Straight Talk About 'Adjunctification'

Bitter rhetoric about contingent faculty members leads to impractical demands and unrealistic expectations

Nicolas Alejandro / Creative Commons

December 15, 2014

It’s unclear precisely when the term "adjunctification" was borne. It’s mentioned as far back as 2000 in articles about the job market in the humanities. Linda Collins used the phrase in a speech in 2002 when she was president of the California Community Colleges’ Academic Senate. Since then, the condition she so succinctly described—academe’s overreliance on adjunct faculty members, especially at two-year colleges—has only gotten worse. More than half of all U.S. faculty members now hold part-time, contingent appointments.

That situation and what to do about it have become frequent topics of conversation in The Chronicle and elsewhere. Having followed the discussion closely, and having dealt directly with part-time faculty members for many years as a former department chair and academic dean (not to mention being a former part-timer myself), I’ve concluded that there is no single solution. Perhaps we can take steps to alleviate it over time, but only if we come to fully comprehend its various nuances.

Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric surrounding the hiring of contingent faculty members remains emotionally charged, which is understandable, perhaps, but not particularly helpful. Bitterness and frustration, however justifiable, lead to impractical demands, unrealistic expectations, and, in some cases, further inequities. As a counterpoint, I’d like to offer some dispassionate observations based on my 30 years of experience in higher education:

Yes, an overreliance on part-time instructors harms the academic enterprise. It’s no surprise that many studies have concluded as much, and I’ve seen the damage firsthand.

As the American Association of University Professors, among others, points out, the overuse of adjuncts harms students because it leaves them with fewer full-time professors who have the time—not to mention the office space—to meet with them one-on-one for advising, counseling, and tutoring. It harms adjunct faculty members themselves by creating a system in which they are poorly treated and even more poorly compensated. It harms full-time professors because there are fewer of them to take on committee assignments and other institutional responsibilities. It harms the faculty as a whole by diminishing the number of tenured professors with the freedom to speak out on issues of concern, and it harms the institution by undermining shared governance, which, in its true form, requires that a majority of faculty members possess such freedom.

Of course, everything I’ve just said is well known, and most readers would probably agree. What far fewer people might acknowledge, however, is that those talking points fail to tell the whole story. That’s because the operative term in that last paragraph is "overuse"—which leads me to my next observation:

Some use of adjuncts is necessary. The idea that we can "fix" the "adjunct crisis" simply by turning all adjunct positions into full-time, tenure-track jobs is ludicrous, not to mention unworkable. Most colleges need a certain number of adjunct faculty members in order to operate.

As a department chair, I argued every year for additional tenure-track lines. I saw that as part of my job, and a way to strengthen the department and better serve students. Once I became dean, however, I gained more insight into the overall instructional budget and quickly saw that we did not have the money to hire as many full-time faculty members as we would like. Often, the choice we faced was either to hire adjuncts or not offer certain courses at all.

It’s easy to say states should just provide more funding so colleges don’t have to make those tough choices. No argument here. But there’s very little that faculty members can do individually, or even collectively, to change state funding formulas, other than vote and advocate for change. As a practical matter, state funding for higher education isn’t likely to increase anytime soon, so colleges will continue having to balance the potential harm from the overuse of adjuncts against the harm that might result from not using them enough.

Adjuncting isn’t always a bad thing. Constant focus on the negative aspects—low wages, lack of benefits, "freeway flyer" syndrome—has led many, I fear, to conclude that part-time teaching is itself a terrible evil. That’s simply not true. Adjuncting has its advantages, even for those who hope one day to be on the tenure track.

For one thing, adjunct teaching provides jobs for thousands of people. Not the best jobs with the best pay, true, but paying jobs nonetheless. Do the math: If you have 90 sections in your department being staffed by 30 part-timers teaching three sections each, and you convert all those positions into full time, assuming a five-course load (as is the case at most two-year colleges), that means 12 people are out of a job. You might think it a kindness to put some of those people out of their misery, so to speak, but I doubt most of them would agree.

In addition, part-time teaching jobs constitute what passes for an entry-level position at many community colleges. More and more of those colleges are requiring job candidates for tenure-track positions to have the equivalent of two to three years of full-time teaching experience. How are most young academics going to get that kind of experience except by adjuncting? Some call that exploitation, and maybe it is. But if so, the problem is systemic and, like state funding formulas, unlikely to change. For now, teaching part-time remains one of the best ways for people to get their feet in the door, at least at a two-year campus.

And let’s not forget that there are plenty of people who teach part time because they like it: stay-at-home parents who relish the intellectual stimulation of teaching a couple nights a week, local business executives and public officials who enjoy sharing their hard-earned expertise, retirees who always dreamed of teaching one day. Such people may constitute a minority of adjunct instructors, but their numbers are not insignificant. Moreover, they bring a wealth of knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm to their work, and our campuses would be poorer without them.

Not everyone is tenure-track material. This is a hard truth, and I imagine my pointing it out here will not endear me to those who have been seeking tenure-track work for years without success. So let me be clear: I’m not saying people don’t get tenure-track jobs because they don’t deserve them. Besides the fact that there are simply too many qualified candidates for too few jobs, the hiring process itself seems far too fraught with randomness and ambiguity to justify that kind of blanket statement.

I am saying, however, that some people should not make the cut. While it may be true, as many have argued, that academe is no longer a pure meritocracy (if indeed it ever was), merit still counts for something. And the standards for a tenure-track faculty member are, and should be, higher than those for a contingent faculty member because being on the tenure track involves more than just teaching and research. Before you put someone in a position in which he or she is likely to stay for 30 years, you must believe that person is sufficiently committed to the institution and the profession, will make a consistently positive contribution, and will be a good colleague.

One of the sillier assertions I’ve heard is that if a faculty member is good enough to be hired part time, he or she must be good enough for the tenure track. That’s kind of like saying that just because someone is your friend, he or she would make a good roommate. We all know that isn’t true.

As a former midlevel administrator and chair of many search committees, I’ve been involved in hiring quite a few of my college’s adjunct instructors for tenure-track positions. In many cases, I knew them to be excellent teachers, and felt comfortable with the idea of them as permanent colleagues. But there have been other part-timers I recommended against promoting to the tenure track. As I saw it, my duty to hire good people for the institution outweighed any obligation I had to those people just because they taught part time on my campus.

New health-care regulations will undoubtedly alter the landscape. The Affordable Care Act’s definitions of full time and part time, along with its requirements to provide insurance benefits accordingly, are bound to change the way that colleges and adjunct faculty members interact in the future. In fact, we’re already starting to see that.

The most obvious change is that, at many colleges, part-time instructors are being assigned fewer sections, lest they reach the "full time" threshold stipulated by the government. Among those who support themselves solely or primarily by adjuncting, that will probably create more "freeway flyers"—academics who seek to cobble together a living by teaching part time at several institutions.

If long-term adjuncts are made to teach fewer courses, colleges may find themselves hiring more part-timers to cover sections. Or colleges could simply ask tenure-track faculty members to pick up the slack by teaching additional classes.

At first glance, none of the above strike me as positive developments. But I suppose the jury is still out. It would be great if the health-care act ends up motivating colleges to classify more faculty members as full-time and offer them benefits, but that seems unlikely. It will be interesting to see what happens.

In the meantime, what can colleges do to counter the negative effects of adjunctification? For starters, I agree with Rebecca Schuman, who suggested in a recent Vitae column that we should go out of our way to provide more opportunities for long-term adjuncts to compete for tenure-track positions.

I also believe colleges should lobby regional accreditation bodies to tighten restrictions on hiring part-time faculty. The industry standard has long been that no more than 40 percent of an institution’s courses should be taught by part-timers. But in my experience, that’s one guideline accreditors frequently ignore, and it seems too high to begin with. A better standard would be that adjuncts should make up no more than 40 percent of the faculty, teaching no more than 20 percent of a college’s course offerings.

If those arguments fall on deaf ears at the accreditor level, then faculty members can always take them to the campus administrators, perhaps in the form of senate bills or faculty resolutions. Working together in good faith, with a shared concern for the welfare of students and the health of the college, we should be able to reduce the number of adjuncts over time.

But we’re never going to get rid of them entirely, nor should we. In their own way, part-timers are as vital to the success of our campuses as tenured professors. And even if no one else recognizes that, we, as their colleagues, certainly should.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America's Community Colleges. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for Vitae. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.