistant and associate faculty positions, salaries are usually largely determined by rank and years of seniority. There may be a bit of room to negotiate, but departments are usually sensitive to inverting the salaries of their current faculty. (The salary range at full professor seems to expand quite a bit, perhaps reflecting the fact that more senior faculty have more bargaining power, or just end up sticking around longer.)

The salary gaps between institutions in the same reputational tier just don’t appear to be large enough to sway candidate decision making

Another reason that salary is treated as an afterthought is that it just doesn’t play that big of a role in competition between institutions during faculty hiring. Junior research faculty seem to choose a department based on factors like prestige, ranking, and the presence of a strong research group and senior faculty in their area—and much less based on salary. The salary gaps between institutions in the same reputational tier just don’t appear to be large enough to sway candidate decision making, and I’m not aware of any lower-tier institution that has made a public effort to climb the rankings by luring faculty with high salaries(2).

There’s also the perception—particularly in computer science—that all junior faculty are turning down lucrative careers in industry to work in academia. There’s some truth to this—starting salaries in industry are definitely higher than most of the faculty salaries in my department, and the pay for senior people in industry is much, much higher. But of course the industry positions that we’re comparing against are very different from academic jobs, so it’s far from an apples-to-apples comparison. I mean, I could earn more money as a software developer—but then I wouldn’t be a teacher.

I also suspect that salary isn’t discussed openly because it goes against the Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Person—motivated by the search for truth and discovery, not by grubby worldly concerns like cold hard cash. It’s true that completing a doctorate requires at least a semi-conscious decision to surrender an enormous amount of potential income. And, to a newly-minted Ph.D. used to earning just enough to keep body and soul together, even a low faculty salary offer can seem generous.

All to say—salary isn’t a significant factor in research faculty hiring. Which is why it doesn’t come up naturally during the hiring process. But this poses a problem for teaching faculty. Because, at most institutions, teaching faculty are systematically underpaid compared to their research faculty colleagues.

How much depends on the institution. At some places the gaps are small. That may seem better, but it does make you wonder—why not just close them, and eliminate the two-tier system that treats teaching faculty as second-class citizens?

But at other institutions the gaps between research and teaching faculty are massive—huge, yawning monuments to indifference to education. I’ve had teaching faculty colleagues at prestigious institutions disclose their salaries to me and wanted to laugh, cry, and scream all at once. (Then I try to hire them.)

But I’ll never forget receiving their salary offer in my letter. I was stunned.

I’ve also been on the receiving end of this myself. When I interviewed for teaching faculty positions in 2016, one of the front-runners was a highly-ranked expensive private school, with a beautiful campus located in a desirable location, with a great local music and Ultimate frisbee scene. Suzanna and I were very tempted. But I’ll never forget receiving their salary offer in my letter. I was stunned. It was less than I was currently making as a research faculty member at a lower-tier much cheaper public institution in an area with a significantly lower cost of living. Because the institution is private, there was no way to determine what the pay gaps were or still are between teaching and research faculty. But it’s hard for me to believe that they’d be able to hire or retain any research faculty in computer science at the salary they offered me.

The question you want to be able to ask is: Do you pay research and teaching faculty equivalently at the same rank? But you may not even need to, because the question is almost always no.

Asking a potential university employer why they systematically underpay teaching faculty is an ever riskier move, and not one that I’d recommend to teaching faculty candidates. And the answers to this question are usually nonsense anyway, a lot of which reduces to: we don’t consider teaching to be as valuable as research. Plus some hemming and some hawing and some awkwardness and some “I can’t believe I need to say this out loud because everyone knows!”

Put it in the glossy brochures: Our university values research more highly than teaching, and systematically underpays the instructors that teach most of our students

My response is: Go tell it on the mountain! Put it in the glossy brochures: Our university values research more highly than teaching, and systematically underpays the instructors that teach most of our students. Announce it on your tours and in your information sessions: Our teaching faculty are underpaid and poorly treated, so don’t expect much from them, despite the fact that they’ll be teaching most of the courses your children will take.

Oh, are you worried that students and their families who are making substantial financial investments in higher education would prefer not to discover that you’re not particularly interested in education? Then start paying instructional faculty fairly.

I don’t want to spend pages playing whack-a-mole with other dumb reasons that people trot out in support of underpaying teaching faculty. But briefly:

Unfortunately, I’ve only heard two people state that they are offering equal salaries to teaching and research faculty at the same rank. The first was Carla Brodley at Northeastern. The second was Nancy Amato here at Illinois. (There may be others! If you work at one, let me know.) Unsurprisingly, both Northeastern and Illinois are establishing themselves as leaders in computer science instruction, and have assembled excellent teams of teaching faculty—in my completely unbiased opinion.

Given that asking directly about pay equity can be risky, how can a job candidate ascertain this information?

Happily, some institutions—particularly public universities—provide online salary databases that you can use to conduct your own research. Illinois publishes something called the Gray Book, which contains salary data for academic and administrative appointments(4). I’ve found similar information with various levels of usability for other public universities. Detecting small salary gaps may require summary statistics, but a few minutes of poking around should be sufficient to identify more problematic inequity.

If you do end up needing to ask, my suggestion is to ask other teaching faculty, and to ask about fairness and equity. Because this isn’t really about money at all. It’s about establishing that the department values your work as an educator and displays a balanced commitment to both research and instruction.

Leadership Opportunities
Leadership Opportunities

Pay is one sign of respect for teaching faculty. Elevating them into leadership roles in the department is another. And so this is another thing to pay attention to as you evaluate teaching faculty positions. Compared to salary, it’s a less taboo topic, and you can learn a fair amount through a cursory examination of the department roster.

Most departments will happily stick teaching faculty with certain jobs that research faculty don’t care about or consider a nuisance

Not every leadership role is created equal. Most departments will happily stick teaching faculty with certain jobs that research faculty don’t care about or consider a nuisance—for example, supervising accreditation, or managing undergraduate advising or other aspects of the undergraduate program. That’s not to say that teaching faculty aren’t ideally suited for these roles, or that these roles don’t provide meaningful opportunities to contribute to the institution. Just that finding them filled by teaching faculty isn’t necessarily meaningful. In fact, not finding these roles filled by teaching faculty may be a red flag.

At this point I would also expect to see teaching faculty running the teaching faculty hiring process. Hiring is something that research faculty do tend to care about—quite a bit, actually. But there’s also the realization that it looks pretty bad to have teaching faculty hiring run by research faculty—particularly given that the hiring committee is frequently the first point of contact for potential colleagues during the interview process. I was actually the first teaching faculty to chair the hiring committee in my department here at Illinois, just last year. And that came about at least in part because we had several rounds of new hires who mentioned, after they joined, that we were pretty much the only department that interviewed them where teaching faculty recruiting was being chaired by a research faculty.

More meaningful leadership roles for teaching faculty to hold are more senior-level positions at the department, college, or university level. For example, many departments have an associate chair level position responsible for academics and instruction. This is a natural position for a senior teaching faculty to hold. And maybe someday—maybe even someday soon—we’ll see teaching faculty regularly serve as department chairs. One can hope!

There are a few reasons to consider leadership opportunities when evaluating teaching faculty positions. Obviously, one good reason is if you’re interested in serving in a leadership role yourself at some point in your career. Departmental leadership positions are also frequently the first step to other higher-level leadership roles in the university. If your department won’t consider you for an associate chair position, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll ever end up as a dean or provost.

As much fun as it is to roll our collective eyes at some of the people holding these roles, some university leadership positions have the potential to have a significant impact on education. Currently many decisions that affect teaching faculty or instruction are made without any input from actual teaching faculty. Just having one instructor in the room can make a huge difference. Maybe one day that person will be you! And don’t worry—I’ll still be rolling my eyes at you once you have your deanship.

This can manifest as an unwillingness to put teaching faculty in positions of authority—and particularly to put teaching faculty in positions of authority over research faculty.

Like pay gaps, reluctance to elevate teaching faculty to significant leadership roles can also stem from an underlying belief in a department that research is more important and more valuable than teaching. This can manifest as an unwillingness to put teaching faculty in positions of authority—and particularly to put teaching faculty in positions of authority over research faculty. Having a committee of largely research faculty evaluate teaching faculty promotion cases? Totally OK, and usually what happens today. Having a committee of largely teaching faculty evaluate research faculty promotion cases? Unthinkable.

Many people will trot out tenure as the excuse here, in the sense that it’s not fair to put untenured teaching faculty in a position where they might end up at odds with a colleague with a lifetime appointment. Of course, there’s one simple solution to that problem! But even if you don’t grant tenure to teaching faculty, tenured faculty have to work together with all kinds of university employees that lack the same level of job security. The way to respond to tenured research faculty who are using their job security to make life miserable for everyone around them is not to put them in charge of things. And, as a teaching faculty candidate, if you catch a whiff of this kind of dynamic, stay far, far away.

What many departments are missing here is that frequently teaching faculty are much better suited to academic leadership roles. For example, our jobs naturally involve more management than typical research faculty roles. I regularly teach a course with over 100 staff, and have to cope with all of the associated challenges of hiring, training, and management. I am not claiming that I am good at these things! But I am getting a lot of practice. In my experience, the inherent focus of teaching faculty on education within their institution also drives a lot more natural curiosity about how the university works—including things like admissions, academic support systems, student progress and retention, university infrastructure, and other topics relevant to academics. Of course, it also helps that teaching faculty interact with many of these systems on a day to day basis.

Teaching faculty are probably not the right choice for research-focused leadership roles—and there are plenty of those at most universities. But teaching faculty are not just capable of holding leadership roles related to academics and instruction—we’re probably going to outperform research faculty in those positions. Given the chance.

To close, I’ll reiterate something from the conclusion to the first post in this series:

(B)y asking these questions during your interview, you’ll be doing your part to advance the professionalism of teaching faculty positions—something that not only benefits you now, but will throughout your future career. A big part of how we move this area forward is by propagating expectations and best practices across different departments. And, frankly, by making it harder for departments to lure good people into bad roles. More applicants asking the right questions means more departments doing the right things. And that’s good for everyone.

I’ll return with a final installment, covering three more questions—how teaching assignments are done; departmental commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion; and institutional support for innovative instruction.

Best of luck with your teaching faculty search! And if you’re in computer science, I hope that you apply to the University of Illinois. (Our full consideration date has passed, but we are still accepting applications.)

Thanks for reading!
I'd love to know what you think.
Feel free to get in touch.