• October 24, 2014

How Universities Treat Adjuncts Limits Their Effectiveness in the Classroom, Report Says

Colleges that want to set the stage for their students to succeed should stop hiring adjunct professors at the last minute and then denying those instructors access to the technology and resources they need to teach effectively, a new report suggests.

"The 'just in time' staffing model is unjust for faculty and for students and clearly compromises education quality," says the 26-page policy report from the Center for the Future of Higher Education, a virtual think tank of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education. (The center plans to post the report on its Web site on Thursday.)

Contingent faculty members who are hired just before the start of an academic term can opt to prepare for their classes while they're not on the payroll or resign themselves to teach courses for which they're not adequately prepared, the report says. Add a lack of access to personal office space, computers, library resources, and curriculum guidelines, among other things, and "the education experience of students suffers, both inside and outside of the classroom," it says.

The report is based on the findings of an online survey of 500 contingent faculty members conducted last fall by the New Faculty Majority Foundation, the research arm of the advocacy group New Faculty Majority.

"Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions, but we realize that people don't get that connection," said Maria Maisto, who is president of the New Faculty Majority and a co-author of the report. "We wanted to take faculty working conditions and really connect them to student learning. We need to really explain how those conditions shortchange students."

3-Day Notice

The report takes its title, "Who Is Professor 'Staff,'" from the generic way adjunct professors are listed on course schedules. Its subtitle continues, "And How Can This Person Teach So Many Classes?"—a refrain the report says reflects the confusion students feel while looking at their class schedules.

Ms. Maisto is one of two well-known contingent faculty members who are among the report's authors. The other is Steve M. Street, a longtime creative-writing and literature instructor who died of cancer last week. The report is dedicated to Mr. Street.

Esther S. Merves, director of research and special programs for the New Faculty Majority Foundation and an adjunct at George Washington University, and Gary D. Rhoades, director of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, are also co-authors.

The survey described in the report asked contingent faculty members about hiring procedures and working conditions. Roughly three-fourths of the 500 respondents teach part time.

Asked about the courses for which they got the most lead time, 17 percent of the respondents said they had received less than two weeks' notice between being hired and the start of the class, while 18 percent said they had received between two and three weeks' notice. Asked about appointments for which they had the least lead time, 38 percent had less than two weeks' notice, and 25 percent had between two and three weeks' notice.

For some, it was far less: "I teach several classes online as well and those classes typically give me about a three-day notice," said one survey respondent quoted in the report.

The report also paints a bleak picture of adjunct faculty members' ability to tap instructional resources. In describing appointments that gave them the most access, 34 percent said they didn't receive sample syllabi until less than two weeks before classes started and 21 percent never got access to office space. In the worst-case settings, the report says, 41 percent of respondents had no access to a campus phone.

Ms. Maisto said adjunct faculty members often bear the financial costs related to lack of access, and the survey showed that they work hard to shield their students from any ill effects that might stem from their professors' work conditions.

Working Temporarily, for Decades

The New Faculty Majority Foundation wants administrators and others to use its survey tool to collect data that will "make transparent" the hiring and employment practices of contingent faculty.

The report also sharply questions whether administrators really need the flexibility they say hiring adjunct faculty provides them with. "How can you call someone temporary when they've been working at the same institution for decades?" Ms. Maisto said. "It's really time to unpack that and be honest. Let's talk about what kind of flexibility is really necessary."

The report is the most recent in a stream of research that has provided an inside glimpse into the problems that plague contingent faculty. In June the Coalition on the Academic Workforce released an extensive study of non-tenure-track faculty members, and last month a document from the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success detailed a year's worth of conversations among stakeholders from all segments of academe about the shift in the academic work force to contingent faculty, who now make up about 70 percent of all instructors on college campuses.

Among other things, the Delphi Project's report highlighted the lack of data related to the effects of that shift and offered some strategies to paint a more accurate picture of the professoriate.

Ms. Maisto said the New Faculty Majority Foundation plans to explore related issues in future papers, such as why adjuncts continue to do the work they do even though their work conditions make it difficult for them to do their best. Another area of interest: Under what circumstances do adjuncts share with students the inequities they face on the job, and what are the implications of doing so?

Correction (8/23/2012, 10:15 a.m.): The original version of this article misspelled the first name of a New Faculty Majority Foundation official and omitted mention of her teaching position. She is Esther S. Merves, not Ester, and she is also an adjunct instructor at George Washington University. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.