Adjuncts Build Strength in Numbers

The new majority generates a shift in academic culture

Sarah Bones for The Chronicle

"We do a lot of teaching," says Caroline Meline, an adjunct instructor of philosophy at Saint Joseph's U. "That's just the way it is in our department." She is among adjuncts pressing for higher pay and a voice in governance on a campus where two-thirds of the faculty are off the tenure track. Ten years ago, less than half of the faculty were off the tenure track.
November 05, 2012

Caroline W. Meline stood at the front of her classroom one day last month and began reading from a red paperback, Karl Marx: Selected Writings. A few sentences in, she paused and closed her eyes.

"I just have to catch my breath," she told her students.

She was 15 minutes into a philosophy class at Saint Joseph's University. "This is my third class of the day. I need to regroup my energy."

The breakneck pace that drove Ms. Meline to take the brief respite is, for her, the cost of being an adjunct here, where two-thirds of the faculty is now off the tenure track.

In the philosophy department, adjunct faculty are teaching close to half of the 82 class sections offered this semester. "We do a lot of teaching," says Ms. Meline, who earned her Ph.D. in philosophy from Temple University in 2004 and has taught at Saint Joseph's for eight and a half years. "That's just the way it is in our department."

That's the way it is in many departments at Saint Joseph's, where Ms. Meline is one of more than 400 part-time faculty members. At the private, Jesuit institution, the number of nontenure-track faculty members has more than doubled over the past decade. Ten years ago, less than half of the university's faculty was off the tenure track.

Across the nation, colleges have undergone similar shifts in whom they employ to teach students. About 70 percent of the instructional faculty at all colleges is off the tenure track, whether as part-timers or full-timers, a proportion that has crept higher over the past decade.

Change has occurred more rapidly on some campuses, particularly at regionally oriented public institutions and mid-tier private universities like Saint Joseph's.

Community colleges have traditionally relied heavily on nontenure-track faculty, with 85 percent of their instructors in 2010 not eligible for tenure, according to the most recent federal data available. But the trend has been increasingly evident at four-year institutions, where nearly 64 percent of the instructional faculty isn't eligible for tenure.

At places like Eastern Washington University and Oakland University, part-time faculty and professors who worked full time but off the tenure track made up less than half of the instructional faculty a decade ago. Now nontenure-track faculty make up roughly 55 percent at both institutions.

The University of San Francisco saw the proportion of its nontenure-track faculty rise to 67 percent from 57 percent. At Kean University, nontenure-track professors now account for 78 percent of the faculty, up from 63 percent.

Not Sustainable

When professors in positions that offer no chance of earning tenure begin to stack the faculty, campus dynamics start to change. Growing numbers of adjuncts make themselves more visible. They push for roles in governance, better pay and working conditions, and recognition for work well done. And they do so at institutions where tenured faculty, although now in the minority, are still the power brokers.

The changing nature of the professoriate affects tenured and tenure-track faculty, too. Having more adjuncts doesn't provide the help they need to run their departments, leaving them with more service work and seats on more committees at the same time that research requirements, for some, have also increased.

At many institutions with graduate programs, a shrinking number of tenured and tenure-track faculty members are left to advise graduate students—a task that typically does not fall to adjuncts.

The shift can also affect students. Studies show that they suffer when they are taught by adjuncts, many of whom are good teachers but aren't supported on the job in the ways that their tenured colleagues are. Many adjuncts don't have office space, which means they have no place on campus to meet privately with students.

And some adjuncts themselves say their fears about job security can make them reluctant to push students hard academically. If students retaliate by giving them bad evaluations, their jobs could be in jeopardy.

Many adjuncts are also cautious about what they say in the classroom, an attitude that limits the ways they might engage students in critical thinking and rigorous discussion.

"I think the tipping point is now," says Ms. Meline. She is among those adjuncts pressing for higher pay and a voice in governance at Saint Joseph's. "What they're doing is not sustainable."

Elsewhere, Patricia W. Cummins, a professor of world and international studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, is worried about the sustainability of her university's growing use of adjuncts.

When she arrived, in 2000, about three-quarters of the faculty in the foreign languages were tenured or on the tenure track, with one-quarter teaching part time or in nontenure-track full-time positions. Now the percentages have flipped, much as they have in foreign-language departments nationwide.

In French, her discipline, there are four tenured professors and eight who work off the tenure track, all but one of them part time.

Ms. Cummins says administrators have big ambitions for Virginia Commonwealth, which is striving to be a top research university. But it will be nearly impossible to achieve that goal, she argues, without reversing the trend of adding adjuncts to the payroll at every turn.

"If we want to solve the world's problems, we can't do that with adjunct faculty, who, however competent they may be, are just keeping body and soul together," says Ms. Cummins, who coordinates the French program. "Virtually everything they want to accomplish with our strategic plan requires tenured and tenure-track faculty members. I definitely think the president is on the right track, but we have a long way to go."

Full-time faculty members who are not on the tenure track at Virginia Commonwealth constitute 54 percent of the faculty, which a decade ago was the proportion of tenured and tenure-track professors. Taking part-timers into account, the share of non-tenure-track faculty at the institution is 70 percent.

The dwindling number of professors with tenure or who are on the tenure track has forced Ms. Cummins's colleagues to widen the circle of faculty who take part in certain service work. Faculty off the tenure track are usually paid only for their teaching, but many do service work because they're committed to their jobs.

In the foreign-languages department, says Ms. Cummins, they have also stepped up to work on grants with tenured faculty, direct the university's annual Arab Film Festival, and play host to various events for foreign-language students and nearby residents.

"They do all kinds of things," Ms. Cummins says. "But these are not the kinds of things you can expect somebody to do if you've asked them to come in and teach a three-hour French class." Most part-time faculty in the humanities at Virginia Commonwealth earn about $2,500 per course, Ms. Cummins says.

Even as part-timers play an integral role in their programs and departments, they often feel that their continued employment as instructors requires maintaining a low profile. In fact, several adjunct professors in the School of World Studies who were contacted for this article didn't respond to requests for an interview.

Robert L. Andrews, an associate professor in the department of management at Virginia Commonwealth, says he can understand their fear. "They're not in the position to be raising their voices," he says. "I would like to see that change."

Research and Mentoring

Michael Rao, Virginia Commonwealth's president, says he has made clear that he wants to stem the growing use of adjuncts there.

Not long after he arrived, in 2009, Mr. Rao increased tuition by 24 percent and used the new revenue, in part, to hire nearly 100 tenured and tenure-track faculty. Thirty more professors have joined the institution since then.

He plans to add a total of 560 professors, a figure he came up with, he says, by looking at the proportion of tenured and tenure-track at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.

"What I saw when I came was a research university that had 33,000 students and way too few, in comparison to peers, faculty members on the tenure track," Mr. Rao says. "We need those people to do research and to do a lot of the mentoring of students at all levels."

Virginia Commonwealth's full-time, nontenure-track faculty and part-time professors are "incredible resources to the university," the president says. "A lot of them, on their own, are doing a lot of the mentoring of students. You don't want to count on that forever."

What's likely to remain the same at Virginia Commonwealth, and other institutions, is the way adjuncts are used to teach high-demand courses in some disciplines, such as English composition and introductory courses in biology and math.

"One of the things that is important to students is the ability to get classes," Mr. Rao says. "That's correlated with the number of faculty you have to teach them.

"When you have required courses that everyone has to take, can you front-load those courses with all regular faculty members?" he asks. "No, you can't. But can you make some progress along those lines? Certainly."

Some colleges have made progress in improving the work life of adjuncts.

At Colorado State University at Fort Collins, nontenure-track English faculty members have gained representation on the literature committee, the composition committee, and the committee that hires faculty who work off the tenure track.

"We have representation on pretty much everything that doesn't involve the promotion and tenure and periodic performance view of tenured and tenure-track faculty," says Laura Thomas, who is an instructor in upper-division composition, a salaried position that comes with a course release that allows her to lead workshops for other writing instructors and provide them with additional professional-development opportunities.

Colorado State's English department has 47 full-time faculty members who aren't on the tenure track. Nearly all of them teach four courses a semester, and they outnumber the tenured and tenure-track faculty by more than a dozen. Almost 20 years ago, the number of nontenure-track faculty in English was in the low single digits.

Adjuncts who work in departments with a long history of using nontenure-track faculty can sometimes see the resulting connections lead to better working conditions and pay—more so than when adjuncts try to use their large numbers as leverage, says Adrianna Kezar, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California who studies adjuncts.

Expanding Adjuncts' Role

"English departments on a lot of campuses are likely to be leaders for broader changes, since they have used nontenure-track faculty for such a long time. There are relationships there," she says.

"Sometimes large numbers of adjuncts can create a negative dynamic. The tenured professors could see this as a threat and instead of saying, Why don't you join us in governance?, they might dig in and actively campaign against them having a voice."

Ms. Thomas says "there is still plenty of work to do" on the university level when it comes to expanding adjuncts' role in governance. Contingent faculty can serve on an advisory committee of the Faculty Council at Colorado State, but they are not allowed to vote and they can't serve on the council itself.

Sue Doe, an assistant professor of English at Colorado State, is an ally of adjunct faculty like Ms. Thomas. Ms. Doe worked as an adjunct for more than 20 years, mostly as she followed her husband, an Army officer, around the country. After he retired, she earned a Ph.D. at the university in 2001, and became a tenure-track faculty member in 2007.

She helped write a report on a universitywide survey of contingent faculty at Colorado State. The findings shed new light on the sometimes-tense dynamics between the different sectors of the faculty, she says.

"At the end of the day, we all have to realize that we're working side by side, and in order for our units to work effectively, we have to be respectful of one another," Ms. Doe says. "Instead of having this sort of underlying mistrust of what the other group is up to, I think we're at the place where we need to get past that."

Ms. Meline, of Saint Joseph's, doesn't know how far the good will of administrators can take adjuncts like her.

Last year, complaining of low pay and a lack of job security and health benefits, contingent faculty at the university formed an adjunct association. The group, whose executive committee includes Ms. Meline, met with the provost, Brice R. Wachterhauser, to talk about their concerns.

The association was able to get raises for adjuncts this academic year—highest for new hires, who will now start at $3,230 per course—plus a total of $6,000 in grant money, in 30 parcels of $200 each, to tap if they need financial assistance to go to a conference to present a paper.

"The provost, so far, has been extremely accommodating," but what he did isn't enough, Ms. Meline says. "Now we're looking to go forward from this platform and negotiate something better."

Forming a union, members of the group say, is a possibility. "People are realizing just what a majority we are," says Ms. Meline.

The group's membership, however, still comprises only about one-third of the adjuncts on the campus. Their lack of job security, Ms. Meline and other adjuncts say, keeps many from being advocates for their own cause. That fear bleeds over into the classroom, they say, to the detriment of students.

"If almost 70 percent of the faculty at an expensive private university is watching what they say in the classrooms because they don't want to be controversial in any way, is that university really promoting critical thinking?" says Eva-Maria Swidler, who earned a Ph.D. in history eight years ago and now teaches semester by semester at Saint Joseph's.

"Adjuncts are not going to teach controversial courses," she added. "They are looking to fly beneath the radar so they can be renewed next semester."

Ms. Swidler, who along with Ms. Meline is among the most outspoken leaders of the adjunct association, isn't worried herself about repercussions.

She expects her career at St. Joseph's will end this semester. The course she teaches, an evening survey course about Western civilization, is being phased out under the university's new general-education requirements.

She'll continue to work half-time at Goddard College, a liberal-arts institution in Vermont where students study independently and work with faculty mentors, like Ms. Swidler, who goes there once each semester.

'Appreciate the Work'

Soon an ad hoc committee of Faculty Senate members at Saint Joseph's will discuss the adjunct association's request to participate in faculty governance on a university level.

"It's important that the senate address this issue. I'm going to make sure that it happens," says Robert K. Moore, an assistant professor of sociology who is president of the senate. "I think that it's important for us to recognize the value of our adjunct colleagues and acknowledge them and appreciate the work that they do for us."

A discussion about how to get adjuncts more involved in governance, says Mr. Moore, "is long overdue."

As for Ms. Meline, the class that she began by reading Karl Marx's writing ended with her students watching part of Modern Times, with Charlie Chaplin as a worker who tries to make it in the industrialized world. The course, called "Hume, Darwin, Marx, and Freud," is a new one that Ms. Meline designed herself, an unusual opportunity for an adjunct.

Another course she designed, "Philosophy and Evolution," will be offered this spring. She will teach that, too, as she has for the past five years.

She's chosen not to think about whether her insistence that adjunct faculty—the majority—at Saint Joseph's be treated better could harm her career here.

"I had no intentions of organizing anything, but I'm enjoying this thoroughly," says Ms. Meline, who started her academic career when she was in her early 60s.

"I will make as much noise as I possibly can," she says, "in whatever time is allotted for me to be here."