Accreditation Is Eyed as a Means to Aid Adjuncts

Kelvin Ma for The Chronicle

Rebecca Dunn, an adjunct assistant professor of biology at Boston College, talks in her office with Fabieny DePina, a first-year student whom she mentors. Advocates for adjuncts say more of them need paid time and office space to meet with their students.
March 25, 2012

Can a quality education be provided by any college that relies heavily on adjunct instructors it subjects to lousy working conditions?

Some higher-education experts and prominent advocates for adjunct faculty members would like to see accreditors and others who pass judgment on colleges ask questions like that more often.

Those concerned about the conditions of adjuncts argue that the poor environment in which many of them work represents not just a labor concern but also an educational problem, and they hope to persuade college accreditors to more rigorously examine the treatment of adjuncts in institutional reviews. Some are also seeking to bring colleges under market pressures to improve adjuncts' working conditions by promoting the idea that the level of support institutions give such instructors should be factored into college rankings and prospective students' decisions on where to apply.

Among those at the forefront of the effort is Adrianna Kezar, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California who has studied how considerations related to adjuncts play into accreditation. "We live in a myth of an academy that doesn't exist," she says, with accreditors and other key players in higher education still acting as if tenured and tenure-track professors provide most instruction.

In reality, instructors off the tenure track account for more than four-fifths of the faculties of two-year public colleges, more than two-thirds of the faculties at private four-year colleges, and more than half of the faculties at public four-year colleges.

"Accreditation can be a really good lever. It is just not commonly used right now," Ms. Kezar says. Accreditors have paid more attention to adjuncts' working conditions in the last decade or so, but "change is happening way too slowly."

In an attempt to speed such change, Ms. Kezar established the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, a research effort that seeks ways to maintain educational quality despite shifts in the higher-education work force. The project—backed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and financially supported by the Carnegie, Spencer, and Teagle Foundations—plans to bring college accreditors, higher-education policy makers, and other major players in the field together in May to discuss how colleges can give adjuncts the support they need to serve students effectively.

The New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for adjuncts, is also working to propose new accreditation standards that take institutional support for adjuncts into account. Among the factors it appears poised to urge accreditors to consider are whether colleges provide adjuncts with professional development, office space and compensation for meetings with students, a voice in curricular decisions, and adequate preparation time between their hiring and the start of classes.

Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers is trying to encourage prospective college students, their families, and high-school guidance counselors to consider adjuncts' working conditions in evaluating colleges. With the help of the American School Counselor Association, it has produced a college-evaluation kit for high-school students and their families that encourages them to ask questions such as how much part-time faculty members earn per course and whether they are paid for holding office hours. The campaign has already distributed about 50,000 of the kits, which are also available online. (See box below.)

Encountering Inertia

How much impact such efforts might have is unclear. Trying to use market pressures to drive improvements in the conditions of adjuncts requires a willingness among higher-education consumers to base their college choices partly on how adjuncts are treated. It also requires a willingness among colleges to spend enough money to make the conditions of their adjuncts a selling point. It's possible that market pressures could, instead, continue to push colleges in the opposite direction, with consumers who are concerned mainly with price gravitating toward colleges that hold down their tuition by treating adjuncts as sources of cheap labor.

Getting accreditors to drive change may be difficult as well, as accrediting bodies are reluctant to get out in front of their member institutions and promote policies that are not widely accepted as necessary and realistic.

"People love to tell accreditors what they need to be doing when they are not doing it," says Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which accredits colleges in 11 Southern states. "As soon as we do something, then they get upset and tell us we are being heavy-handed."

Where adjuncts account for only a small share of colleges' faculties, or in the case of adjuncts who are highly experienced, colleges might be able to make the argument that their lack of institutional support for adjuncts does not necessarily hurt educational quality.

Several heads of regional accrediting commissions said that their organizations already monitor the conditions of adjunct faculty members, and they do not see the need to do much more. A Chronicle review of regional accreditors' published standards found that nearly all state, in fairly general terms, that all instructors, including adjuncts, must be qualified and must undergo routine performance evaluations; must receive necessary support, such as the materials needed to teach their classes; and must be given a voice in curriculum planning and other institutional decisions.

Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which represents some 3,000 colleges and confers recognition on accrediting organizations, says accreditors do scrutinize the working conditions of adjuncts at several points as part of comprehensive institutional reviews. "Is there more that can be done? Probably," Ms. Eaton says. But if a college is not giving adjuncts enough support, she says, "it is going to come out."

Barbara A. Beno, president of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, says her commission has pushed colleges to ensure that part-time faculty members are involved in curricular planning and discussions of how to assess and improve learning. "Colleges have been telling us they don't have the money to pay part-time faculty to do this. Our response has been that they must do it," Ms. Beno says. "Several of our colleges have now worked out strategies for paying part-time faculty to be engaged because of our stance."

Doing Without

When the New Faculty Majority held a national summit on adjuncts, in January, several participants argued that accreditors could be doing much more.

Betsy Smith, an adjunct instructor of English as a second language at Cape Cod Community College, said in an interview that students at her institution are at a disadvantage when they take classes taught by part-timers who are not paid to hold office hours or advise students. "We have a two-tiered group of students, and they don't even know about it," she says. "We want to be providing the full range of support and services for all of our students, not just those who luck out and have full-time faculty members."

Ms. Kezar of the Delphi Project says she has asked many accreditors about their practices and found that adjuncts are generally off their radar screens, especially when it comes to evaluating four-year colleges.

From 2008 through 2010, Ms. Kezar and Cecile Sam, a doctoral student of higher-education policy at the University of Southern California, reviewed the faculty contracts of more than 400 colleges and interviewed faculty leaders at 30 institutions regarded as potential models for their support of contingent faculty. Ms. Kezar says accreditation pressures substantially improved the conditions of adjuncts at less than a third of the 30 exemplary colleges examined and played some role in improving the conditions of adjuncts at two-thirds.

In their soon-to-be-released book, Embracing Non-Tenure Track Faculty: Changing Campuses for the New Faculty Majority, Ms. Kezar and Ms. Sam discuss some of the colleges they see as exemplary in their support of adjuncts. At Oregon's Clackamas Community College, for example, some part-time faculty members are given compensation for their involvement in shared-governance activities.

Despite such bright spots, Ms. Kezar says, few of the 400 colleges examined took a comprehensive approach toward ensuring that their adjunct faculty were sufficiently supported.

In a survey of 500 non-tenure-track faculty, conducted last September by the New Faculty Majority and due for release soon, a significant share of the respondents said they worked under conditions that hindered their efforts to serve students.

The one-third of the survey respondents who taught at more than one institution were asked to give two answers to each question: one for the college they regarded as the best in relation to the areas discussed, the other for the worst college in their experience. When asked how much time they had to prepare for classes last fall, 38 percent said the worst colleges they taught at had hired them less than two weeks before their classes started.

Survey questions about access to resources yielded similar findings. Among the adjuncts who taught at more than one college, well over a fourth responded negatively when asked if they had ever been given access to an office, a computer, a phone, or a printer at the worst college in that respect. More than one in seven reported never having received curriculum guidelines, textbooks, or sample syllabi for their courses; much larger shares indicated that such resources had not been provided to them promptly.

The New Faculty Majority acknowledges that its survey has significant limitations. The survey sample, for example, was not randomly selected. Because it was difficult to identify and track down adjuncts on any given campus, survey participants were recruited through the Web sites and e-mail lists of faculty organizations and labor unions. Given that the respondents included relatively few new adjuncts, who presumably are still learning the ropes, the survey results may paint an overly positive picture of adjunct working conditions, says Esther S. Merves, director of research and special programs for the New Faculty Majority's research arm.

A review of regional accreditors' standards, done by the American Association of University Professors in 2008, found that some accreditors included standards directly related to the evaluation and support of part-time faculty. But in general, such standards were so vaguely worded that colleges had leeway "to spin their compliance evidence," the report said, and colleges appeared not to be held to them.

Quantity to Quality

Past efforts to use accreditation to influence colleges' policies on adjuncts have focused mainly on the composition of faculties, in an effort to limit the share of those off the tenure track.

In the late 1990s, faculty advocates urged that accreditation be denied to for-profit institutions that used adjuncts and distance education for nearly all of their instruction. When the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools in 1999 accredited Jones University, an online-only institution, even though 54 of its 56 faculty members were adjuncts, the American Association of University Professors protested that the decision threatened quality. The North Central association dismissed the complaints as ill informed and based on self-interested opposition to online education.

Faculty groups have not abandoned efforts to pressure colleges to create more tenure-track positions, but accreditors have come to see low proportions of tenure-track faculty as not a problem in itself so much as something to take into account in directing their scrutiny. The working conditions of adjuncts at online colleges that rely almost entirely on such instructors will get a lot more of accreditors' attention than more traditional institutions where more than a third of faculty members are on the tenure track.

Efforts to use accreditation to influence faculty compensation have run into legal roadblocks. In 1995, for example, the American Bar Association stopped linking accreditation decisions to median pay scales for law-school professors and administrators in the face of a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit alleging that the practice violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. Paul L. Gaston, a Kent State University professor who has researched the history of accreditation, says that accreditors increasingly see helping colleges improve as part of their charge, but they also "have increasingly resisted any actions or recommendations that could be construed as coercive."

Faculty groups' new calls for accreditors to tend to the working conditions of adjuncts are being framed in the context of a decades-long shift in accreditation, from monitoring the resources that colleges put into education to focusing on educational outcomes.

David A. Longanecker, who has taken a role in the Delphi Project in his position as president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, says adjuncts generally do not have much basis for arguing that they cannot provide decent instruction in the classroom, since teaching generally is the core responsibility for which they are paid. But, he says, they do have grounds to complain that a lack of institutional support for their work outside of class keeps them from playing a major role in their colleges' efforts to help students, especially those whose disadvantaged backgrounds put them at risk of academic trouble.

One key challenge in getting accreditors to pay attention to adjuncts is the relative absence of such faculty in the accreditation process. Adjuncts are often left out of institutional review teams, and because they may be on a campus only a few hours a week, accreditors can have difficulty finding them or getting them to show up at meetings. Some accreditors do not offer adjunct faculty any means of anonymously registering their concerns, stifling those who fear losing their jobs if they complain.

Even if adjuncts are heard during such reviews, the episodic nature of accreditation means they get to voice their concerns only every few years. Moreover, the law of unintended consequences applies. In California, for example, community colleges have cited accreditation pressures in asking adjuncts to help draft student-learning outcomes, but some have refused to pay adjuncts for such work. In the past, colleges such as the University of North Florida have responded to accreditors' concerns about the qualifications of their adjuncts by firing those whose credentials were questioned.

Money is an issue, too. Peter T. Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, says colleges' reliance on adjuncts to cut their labor costs "has now become so much of a way of doing business that to try to roll it back is not going to happen."

Ms. Kezar believes some improvements in adjuncts' working conditions, such as providing sufficient lead time between their hiring and the start of classes, can be brought about at little or no cost. She predicts that financing improvements that are more costly, such as compensating adjuncts for advising students, will be easier for four-year colleges than two-year institutions that rely more on adjuncts and whose payrolls are more stretched.

Some advocates for adjuncts are skeptical that accreditation pressures will make their lives better. "Accreditation is too blunt a tool to be very useful in the reform of anything," says Thane Doss, who served on an accreditation panel at York College in his former position as an adjunct instructor in the City University of New York system. Accreditors are reluctant to antagonize the colleges they represent and tend to hold the bar low, he says. The hopes that some faculty advocates have placed in accreditation, he adds, are "wildly exaggerated."

For his part, Mr. Doss has given up on finding an American college that will give him enough pay and support. In 2002 he packed up and moved to Japan.

What Prospective Students Should Ask About Adjuncts

The American Federation of Teachers' "Just Ask" campaign encourages would-be college students, their parents, and their high schools' guidance counselors to consider the conditions of adjunct faculty members when judging higher-education institutions. The questions is urges students to ask while visiting campuses include:

How likely is it that a first- or second-year students at your institution will be taught by full-time, permanent faculty members?

What percentage of undergraduate classes and discussion sections are taught by part-time faculty and graduate assistants?

How much do part-time faculty make per course at your institution?

Are part-time faculty required to hold office hours? Do they get paid to do so, and are they provided suitable office space to meet with students?

Source: American Federation of Teachers