What are the different types of professors? And what is tenure?

Provost's Office
September 18, 2023

Think for a moment of “college.” Where did your mind go?

Maybe you imagined a leafy campus (ours is gorgeous, by the way). More likely, you thought of a learned professor.

“Professor” and “college,” after all, are inextricably linked in the word association game.

But unless you have a background in higher education, some of the language commonly used to describe faculty life might leave you flummoxed.

Tenure-track vs. tenure, assistant professor vs. associate professor vs. professor vs. instructor … You might fall back on that famous idiom from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: It’s Greek to me. (As an aside, with Classical Studies as one of our majors and Greek language as one of our minors, we can help you with that at Denison.)

In the meantime, here are some terms you might encounter in the broader world of higher education. This is how we define them at Denison.

What are the different types of college professors?

  • Instructor: An instructor is a faculty member who does not have a terminal degree — typically a Ph.D. but in some cases an MFA — in their field but nonetheless brings knowledge and valuable expertise to the university. 
  • Assistant professor: An assistant professor is a tenure-track faculty member who has a terminal degree in their field, typically a Ph.D., but in some cases an MFA. 
  • Associate professor: A change in rank from assistant to associate indicates a promotion. Once an assistant professor has been granted tenure, they become an associate professor. 
  • Full professor: This is the highest rank for a professor. Full professors are faculty who have demonstrated sustained excellence in their teaching effectiveness, scholarly/creative output, and service to the college. An associate professor may seek further professional review in a bid to become a full professor.

What is academic tenure?

Academic tenure is an indefinite teaching appointment that can be terminated only for cause or a few other extraordinary circumstances.

What is a tenure-track position?

Any new faculty hire for which tenure is possible, provided the faculty member performs to expectations in the years leading up to the tenure review process.

What is a tenured professor?

A full-time professor who has successfully reached an appropriate period of experience for tenure review, undergone the monthslong tenure review process, and withstood rigorous vetting by peers may be granted a tenured position. This indicates a level of expertise and accomplishment in the areas of teaching, scholarship, and service to the college.

How does a professor transition from tenure-track to tenure?

Here at Denison, much of that work occurs even before an assistant professor is hired, during a comprehensive search designed to identify educators who are leaders in their respective fields, would broaden our faculty’s collective depth of knowledge, and fit in at a college where teaching and student mentoring are paramount.

Once a professor is hired into a tenure-track position, a review is conducted after three years. Three years after that, with occasional exceptions, the faculty member undergoes a multi-tiered performance review that includes scrutiny by departmental peers, university trustees, and the university president. If a candidate measures up to everyone’s expectations, tenure is granted.

Why is tenure important?

Tenure allows professors to pursue their research interests without fear of ruffling feathers and provides the intellectual freedom to delve into controversial topics. They can voice opinions that may be unpopular or explore ideas considered outside the box.

As one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges, Denison believes this is essential to viewpoint diversity and critical thinking. It’s why the vast majority of Denison’s faculty are either tenured or tenure-track. Tenure also is a sign of commitment that works both ways. A tenured professor has made a commitment to Denison, and Denison to that professor. Pay us a visit and you’ll quickly realize relationships like this are important here.

What is an adjunct professor?

Some schools employ what they call adjunct professors. They are not tenured but are under contract, often a yearly contract.

Denison does not use the term “adjunct” and believes the bedrock of a world-class education is built on a full-time faculty of tenured and tenure-track educators. The vast majority of our faculty are exactly that.

Visiting professors and instructors are listed among Denison’s faculty. What is a visiting professor?

The term “visiting” generally refers to faculty positions not on the tenure track. Such positions may be part-time or full-time, including short-term appointments or longer-term renewable positions.  At Denison, visiting professors may be here for a number of reasons, typically to address staffing needs. For example, a department may need to cover the teaching responsibilities of a faculty member who is on leave from their teaching duties.

Denison is generous when it comes to sabbaticals for tenure-track faculty. While our professors are expected to be teachers above all else, we also afford them ample opportunities to pursue research outside the classroom, to stay current in their fields and break new ground.

During a sabbatical, the faculty member is provided a release from their teaching responsibilities for a semester. Hiring visiting faculty to cover such leaves ensures that our class offerings remain deep and varied while those professors are away.

Some of these visiting faculty are so good, and have grown to like it here on The Hill so much, that their “visits” to Denison are counted in years rather than semesters. Occasionally, this will result in “visiting” being dropped from their title. 

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