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New York Times Discovers Adjunct Professors

professor-teaching-cartoon

For at least a quarter century now, colleges and universities have been relying increasingly on part-time faculty because they’re cheaper than tenure-track professors. Academics have been lamenting the situation for as long as I’ve cared what academics lament, which is now going on two decades. I’ve personally blogged about it repeatedly over these past eleven years as the trend has intensified. This weekend, the news reached the editorial board of the New York Times,who have declared “The College Faculty Crisis.”

The public colleges and universities that educate more than 70 percent of this country’s students were burdened by rising costs and dwindling state revenues long before the recession. They reacted by raising tuition, slashing course offerings and, sometimes, by cutting enrollment.

“Long before the recession,” while technically true, is actually quite misleading, in that most readers will think this happened some time around when George W. Bush was re-elected rather than around the time when George H.W. Bush was not. But I was vaguely aware of these trends as a graduate student in 1992 and painfully so by the time I was a faculty member in 1997.

They also cut labor costs by replacing full-time professors who retired with part-time instructors, who typically have no health or pension benefits and are often abysmally paid, earning in the vicinity of $3,000 per course.

I was never an adjunct but my co-blogger Steven Taylor was. Again, back in the 1990s.

The part-timers are often considered “invisible faculty,” because they rarely participate in academic life and typically bolt from campus the moment class ends. That researchers still know little about them — or how well they do their jobs — is especially startling given that a little more than half of all college faculty members are now part-timers, and they far outnumber full-time faculty members on most community college campuses.

It’s not just the community colleges; it’s true at many four-year public universities as well.

The portrait of these instructors that emerges from a new study by the Center for Community College Student Engagement, a research center at the University of Texas at Austin, is alarming. The report, based on survey responses from more than 71,000 teachers, found that part-timers face many challenges. Because they are treated almost like transient workers, they are given little reason to make an investment in the institution.

The issue isn’t that they’re “treated almost like transient workers” but that they’re actually transient workers. They don’t hang out around campus after they’re done teaching because they need to hustle to their next gig—whether at another community college 30 miles down the road or at a part-time job doing something else—to earn more money.

They often learn which courses they are teaching just weeks or even days before the start of the semester, so there is almost no time to prepare. They often lack office space or administrative or technical support and are rarely given any guidance on how to do their jobs effectively. According to the report, they are implicitly told: “Just show up every Thursday at 5 o’clock and deliver a lecture to your class. Give a midterm and a final exam, and then turn in a grade, and the college will pay you a notably small amount of money.”

In fairness, most full-time professors aren’t given much more guidance. Indeed, they’d resent being told how many exams to give.

The colleges expect little of these teachers. Not surprisingly, they often act accordingly. They spend significantly less time than full-time teachers preparing for class, advising students or giving written or oral feedback. And they are far less likely to participate in instructional activities — like tutoring, academic goal setting or developing community-based projects — that can benefit students.

Right. As I’ve been arguing for years now, it’s the fact that adjuncts do nothing more than teach class—which is really just a tiny part of what full-time professors do—that’s the crux of the problem. The fact that it’s dispiriting for the adjuncts themselves to have slogged through the rigors of a doctoral program only to be able to find low-paying, part-time work is a shame, but arguably no more so than other similar inequities in our economy. The fact that the cost-savings scheme amounts to a fraud on the students, their parents, and the community as a whole is the more important problem. Students are getting their credit hours and their degrees but they’re not getting the education that’s being sold to them.

This situation is terrible, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds whom community colleges typically attract. On those campuses, nearly two-thirds of the students arrive needing remedial instruction in math, English or both, and often lack the basic competencies they need to move beyond remediation to a degree.

This, actually, isn’t as big an issue as it might seem. Or, at least, it wasn’t when I was teaching community college. The remedial education was in fact typically handled by full-time staff at centers dedicated to getting at-risk students up to speed in English and mathematics, not those of us teaching for-credit courses. While we did what we could for students who needed additional help, we typically referred them to the writing center or whatever it was they called the math tutoring. (There’s very little math in Intro to American Government, so it was writing that was the stumbling block in my classes.)

The community colleges have to do a better job of screening the part-time instructors they hire, and developing their skills, which means providing mentors and career paths that give them the opportunity to engage with campus life.

Sigh. No. The “career path” that gives faculty “the opportunity to engage with campus life” is called “full-time college professor.” Given the glut of PhD-possessing individuals hungry to teach in any academic subject offered at the community college level, there’s little need to provide help “developing their skills.” What’s needed to close the gap identified is a dedicated, professional faculty. And you don’t get that by better “screening” of the people to whom you pay $3000 a course, much less demanding that they also undergo additional training and “mentoring” for their meager pay. You get them to “engage with campus life” by having them spend their working lives on the campus.

All of this will require more money for higher salaries and professional development. College degrees worth having don’t come cheap. Public officials who determine community college budgets should know full well that colleges, like other institutions, only get what they pay for.

Adjuncts don’t receive salaries; they’re paid per course. And the problem isn’t that they’re undeveloped professionally but that they’re not professionals.*

But, yes, the problem with that is that it’s expensive. At the community college level, full-time faculty typically teach five courses in both the fall and spring semester (a 5/5 load in academic parlance). One recent study puts the average salary for a full-time community college professor at state institutions at $72,000. That seems high to me, but it’s certainly at least $50,000. Add in health insurance, Social Security, unemployment, and retirement contributions and it’s easily $80,000. And, again, that’s likely a very low estimate.  Compare this to paying an adjunct (or, more likely, several adjuncts) $3000 to teach those same ten courses: we’re down to $30,000.

Sadly, if legislators and the taxpayers to whom they answer were really willing to pay essentially three times as much for the intangible benefits of a professional faculty to enrich campus life, we wouldn’t have gone down this path to begin with.

_______________
*Unless they are. There’s actually a very good use for adjunct faculty: the occasional upper-level elective in a specialized field that’s taught by a subject matter expert who makes his living in that field. Having, say, a local judge teach a legal seminar or the curator of the local museum teach a cultural anthropology course may well enrich the educational experience for the students and augment the faculty.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Geez…where should I start? First, why is there an assumption that adjunct professors are bad or worse than full-time professor?

    I received an associate’s degree (Police Science) from a community college and a Bachelor’s of Science (major in Criminal Justice, minor in Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness) from Virginia Commonwealth University. As a whole, the adjunct professors were as good, if not better, than the full-time faculty (no offense intended to either James or Steven).

    I don’t know if it was because the major was in a more “applied” field than political science or what, but I’ve always find it more useful to have a professor who had actually worked in the field than not to me. For example, one professor, who taught Police Administration at VCU, was the former Deputy Superintendent (Lieutenant Colonel) of the Virginia State Police and did consulting work on the side. Another professor, who taught political science and criminal justice classes, was a former state trooper who had become a defense attorney. The professor who taught my Senior Seminar (capstone course) was on the staff of the Virginia Crime Commission (which does research for the General Assembly).

    From the NYT article:

    And they are far less likely to participate in instructional activities — like tutoring, academic goal setting or developing community-based projects — that can benefit students. [...] This situation is terrible, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds whom community colleges typically attract. On those campuses, nearly two-thirds of the students arrive needing remedial instruction in math, English or both, and often lack the basic competencies they need to move beyond remediation to a degree.

    What the frak does that have to do with adjunct faculty? I can probably guarantee you that none of the full-time faculty at a community college are spending much time in the tutoring center. Most of the people hired by the tutoring center are students in their higher level courses (either through placement or by completing them).

    In fact, if the adjunct professor is working in the field he’s teaching, he might actually be better at academic goal setting since he knows what skills are popular among employers.

    I took some developmental/remedial math courses at the community college (due to me not giving a damn in high school and waiting a year from graduation to start attending college). I retained enough of the knowledge that six years later, I was able to show the level of competency expected on a math placement test (I’m currently working on a post-baccalaureate certificate in accounting).

    (Apologies for any grammar/spelling mistakes, I just woke up.)

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  2. Scott says:

    They often learn which courses they are teaching just weeks or even days before the start of the semester, so there is almost no time to prepare. They often lack office space or administrative or technical support and are rarely given any guidance on how to do their jobs effectively. According to the report, they are implicitly told: “Just show up every Thursday at 5 o’clock and deliver a lecture to your class. Give a midterm and a final exam, and then turn in a grade, and the college will pay you a notably small amount of money.”

    This was exactly how it was for me. And it is nothing new.

    I was an adjunct instructor in the early 80s at Alabama State in Montgomery Al. Taught business statistics in the evening. It was a moonlighting job after my full time job being active duty AF. No there wasn’t any office hours. Didn’t have an office. If there was any outside help to be done, it was right after class. Went in, taught the material, collected the homework, and got out. Had no interaction with any other faculty or even the department head. I thought the pay was pretty good at the time ($1000/course/quarter). Total about 40 hours class time. Same amount prep time. I had no feedback so I really didn’t know whether I was effective or not.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Timothy Watson: It’s the training vs. education question. Criminal justice is essentially a vo-tech degree, preparing students for jobs as cops, prison guards, or police administrators. So, yes, it makes sense to have instructors who are engaged in the craft. Similarly, I’d have no issue whatsoever for a college or university to hire, say, Michael Reynolds to teach a class on writing novels, teen fiction, or the like. He’s much more authoritative on that than someone with a PhD in American lit from Harvard who’s never published outside the academy.

    At the same time, the core teaching faculty in history, English, the social sciences, mathematics, and the like should be professional educators in those fields, not part timers with no dedication to the instution.

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  4. jewelbomb says:

    The fact that it’s dispiriting for the adjuncts themselves to have slogged through the rigors of a doctoral program only to be able to find low-paying, part-time work is a shame, but arguably no more so than other similar inequities in our economy.

    Spoken as only one on the tenure track might speak. At least you got yours…

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  5. @Scott: Out of curiosity, did you have a master’s degree? Accreditation requirements nowadays, at least for colleges covered by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, require a master’s degree for any faculty teaching undergrad classes.

    @James Joyner:

    Fair point.

    It just annoys me when a newspaper decides to act as though every adjunct professor is being entirely mercenary because they’re only teaching part-time. Based on my experiences, most of the adjunct faculty aren’t in for the paycheck, but because they enjoy teaching but couldn’t or didn’t want to teach full-time.

    In addition, I would love to know the demographics of the folks on the New York Times’ editorial board and see how many of them went to a community college. I try not to be anti-elitist, but it’s hard when it comes to discussing the New York Times.

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  6. Scott says:

    @Timothy Watson: Yes, I had an MBA with a focus on quantitative business.

    I suspect the NY Times editorial board probably went to small liberal arts colleges as their undergrad or one of the Ivies. They will have their blind spots which everyone does. Everyone comes with their own life experiences which is why diversity is important in most endeavors.

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @jewelbomb: Since getting my PhD in 1995, I’ve been unemployed, on the tenure track at a junior college and a four-year teaching school, out of academia altogether for more than a decade, and now on contract at an institution that doesn’t offer tenure. Regardless, I’m sympathetic to the plight of PhD-in-hand adjuncts–I just don’t see it as a public policy issue. The reason to fix the adjunct problem is that it’s bad for the students and bad for the institution, not that it’s bad for adjuncts.

    @Timothy Watson: Right. I caveat that in the post via an asterisk/footnote.

    @Scott: In fairness, the editorial is based on a comprehensive study of colleges by academic professionals, not the personal experiences of the editorial board.

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  8. Peter says:

    What 99% of people would think about the adjunct faculty issue: “Colleges are too expensive already, they want to pay the teachers MORE?”

    In any event, given that there are huge numbers of highly qualified applicants for every faculty opening, it would be economically pointless for the colleges to pay more. Advocates for higher faculty pay have conveniently forgotten about those pesky old demons Supply and Demand.

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  9. georgejjr says:

    @Peter:

    What 99% of people would think about the adjunct faculty issue: “Colleges are too expensive already, they want to pay the teachers MORE?”

    That’s probably the most common reaction all right, though, I suspect the increasing numbers (and salaries) of admin types is more of a problem.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    @georgejjr: Quite so. Indeed, as a post I wrote way back in 2008 notes,universities employ more administrators than they do professors.

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  11. @James Joyner: Expect the editorial board made assumptions about adjunct faculty based on no available evidence. For example:

    And they are far less likely to participate in instructional activities — like tutoring

    I don’t see anywhere in the report where faculty was surveyed on whether they participated in tutoring students.

    In fact, part-time faculty was less likely to refer students to tutoring services than full-time (p. 13).

    In addition, some of the data presented in the report is meaningless. You ask full-time and part-time faculty how much time they spend preparing for a class…without presenting it as a proportion of credits taught (p. 11)? How useless is that data?

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  12. wr says:

    @Peter: ” Advocates for higher faculty pay have conveniently forgotten about those pesky old demons Supply and Demand.”

    Yes, this is the marching song of all those who like to say things like “It’s econ 101!” and “The free market rulz!”

    Because it’s entirely a matter of Supply and Demand that has seen the worker’s share of income from productivity plummet over the last three decades while the share of the owner and management class has skyrocketed.

    It’s purely the invisible hand of the market that has transferred a huge portion of the nation’s wealth to the top .01 percent.

    And in fact, this is why college administrators get paid more and more and more while salaries for facult drop. Heck, it’s just that wonderful market! Nothing anyone can do about it!

    It’s astonishing how well those on the right have allowed themselves to be trained to support those who are stealing from them.

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  13. wr says:

    @Timothy Watson: Timothy, you may read the study as many times as you want, but maybe you’ll take the word of someone who has been paid $3,000 (or sometimes hafl that) to teach a class: You don’t do the same amount of work as you do for a clas that pays better at an institution that treats you well.

    You can chalk this one up to Econ 101! as well. You can’t do a full-time job for a tenth of a full-time salary. You’ve got to spend most of your time setting up the next gig or hustling for private clients or doing some other kind of work.

    I’m very lucky in that my current job, despite being technically an adjucnt position, treats me and my colleagues as tenure track professors in every respect other than the tenure track. But most don’t. And frankly, to pay an adjunct 3 grand and then expect the same level of work as a professor making 100k a year is wage theft no less than the McDonald’s manager who shaves hours off time cards.

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  14. Victoria hay says:

    Thanks for your remarks. My forthcoming book, Slave Labor: The New State of American Higher Education, has more to say on the subject.

    I happen to be one of those “professionals” whom you think do not populate the ranks of adjunct faculty. In addition to 25 years of real-world experience in my trade, I have a Ph.D. and 20 years of teaching experience in my academic discipline. These days when I teach an adjunct course, I label the activity “community service” on my CV — that’s how low the pay is.

    For someone who makes a decent hourly rate operating a business or consultancy, the opportunity cost of teaching an adjunct course is extremely high. At the school where I occasionally teach, adjuncts are not paid for course preparation time or for grading time — both of which are consume many hours. This brings the average hourly rate down to something less than minimum wage.

    In a competitive economy, even a person who dearly loves teaching would be a raving fool to put in any more hours than absolutely necessary on an adjunct course.

    One does not “hang out around campus after they’re done teaching” because one has no place to hang out. At my school, adjuncts have no office space, no computer terminal, not so much as a desk in a hallway or a locker to hang a coat in. I was told that as an adjunct I was not even permitted to stash a brown-bag lunch in the department’s refrigerator.

    Eighty percent of my district’s faculty is adjunct. Average full-time pay in this district is $90,000/year. Adjuncts earn $2,400 per course with a limit of four sections a year.

    The conditions that make this exploitive system possible are varied, and not all blame for it resides with the institution. I explore these issues in my next book, which will become available at Amazon within the next few weeks.

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  15. James Joyner says:

    @Victoria hay: The piece is about the vast bulk of adjuncts, which are itinerant PhDs scrambling to make ends meet by piecing together a number of part-time gigs. I specifically exclude SMEs who make their living elsewhere and adjunct as community service or for the intellectual enjoyment.

    Yes, we should give adjuncts at least the courtesy of a spare office they can rotate into while they’re on campus. But the main problem isn’t that they’re not afforded that respect but rather that they can’t possibly be expected to invest the time for their paltry pay.

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  16. Grewgills says:

    I have been an adjunct at two different institutions, a CC in central California and at a small private university. At both I was given office space (shared at the CC) and had regular interaction with the tenure track faculty. The CA CC would not give me more than 65% load to avoid paying benefits, but the department head gave me as much as she could. I was fresh out of grad school, so any college level teaching experience was welcome. At the small private college I was given full time hours, full health benefits, 5% to my TIAA CREF, and office space.
    The differences between tenure track and adjunct faculty in my experience have been a mixed bag, with both groups having exceptional teachers and cynical old farts collecting a check.

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  17. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Victoria hay: I teach full time at a community college, and as someone who works in a district where the average salary is around $45,000 before factoring in overloads or summer teaching, and the adjunct/overload/summer rate is $2,200 for a 3-credit lecture, I’d love to know where exactly community college districts are paying an average of $90,000 per year.

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  18. MarkedMan says:

    Two thoughts:
    – I suspect the cost of American schools has little to do with rising salaries of professors and much more to do with sports programs, endless administrators, and the like.
    – I blame the falling quality of American higher ed on what I call the blue-tarp mentality bought on by Reagan and wholly woven into our societal fabric by this point: ‘It’s too expensive/hard/unfair to fix our roof right. Let’s just throw a blue tarp over it. It keeps out the rain just as well.’ The Tea Party took it even farther – the no-tarp mentality: ‘If we do anything to keep the rain out then free-loaders might stay dry.’

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  19. grumpy realist says:

    Hmm. Looking back, I think I had a few adjunct prof. in undergrad (definitely brought in to teach a specialized class–both of them were tenured profs at another university).

    And then of course there’s law school. Where all the adjuncts I’ve met have been judges or outside specialists brought in.

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  20. @Timothy Watson: Adjunct faculty can do an excellent job, without a doubt. This can especially be the case at a CC that can hire ABDs from local research schools. When I taught at Austin Community College in the mid-to-late 1990s, the faulty was overwhelmingly made up of adjuncts, almost all of which had, or where in the process of getting, their doctorates from the University of Texas. That made for a pretty highly quality pool from which to draw.

    However, schools often do not have that kind of pool from which to draw.

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  21. @Grewgills:

    The CA CC would not give me more than 65% load to avoid paying benefits

    This is a real issue–and the percentage of full time work allowed needed to avoid benefits has gotten lower. And, therefore, since a major reason (but not the only reason) to hire adjuncts is to control costs, adjuncts are getting less hours.

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  22. @MarkedMan: If memory serves, one of the largest growth factors in higher ed in the last couple of decades has been administration.

    Add to that decreased state funding and a heavier focus on facilities.

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  23. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @James Joyner: Be careful about that “professional educators” stuff. My master’s degree (no PhD., didn’t have the money to continue) was in English language studies, as opposed to literature, and the combination of my training in subjects such as grammar, linguistics, and rhetoric (as opposed to Shakespere, Joyce, and Milton) and in curriculum design, test administration, and educational diagnostice prepared me for the job that I had teaching first and second year composition at least as well as nearly all of the “professional educators” who happened to be able to get in the line marked “tenure track” instead of the one marked “day laborer.”

    And NO, I am not the exception that proves the rule–many of my peers were similarly trained because the school that we taught at (in my case for 10 years–“no dedication to the instution” anyone?) screened the people who didn’t have training in rhetoric out.

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