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February 19, 2015

University Senate Matters: Promoting faculty outside the tenure stream

Non-tenure-stream (NTS) faculty positions have been on the increase for many years now — both nationally and at Pitt. Among current full-time faculty members at Pitt, 60 percent are NTS. If part-time faculty members are included, this percentage increases. Despite the fact that NTS faculty members comprise the majority of our faculty body, it is quite challenging to accurately and succinctly define this group in an all-encompassing way. In fact, they are defined at the University level more in terms of what they are not; Policy 02-02-06 states the following with regard to NTS faculty:

“Among the various faculties there are persons who possess special skills contributing substantially to the mission of the University: who are not hired to devote full-time effort to the University, or whose positions are funded for a finite period, or whose professional and academic preparations are not complete, or who are not expected to perform the same range of duties expected of a tenure-stream member of the faculty or to make the same contributions to the University community, and who are agreeable to a non-tenure-stream appointment without implication of tenure.”

Reflecting the vagueness of these criteria, NTS faculty at Pitt are an extremely diverse group, ranging from part-time adjuncts (whose primary employment is outside the institution) to full-time faculty members with considerable teaching, research and/or service resumes rivaling many of their tenure-stream colleagues. While we can perhaps debate what NTS faculty members should or should not be, what is not debatable is the importance of this diverse and essential group of faculty to our University. The kinds of flexible roles that NTS faculty members play provide Pitt with an agile and responsive workforce. Simply put, Pitt could not effectively carry out its mission without them.

An important concern, however, is that while this large segment of our faculty body has been growing, our policies have not always kept pace.

In response to this concern, in September 2013 Faculty Assembly unanimously voted to create an ad hoc committee to investigate University policies and procedures related to NTS faculty. Last week the ad hoc committee on NTS faculty issues presented its resolution to the Faculty Assembly ( The resolution contained five key recommendations; all passed with no opposing votes.

Of the five formal recommendations, three deal directly with the issue of faculty promotion. For faculty in the tenure stream it may not be immediately apparent why promotion is such a big area of concern for NTS faculty. Within the tenure stream, promotion is a highly structured and tightly regulated process (at least for initial promotion to associate professor). The timelines, milestones and expectations generally are quite clear and are undergirded by a robust set of University policies. For NTS faculty there are no formal timelines and virtually all policies and procedures governing promotion are determined at the unit level. As a result, NTS faculty members in some units risk being unprepared for, uninterested in or even excluded from promotion opportunities. This is not acceptable. Accordingly, the ad hoc NTS committee made the following recommendations related to NTS promotion:

• Units should consider creating specific promotion tracks for their NTS faculty. In many units, NTS faculty members have roles that focus the majority of their time and energy into one or more particular areas (teaching, research or administration). The specific criteria for promotion should reflect this diversity of roles. Establishing formal promotion tracks (e.g., a research track or a teaching track) is one way to accomplish this, but it is not the only way. The track concept may or may not be the best fit for a particular unit, depending on the nature of the NTS faculty therein. The key thing is to provide NTS faculty members with meaningful career paths and clear promotion guidelines that faithfully reflect their various roles and duties within the unit. For a good example of promotion tracks or pathways, see the medical school’s guidelines (

• NTS faculty members should be reviewed on an annual basis in a way that takes into account their specific job duties, responsibilities, expectations and professional aspirations. Annual reviews are a critical part of the promotion process, not only because they are included in the candidate’s dossier, but also because they provide an opportunity for formal feedback from the department chair on a faculty member’s progress toward professional goals. Because the expectations and criteria for advancement can vary considerably among NTS faculty, even within a single department, the annual review process must be highly personalized. The annual review process cannot simply be an assessment of how well a faculty member did in the past year, but must focus on where he/she wants to go next and how to get there.

• Units should incentivize NTS faculty promotion. Promotion is a process that requires considerable energy and involves a great deal of anxiety for most if not all faculty members. For NTS faculty, where the attainment of tenure is not an option, incentives are particularly important. Obviously the specific nature of the incentives (e.g., increased contract length, increased salary, etc.) will depend on what is most appropriate for the NTS faculty members in a given unit and what is feasible for the unit itself. We have met with numerous NTS faculty members who have relayed to us feelings that going up for promotion is not worth the effort because the outcome is effectively little more than a nominal change in title. The environment and culture of a unit (and, in turn, the University) inevitably suffers when a segment of its faculty feels that promotion is either out of reach or not worth the effort. It is in no one’s interest for faculty members to view promotion this way. Conversely, everyone benefits when all faculty members put forth the effort to move their academic careers forward.

Our view is that the barriers to NTS promotion are largely structural. While each unit will undoubtedly need to work through these issues in its own way, the Provost’s office, to its great credit, has provided necessary leadership and stimulus by working with individual units to revise their appointment and promotion policies over the last several years. As units continue to grapple with these issues, we sincerely hope that NTS faculty members — as the primary stakeholders — will be invited to the table and be included in the decision-making process.


Seth Weinberg, a former NTS faculty member now in the tenure stream in the School of Dental Medicine, is an elected member of the Faculty Assembly and serves on the Senate ad hoc committee on NTS faculty issues.