When UW-Madison decided with only weeks' notice last summer to offer Hmong language classes starting in the fall semester, it was a scramble to find an instructor.
Fortunately, Choua Lee was waiting in the wings.
Lee, who'd previously taught at a UW-Madison summer program, was already familiar to college officials and she was eager to take on the job. She was signed to a one-year contract.
With that, Lee joined one of the fastest growing ranks in academia, the instructional academic staff that is neither tenured nor on the tenure track. Tenure, primarily intended to preserve academic freedom, gives someone protection from being summarily dismissed.
According to the American Association of University Professors, non-tenured instructional staff now account for nearly 70 percent of those teaching at universities and colleges nationwide. Thirty years ago, they were 43 percent.
At UW-Madison, like many large research institutions, the growth of instructional staff is often far less dramatic. Still, about one-third of those standing at the front of classrooms here are not faculty.
Instructional academic staff often have advanced degrees, but they don't enjoy the same job security as their faculty colleagues, they don't get paid as well, and they may not get the prestige that comes with the title of professor.
But university officials consider them critical to getting the job done. Instructional staff give the university flexibility in course offerings. They don't commit the university to long-term higher salaries. And having instructors lead classes also can free up faculty members to pursue the research interests that bring in the big dollars and prestige to the university.
All that adds up to powerful reasons for their growing numbers at UW-Madison and nationwide.
For Lee's part, she appreciates the chance to do a job she loves, but she said it's difficult sometimes not to be able to plan ahead either with her own life or the program she's part of building.
"It's really hard not knowing where you're going," she said.
There are now just over 1,000 instructional academic staff at UW-Madison, not including those who are primarily clinicians in the medical school. Just over half of the academic staff are part-time appointments, versus 5 percent for faculty members.
Their backgrounds and duties can vary enormously. While many have Ph.D.s, others may have specialized knowledge germane to a niche class. Some have full-time appointments, while others may step up to fill gaps if student enrollment surges or when faculty members take leave.
In the last 20 years, this staff at UW-Madison has grown by 54 percent as measured in full-time equivalents, according to the university's Office of Academic Planning and Analysis. Tenured and tenure-track faculty, meanwhile, have dropped by 6 percent to about 2,050.
Second-class citizens?\While academic staff do have a voice at UW-Madison through the Academic Staff Assembly as provided by state statute, the Assembly generally doesn't carry the weight of the Faculty Senate. That bothers some people, said Robin Kurtz, a long-time faculty associate in microbiology and a vice chair of the academic staff executive committee.
"We are somewhat second-class citizens," Kurtz said. "We could theoretically get fired, and tenured faculty almost never do. But it's a trade-off. I could be making more money but there'd be more headaches, too."
When Kurtz earned her Ph.D. in 1984, she could have pursued a traditional faculty job but she chose instead to become an instructor because teaching - not research - was her primary interest. With a young family at the time, she also appreciated the greater time flexibility the staff position offered.
"I did it totally with open eyes," Kurtz said. "For me, it was the perfect compromise. For people who choose to stay in teaching, it's really a specialization of talent and interest."
Kurtz, who is a faculty associate, gets appointed for two years at a time. It's not tenure, but still she said she doesn't worry about job security. "I am confident that we will be teaching general microbiology at this university for more years than I need to worry about," she said.
In practice, if an academic staff member at UW-Madison is hired for beyond three years, the expectation is that they will then be continually hired, said Nancy Westphal-Johnson, associate dean for undergraduate education and academic administration in the College of Letters and Science.
It's not guaranteed, however.
"The question we often raise is if these people are good enough to teach the class on a semester to semester basis, on a year to year basis, why aren't they good enough to be given a regular faculty position?" asked John Curtis, director of research and public policy at the American Association for University Professors.
A one-way street\While many intentionally pursue instructional staff jobs, not everyone gets on the non-tenure track by choice.
In some fields, there are simply too many Ph.Ds being awarded for the full-time academic posts available, creating a surplus of talent who end up taking whatever positions they can.
Nationally, gender also plays a role in funneling people into such job tracks, Curtis said.
"Women are more likely to be in a position where they have family responsibilities in addition to their own career," Curtis said. "This idea that it's simply their own choice is really ignoring the fact that they have some constraints on what choices they're able to make."
At UW-Madison, three out of five women (58 percent) teaching overall are on instructional academic staff, that is, the non-tenure track. Among just instructional staff, men and women are about equally represented.
Jennifer Sheridan, executive and research director of the Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute at UW-Madison, says the chemistry field is a good example of what's happening.
About 40 percent of chemistry Ph.D.s nationally are now going to women, she said, and many from the top departments in the country.
"They should be highly sought after candidates but they're not making it into the faculty ranks," Sheridan said. "A lot are going and taking these adjunct jobs or research jobs."
Without the time and/or resources then to do the kind of research considered necessary to get a faculty position, such choices can turn into one-way street.
"It's very difficult to go from one of those positions to the tenure track, very difficult," Sheridan said. "I don't know that I hear a lot of conscious-choice type stories. I hear a lot more of 'This happened and this happened and I ended up here 20 years later.' "
What universities get\There are strong reasons for universities to like instructional staff.
Apart from the convenience and flexibility they offer in staffing courses, they're also a bargain, a considerable perk at a time when state and federal funding isn't what it used to be.
Full-time lecturers at UW-Madison earn an average salary of $49,300, according to UW-Madison's Office of Academic Planning & Analysis.
By comparison, the median average salary for an assistant professor at UW-Madison in 2006-07 was just more than $66,000 and for full professors topped $103,000.
"Probably in practice it is a less expensive way to deliver some of the courses we deliver, though I'm not aware of many departments saying 'Let's do this because it's cheaper,' " said UW-Madison Provost Patrick Farrell. "But it does help us provide some of the undergraduate and graduate courses that we need while keeping a modest size faculty we can afford and the quality level that we want."
It's uncertain if students are aware of any difference between a traditional professor or an instructional staff member teaching a class. Course listings usually don't make a distinction.
Still, students - and their parents - might have the expectation that by coming to Wisconsin's flagship institution that they'll be taught by some of the faculty luminaries, and not just when they get into advanced-level courses.
"One of the things that a research university prides itself on is the fact that teaching is infused with research," said astronomy professor Robert Mathieu, chairman of UW-Madison's university committee, the executive committee of the Faculty Senate. "It's important to recognize that staff are not by any stretch ignorant of research, but it's also true that there are courses on the campus for which a research component or perspective is not critical."
That doesn't mean students are shortchanged, he added.
"The problem is sometimes expressed that because faculty isn't teaching, the teaching isn't good. That just couldn't be further from the truth," Mathieu said.
He acknowledged, however, that what is in effect a two-tier system can be a sensitive issue.
"We have a very, very large number of highly talented, skilled people who are not in permanent positions and yet who often spend their entire careers here," Mathieu said. "There is a tension in that that needs to be resolved."
How that could be done, however, he couldn't speculate.
For Choua Lee, looking ahead only a year at a time, the best policy is just to stay positive.
"I have to do the best I can in that one year," she said. "And hopefully I will continue on."