New York Times Discovers Adjunct Professors
The editorial board of the nation's newspaper of record laments a quarter century-old trend.
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.