The New York Times had an article on Dec 30 about The Case of the Vanishing Full-Time Professor. The article says that in 1960, 75% of college faculty were full-time and either tenured or tenure-track while today only 27% are. The rest are graduate students, adjuncts (part-time faculty only teaching 1-3 classes each semester), or contingent faculty (typically on year-to-year contracts with no job security).
While the New York Times may have just noticed this, it's certainly not news to those of us working in academia (or many college students who pay attention to who's teaching them). At the community college where I teach, we've had between 60-65 full-time faculty over the past few years (varies semester-to-semester based on retirements, new hires, and those out on sabbatical). We also have around 150 or so adjunct instructors (which varies semester-to-semester as well). Almost a three-to-one ratio of adjuncts to full-time. I'm not sure what the numbers looks like if you look at the percentages of course sections taught by full-time vs. adjuncts since full-time faculty teach 5 course sections each semester (although several faculty have course reductions for being department chairs or coordinators) while adjuncts may teach 1, 2, or 3 sections (but no more than 3 for contractual reasons). To figure this out for a specific semester, I'd have to print out all course sections for the semester and count it up (which I don't feel like doing today).
So why is this a big deal? Well it's great for the bottom line of the college. Adjunct faculty have no protections (you can decide whether or not to use them up to the first day of classes), they receive a lower rate of pay (and professors are paid poorly to begin with given their education), and they have no health or retirement benefits. Cheap labor.
There's a downside for the college as well. Full-time faculty do a lot more than simply teach. They serve as department chairs and program coordinators. They do periodic program and course evaluations required, in our case, by the State University of New York system in Albany. They develop new programs and courses. They serve on various committees which determine academic policy, hear student grievances, and plan the future direction of the college. They advise and register students each semester. They do research. They engage in professional development. They give talks and lectures outside of their classes. Just a few examples. That's why college faculty will laugh at you if you suggest they only work a couple of hours a day since those are the only times their classes meet. It's not uncommon for me to work 50-60 hours a week.
Adjunct faculty generally do none of these things. They typically come in, teach their course, and maybe hold one office hour a week. Many adjuncts also teach at several colleges to try and make ends meet meaning they're spending much of their day commuting. At our school, which is typical, adjuncts in each department get a large closet and a single computer shared with a dozen other people and it's called their "office." They're often treated as 2nd class citizens - usually not intentionally, but simply because it's too hard to include them in the culture of the department when they're never around.
What's the downside for students? As a department chair, I try my best to make sure that our adjuncts are good teachers. We don't have to hire an adjunct each semester so if they're not good, why use them? The real problems are harder to address. The problems students have with adjunct instructors typically result from three things:
- Adjunct faculty can't interact with students as much as a full-time instructor can. They come in, teach their class, and leave. They have no advisees to develop relationships with during the student's time at school. They are typically harder to reach (especially in person) when a student has a problem with the coursework.
- Adjunct faculty aren't as invested in the college as full-time faculty. I want the college to do well and succeed. I want to uphold academic standards. I want a healthy enrollment. I've invested years of my life here and I want to spend years more. Adjunct faculty, often treated poorly by the college administration, don't have nearly the investment in the college. If they're not teaching one class here, they'll pick it up elsewhere (or work at Wal-Mart for almost the same rate of pay). If an adjunct faculty member feels a conflict between upholding the academic integrity of the course or making it easier to teach (and not catching flack for failing too many students) what do you think they'll do?
- Adjunct faculty often aren't as up-to-date in the subject matter as full-time faculty. Many have other (even full-time) jobs out of academia. They don't go to professional conferences or participate in professional development. They don't often read journals in their field. They don't often do research or write papers. With each year, especially in areas like science, they fall further behind the cutting edge. This matters, even in an introductory freshman-level course.
It's important to note that these are all generalizations. I know adjuncts that I would hire as a full-time faculty member in a heartbeat and we'd be fortunate to have them. I also know full-time faculty that I'd love to fire. But I will say that, in general, it's better for students to attend a college with a higher percentage of full-time faculty. That said, I don't think my institution is doing too badly. If a student takes general physics at my community college, for example, they will be taught in a small class (max 30 students or so) and both lecture and lab will be taught by a full-time faculty member with a PhD in physics. If they take the same course at a nearby state university, they will sit in a large lecture hall, never interacting with the professor, and be taught in lab by a graduate student (who may have no experience teaching and possibly poor English skills based on my undergraduate experience 25+ years ago).
I do fear, however, given the dire fiscal situation our idiot New York State government has gotten us into, that as full-time faculty retire over the next few years they will only be replaced by adjuncts.