Unintended consequences: The rise—and fall—of adjuncts in higher education

By: | Issue: March, 2014
February 25, 2014

Adjunct faculty have long played a supporting role in higher education. These often overqualified professors work long hours for comparatively little pay, on the hope that it might lead to a full-time position. But somewhere along the way, the situation changed.

University of Southern California Rossier School of Education Professor Adrianna Kezar, co-director of the Pullias Center on Higher Education, studies the use of adjunct professors, and the working conditions surrounding their employment.

“Initially, part-time teachers were popular because they brought real-world experience to the classroom,” she says. But things are different today. Many adjuncts are overworked, teaching multiple classes in two or more institutions in a day, without healthcare or job security.

Kezar, who was herself an adjunct early in her career, spoke about the impact that adjuncts, now the majority instructors at many schools, have on our education system.

Tell us about your research into the plight of adjuncts.

We are looking into several areas. One involves how working conditions shape the performance of both full- and part-time adjuncts and their ability to create student learning. This ties into another area that synthesizes everything we know about adjuncts that has been written in the past 25 years.

There is quite a bit of research to suggest that the increase in adjuncts lowers graduation rates and retention rates. It has an impact on first- to second-year retention, because adjuncts are heavily represented in first-year introductory courses.

It also impacts remedial education as well as student interest in majors. Adjuncts use fewer student-centered teaching practices like active and collaborative learning and case-based learning—strategies that are known to encourage student learning.

That’s not a very good case for adjuncts.

Well, after I had synthesized the existing research I wanted to try to understand the adjuncts’ plight. I don’t think there is something inherently wrong with the teachers themselves, but these studies related the negative outcomes of having courses with adjuncts.

Adjuncts don’t get professional development; they aren’t paid for office hours. Many of them can’t even spend time engaging with students. So, rather than blaming the individuals, I want to understand what we are doing at institutions that is preventing them from being successful.

My studies have been qualitative, looking at how some campuses have policies and practices that are supportive of adjuncts, while others don’t.

We are looking at how faculty are able to perform in these different environments, to demonstrate that their inability to perform their jobs well stems from their working conditions.

You say some schools treat their adjuncts well.

Yes, sometimes it’s the institution and sometimes it’s a specific department. But institutions often don’t create policy around nontenure track faculty. Even at my own institution we do not have an overall institutional adjunct policy. Each department and each program creates its own practices.

This is part of a bigger, national problem. It isn’t on the radar screens of institutional leaders, so there is often no policy or practice in place. That’s one thing I’m advocating for—to see that it rises up to the level of creating institutional adjunct policy.

Right now policy is dependent on the enlightened leadership of department chairs, many of whom aren’t trained for these roles and will eventually rotate out of the position. They often don’t know much about adjunct faculties. Occasionally they’ll have enough conversation to recognize that the department isn’t making its adjuncts successful.

Then, maybe they start inviting the adjuncts to department meetings so they know about curriculum changes, or they begin collaboratively scheduling with the other institutions at which adjuncts work, so that they don’t have to run between schools with only 10 minutes between classes. Or they see that they should hire the adjuncts more than one day before the class begins so they can prepare.

They can start to recognize these problems and do something about it.

Adjuncts were never meant to be the large part of faculty, but in four-year schools they are close to the majority and in community colleges they certainly are. How did we get to this point?

That is the million-dollar question. Lots of people have floated reasons, but there is no way to know the intention behind the various decisions that took place. For instance, some people claim it is the decline in state funding.

But state policymakers will tell you it is the institutional leaders’ fault because they think there is no money to pay instructors. But you see the same problem at private schools where they do have the money. Institutions without the pressure are still making those choices.

Some people say it is the corporate mindset toward the contingent labor movement. It reflects the public workforce of the last 20 or 30 years and it has swept over into higher education.

But contingent labor is quite different in the business world. For example, if you are a contingent professional like an engineer, you get paid really well because you are giving up job security and benefits. It’s the opposite of our situation, where we have professionals who are paid poorly and don’t have job security.

Some people blame the idea of corporate flexibility—we want to try new majors, we want to be able to shift out of a major where there aren’t as many students enrolled. But even that logic is faulty because the majors that are full of adjuncts—like English, mathematics and biology—are not in decline.

There are many ideas around why this is happening, but none of them exactly match the trend.

And this went on largely unnoticed?

Right. John Cross from Bloomfield College (N.J.) and Edie Goldenberg from the University of Michigan wrote a book [Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education, MIT Press, 2011] examining 10 elite institutions that had a majority of adjuncts—and none of their academic leaders knew that this had happened.

The leaders asked why they didn’t know that most of the faculty teaching their courses were adjuncts. Cross and Goldenberg looked at hiring data in various departments and discovered it wasn’t being shared broadly. They found that academic leaders were pressuring departments to save money and this is the way the departments interpreted it—by hiring cheaper labor.

Unintentionally, we went from having few adjuncts to having most undergraduate courses being taught by adjuncts.

Has the situation gone past the point of no return?

A project I’m involved in, “The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success,” has been trying to bring together academic leaders to look at the problem. If the research shows that this model has taken over—unintentionally—and has lots of negative outcomes, then we can—intentionally—come together as a community of policy makers, accreditors, campus leaders, business officers, HR professionals, and so on, to explore what would be a better model.

Going back to a largely tenured faculty model is impossible because of economic issues and pressures. But we know that the adjunct model isn’t right either. That is what I’m trying to start a conversation about.

What is the alternative that doesn’t look like either of those models, that has more job security and involves the adjunct in curriculum development and professional development?

We are talking about a professional position, but maybe not with lifetime job guarantees. We can move to a 21st-century workforce model that matches the needs of education and students, not just economics.

There were stories last year about a Duquesne adjunct who lost her job and died, unable to pay for heat or medical expenses. Are stories like that what it takes to get people to pay attention to this issue?

This gets to the other side of the problem—equity issues, human rights and fair labor issues that, it disappoints me to say, have not been compelling to people. That’s why we are looking at other kinds of issues that might seem to be more compelling, such as the impact adjuncts have on student learning and educational institutions.

For whatever reason, it is harder to get leaders to care about fair employment and human rights, when they are under so much pressure to remain competitive and keep costs under control.

How is this affecting the quality of education in this country?

What I fear is that we are setting ourselves up to go from being known for having the best system of higher education in the world to having people 30 years from now look back and say, “That’s when they let the whole system degrade.” We will no longer be the premier system of education in the world.