The Part-Time Faculty Quagmire

Another article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a recent study that concludes that “conditions imposed on part-time adjunct faculty threaten the quality of teaching.” The article itself and experts quoted in it clearly state that many part-time faculty are quite good teachers, that this is most definitely not a criticism of individuals. Rather, the problem is systemic insofar as part-time faculty contend with conditions such as large class size, having to travel from one campus to another, lack of adequate office space, lack of instructional technology, exclusion from departmental decision-making, exploitative compensation, etc., that virtually ensures lower quality of instruction. 

The numbers are truly alarming: in 2008, 49% of all faculty are part-time and that 20% of full-time faculty are “contingent” or non-tenure-track faculty. One shudders to think about what has happened in 2009 and 2010 with slashes in state educational budgets, severe reductions in funding for private institutions, and the increasing size of for-profit universities that rely most heavily on contingent faculty.

Not all part-time faculty lament their status. An important 2010 survey of part-time faculty , sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, reveals that about half prefer to teach part-time, primarily because their full-time employment elsewhere makes that possible, because of their domestic situation, or because of their age (those over 50 are more likely to prefer part-time teaching). Others, however, feel that there are not enough full-time opportunities and that they are not given a fair shot at them. The current challenge, however, does not concern personal preferences; it concerns the quality of education delivered to students.

Grewen Hall, Le Moyne College

Le Moyne College, Syracuse, NY

When I was chief academic officer at Le Moyne College, I became quite alarmed at the proportion of course sections, especially at the introductory level, taught by part-time faculty. My anxiety did not include worries that our part-time faculty were unqualified. Rather, I was concerned about whether part-time faculty would have the time or inclination to become sufficiently invested in their students’ success. Would they have the time to offer assistance to struggling or unprepared students? Would they be so distracted by other life circumstances that they would be unable to focus on their students’ needs? And, given what we paid them, why should they devote any more time to their teaching beyond merely meeting their classes?

Because of the college’s financial challenges, we could never increase part-time salaries beyond a few hundred dollars—certainly never to the level of paying a wage pro-rated according to what a full-time faculty member earned for teaching a course. In fact, because of financial constraints, we became more dependent on part-time faculty—just like institutions today. There was no choice.

What choice is there today? If universities are to provide more support for part-time faculty to improve their teaching, to utilize instructional technology, to have a place to meet with their students, or to pay them a living wage to enable them to serve their students’ needs, who is going to pay for all that? The for-profit universities have demonstrated that a corporate business model will never provide the sort of support necessary; indeed, it will do just the opposite. Private institutions are becoming more dependent on part-time faculty for cost-saving reasons, and there is no end in sight. And public institutions face draconian budget cuts brought about by the Great Recession and the reluctance or inability of taxpayers to keep up.

So where will the money come from? And what will happen to American higher education if current trends continue? I wish I knew.


5 responses to “The Part-Time Faculty Quagmire

  1. Unfortunately, the validity of that much quoted 2010 AFT survey is questionable for a number of reasons, including but not limited to insufficient sampling and design flaws. The problem you state, however, remains: how to keep higher ed affordable and still treat the 2/3s doing most of the heavy lifting fairly. How can society, the university and all complicit in the process justify the exchange, degrees vs ethics?

    • Thanks, Vanessa, for your comment. I was unaware of the AFT survey’s problems; so I appreciate your bringing that to my attention. Regarding the larger problem, I fear that we are rapidly descending into the pit of staffing our universities with freelance faculty who will be forced to bid for their positions, leading even to outsourcing (because of online instruction) to lower-priced faculty in other countries.

  2. Some of us work very, very hard. Adjunct work is a complex professional path. I would like to read this study, in its entirety — not just the summary. I’ve written about adjunct life here:

  3. I want to reinforce Vanessa’s comment here, and also add something specific about the AFT survey you reference: when you ask anyone who is in the teaching game whether or not they enjoy teaching, they’re likely to say yes, and if you ask about whether or not they prefer flexibility, if they need flexibility in their lives, they’ll also say yes. This survey, and a number of others, have, by these devices—designed or not—managed to avoid what is also very obvious: people don’t think it’s fair to have to work at a great discount, and they don’t think it’s fair to have no or low access to benefits or opportunities for professional advancement. As to your worry about the future, indeed, if managers continue to feel that they can get away with it, they will indeed be able to rely entirely on what you call “freelancers,” but these unfortunates, without protection, won’t be “bidding” on anything: they’ll be in a take-it-or-leave-it situation that will spell the absolute end of the academic profession. I hope thi will not happen, but if it does, it will be because the trend went on for more than 30 years and, with all respect, too many people who should have protested, did not, instead opting for the notion that ” because of financial constraints, we became more dependent on part-time faculty,” and “There was no choice.” Of course there was a choice, and there is a choice now, and it involves sticking up for one’s own rights and interests and the rights and interests of others.

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