Have you ever sat on the edge of your seat watching a horror movie and wanting to scream at the main character: “Don’t go in there!” Maybe you even tried to shield your eyes from viewing what’s behind that door, in the closet, or under the bed because you don’t want to see the terrifying reality awaiting the people in the film. This reminds me of what any attempt to converse about the adjunct faculty situation in higher education is like.
When I was a faculty assembly president, for example, I often felt like I was starring in a version of Final Destination. I would bring up the subject of improving the working conditions—and by extension, of course, the personal circumstances—of our contingent instructors, and I would get dire warnings as an initial response. “Do you really want to open that door?” someone would ask. My personal favorite was the “I’m an administrator but I am your friend” guy who rushed into my office one day to warn me that I had “a target painted on my rear-end.”
True or not, it’s time to move the discussion about the role and importance of adjunct faculty into the documentary genre where, as Michael Rabinger described it, “the mysteries of actual people in actual situations” may be bravely and honestly explored (qtd. in Hughes, E. Basic Documentary Genres Outline, 31 August, 2010). The causes of the strange circumstances that gave rise to the concept of contingent faculty is of less interest than finding ways to improve their current plight.
Therefore, in an effort to spark some positive dialog, here is how institutions can better support and promote adjuncts.
The Shared Goal
Let’s start with the obvious shared goal of providing the best education possible for students. Colleges and universities need faculty to teach courses, and adjunct faculty want to teach. It would seem to be a match made in heaven, but shrinking budgets and insecurities about public support for higher education are seen as the primary justifications for most institutions to hold part-time faculty salaries down, to not offer them benefits, and to not guarantee a job beyond the current term or semester.
Therefore, according to the American Federations of Teachers’ National Survey of Adjunct/Part-time Faculty (March 2010), although 55% of adjuncts hold PhDs and teach about three-quarters of undergraduate courses, nearly one-half(46%) make less than $15,000 annually, 53% are working multiple jobs, and 41% worry about job security. As Audrey Williams June recently explained in The Chronicle of Higher Education, these working conditions reduce the effectiveness of instructors in the classroom. Therefore, the current situation hampers both groups in meeting their shared goal.
But the AFT’s report reveals some possible insights that may lead to (at least partial) solutions. Clearly, serving students well will increase enrollment. Therefore, taking measures to improve the situation for adjuncts will have benefits for the institution as a whole, including financially. According to the AFT, 50% of existing part-time and contingent faculty do not want full-time positions; they are happy teaching and content with existing conditions. Carolyn Foster Segal may be one example. She recently described in Inside Higher Ed how she retired from a full-time teaching position and is teaching part-time. Although she questions why her per course teaching value has dropped from about $8,875 to $3,125 as an adjunct, she is in a position professionally and personally to be content (”Academic Hunger Games,” 18 October 2012).
On the other hand, 47% of adjuncts want full-time positions with the percentage rising to 60% for those under age 50 (AFT, 31 August, 2010). Roughly the same percentage want improved salaries (41%), access to healthcare (26%), and increased job security (22%) with full-time job opportunities (33%). Some adjuncts, such as Dr. Kathleen Waggoner, have been working at their institutions faithfully for years or even decades, delivering quality instruction, participating on committees, leading student organizations, and other such activities expected of full-time faculty.
Therefore, it seems obvious that postsecondary institutions would do well to establish an internal system of professional development and promotion from adjunct to full-time educator.
Pieces of such a plan are already in place at some institutions, and models exist at other organizations. Here are some examples:
• Offer a tiered pay scale for adjuncts; the higher their credentials and the more successful teaching experience they have at the institution, the more they are paid.
• Provide extended contracts to dedicated faculty who have routinely been offered courses and shown themselves able to meet expectations. Some institutions offer contingent faculty one to three year contracts at a benefits-eligible salary somewhere between that of part-time adjunct rates and the assistant professor pay scale.
• Seek related job opportunities internally that would allow adjuncts to better utilize their talents, grow professionally, and become more engaged with the campus community while improving their eligibility for a higher, more secure income and benefits. Qualified adjuncts, for instance, could certainly continue to teach part-time while working in other areas of the institution (e.g., Advising, Marketing, Communications, etc.). Although from an HR and employment law standpoint, these will most likely have to be considered two separate part-time jobs, at least it provides more of the opportunities and security that adjuncts need.
• Create a program similar to the leadership development programs that exist at a variety of institutions, including educational organizations. This could be used to grow faculty and leaders internally to meet the growing shortage of teachers and educators moving into administrative roles.
• Engage other internal (e.g., the development staff) and external (e.g., businesses and non-profits) constituents in supporting faculty, especially providing for and developing the careers of adjuncts.
Fostering the professional growth of adjunct faculty and providing a promotional track for those part-timers and contingent faculty who express an interest in greater opportunities and responsibilities while displaying the talent and dedication to do more is a win-win-win solution. Students would be better served; postsecondary institutions and faculty could have a more stable existence, especially financially. It’s time to set aside our fears about improving the situation for adjuncts and contingent faculty. It is possible that the unknown entity behind the door could be something wonderful.
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