Sunday, January 10, 2010

Full-time vs. Adjunct Faculty

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.


  1. I am writing an article about adjunct vs full time faculty in regards to my college and your post is helping me as secondary research - my blog is the future of journalism & I am a student at New England School of Communications. I will probably be linking back to this post within my article.

  2. It's been a long time since you've written this, so I hope, I really really hope you read this.

    I'm a full-time adjunct faculty member and have more invested in the institution than most of my tenured counterparts. I do research and write papers on a regular basis, have my own office, and an assistant as well. Tenured faculty treat me like a leper because I have instituted instructional methods that have been adopted by the college and has forced them to abandon stagnation (a typical characteristic of those tenured).

    I think your article is a myopic misrepresentation of adjunct faculty at community colleges. I sit on four committees and two investigation teams, teach six classes, and develop curriculum, all at the same college. In short, I'm sure I work much more than you and have my whole life invested in this institution.

    Tenured faculty deserve no more respect than the next educator.

    1. What the hell is a full-time adjunct? By definition, adjuncts are part-time faculty. At our institution, they are contractually forbidden from teaching more than 11 contact hours (full-time have a base load of 15/semester).

      I also take exception to the statement that stagnation is a "typical" characteristic of tenured faculy. Some, yes, tyical, no. Not at my institution.

      I think your comment is myopic, not my post. You are certainly not describing what I'm terming an adjunct (part-time) faculty member. If you're doing all that, you're not an adjunct. You're a full-timer with no benefits, perhaps, but not an adjunct.

  3. I would like it if someone would make a web site that listed all the state colleges and universities with the number of adjunct versus full-time faculty in relationship to administration. It would be helpful if it including the average salary for each. This would help college students become better consumers when picking schools.

  4. As an adjunct, I must pose the question: how dare you? You and Mr. H are both myopic in your scope. As for the academic integrity of my classes, I have put my teaching ahead of my dissertation, my family and all else to the benefit of the colleges where I teach. Not that this is ever appreciated because even though my evaluations tend to have comments such as "excellent" and "one of the best teachers in the department", when a tenured faculty doesn't have enough students in a class, my class is then given to them leaving me without any classes regardless of all the blood, sweat and tears I have put in. As for not going to professional conferences nor participating in any, any adjunct working on a dissertation who even entertains the notion of becoming a full-time professor cannot afford the luxury of not attending conferences and participating in them. These are requisites when once upon a time, you worked on your dissertation and didn't publish nor participate in conferences until you finished your dissertation. Nowadays adjuncts have to work at various schools to make ends meet, work on their dissertation, attend professional conferences, participate in professional conferences, write articles and still be good teachers because if they are not, like you yourself admitted, they will not be asked back yet all the while, even if they are great, they are still extremely expendable. Your comments are an insult to all of the hard work we do.

  5. How dare I? I'm entitled to an opinion. This one's based on 15 years teaching full-time in higher ed and several years as department chair directly hiring adjunct faculty. As I said, "It's important to note that these are all generalizations" and there are plenty of adjunct faculty who are better than our full-time tenured faculty but I still stand by all I said here (even a year-and-a-half after I wrote it).

  6. What cannot be understated with respect to being employed as an adjunct is the way that you are instantly labeled and treated. Not as a second-class citizen, but as third-rate hacker. I really didn't believe this would be the case before a took an adjunct position (I thought people may have been just whining). I can now personally attest to the stereotypes, however. I am currently an adjunct but was previously offered a position at a research I university and was in a tenure track position. I left the position for family reasons and to move back to my home in another part of the country. Even though I had a job offer at a research 1 university and was a tenure-track professor who had gotten retained, as soon as I became an adjunct (at a much lower ranked school mind you), my employment potential for full-time, tenure track positions became non-existent. I have nothing against people who love small towns and wish them no disrespect, but unless I try for a job in a place far, far away and at the ends of the earth, I fear that I have no more prospects. Academia is so fickle. Your window of opportunity is so very small if you are a female over 30(?). Essentially, your only time to be employed is when you first graduate or if you become a major big wig. Another problem - I never had an advisor who would support me in my research endeavors - and hense I did not publish like I needed to - Many young scholars who are "favorites" piggy back on publications with their famous or well-known advisors and therefore are able to be successful. This experience has affected me greatly. My current institution is hiring an ABD and wouldn't even interview me for a full-time, tenure track opening despite the fact that I am well qualified. In fact, they weren't even going to notify me that I wasn't selected. I sneaked in a direct question just to settle my own curiosity. I don't know - any suggestions? Do I have any hope? I know I need to publish, but will that just be wasted energy?

  7. Although Steve has struck a nerve with some readers, much of his opinion does in fact hold true. Rather than hire more tenure-track faculty, visiting one year positions are becoming distressingly more common at colleges. I just finished one of these appointments in the sciences, and now I'm back to adjuncting again. Looking ahead, the future for adjuncts is about to become bleaker with the upcoming changes in healthcare. Simply, colleges are clamping down on the number of courses taught (specifically contact hours) by adjuncts per semester in an effort to avoid paying healthcare costs. Sadly, most adjuncts that I know are highly passionate individuals that truly love teaching and enjoy what they are doing. That’s what makes it more tragic, in my opinion, because adjuncts are generally regarded by administration as cheap (often earning less than grad students) and disposable labor. A few weeks ago, I was told by a full-time professor that I should "just get a real job" rather than adjunct at two or three colleges. A year or so ago, I might have been very offended by that remark. These days, I’m coming to the conclusion that she may be right. I enjoy teaching in higher education, but it is a very difficult field to earn a living in unless you’re full-time. And it’s about to get worse.