Adam Smith’s Message to Faculty

Adam Smith tells us in the Wealth of Nations that specialization of labor is the key to a nation’s economic advance. One man performing all the steps for making nails, for instance, may produce several hundred per day, but a team of specialized laborers can produce many times more nails per person. Smith attributed the modern world’s prosperity to such specialization, and economists still largely agree on this point (not a thing commonly said about economists).

But can this principle be applied to higher education? Could the quality of education and academic output of our nation’s universities be improved if the traditional responsibilities of a tenured professor  (teaching, research, and service) were divided among different specialists?

Just such an idea has been put into practice by a number of university departments across the country. The non-tenure-track lecturer is the physical manifestation of the principle of division of labor in higher education. Some experts consider the adoption of specialization a productive and useful innovation.

Shelby Frost is one such teaching specialist. Frost, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado, lectures on economics at Georgia State University and seems quite content with her role. “I was told when I was hired that the strategy was to put better teachers in the lower-level courses to increase our majors,” she said. Apparently, the strategy has worked: “When I first started, we had close to 100 or 150 majors,” and “now we have over 600.”

Joe Calhoun, who has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Georgia, is another economics lecturer who likes the teaching specialist mode.  His department at Florida State University has changed its way of teaching. Introductory classes used to be taught by a range of instructors, from full professors to grad students; now there are a smaller number of sections taught by more specialized teachers. “Students now receive better and more consistent instruction each semester for each course,” Calhoun says.

The division of labor appears to benefit research as well as instruction. According to Corey Johnson, a lecturer in the biology department at UNC-Chapel Hill,  “teaching faculty play an important role in lessening the burden of research faculty”; they enable researchers to be more competitive with researchers at their peer institutions because they can spend less time teaching. Johnson, who has a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, estimates that twenty to twenty-five percent of the faculty in the UNC biology department are teaching specialists.

Unfortunately, this specialization has something of a bad name; it is often assumed that non-tenure-track faculty don’t teach as well as faculty who are also conducting research. But a recent study of non-tenure track instructors, which included teaching specialists such as Frost, Calhoun, and Johnson, found otherwise. The study, conducted by NC State’s Audrey Jaeger and UCLA’s Kevin Eagan, correlated the type of instruction with student dropout rates. It showed that full-time non-tenure track lecturers at least do no harm to student retention. Among doctoral extensive schools (i.e., those that grant 50 doctorates per year in at least 15 disciplines, based on the Carnegie classification), the effect of this type of instruction was statistically insignificant, while at doctoral intensive schools it improved student retention by 3 percent.

It should be noted that full-time non-tenure-track teaching specialists are not the same as the traditional part-time adjunct professor, and, depending on the situation, the two can have dramatically different lifestyles.

The traditional image of the adjunct professor is similar to that of the Cistercian monk: an ascetic living the life of the mind in exchange for little recognition, respect, or monetary compensation. The situation for non-tenured professors is significantly more complicated, however, as Dirk Mateer, lecturer of economics at Penn State, pointed out in an article for the Pope Center in 2008. “My fellow teaching colleagues and I are in short supply nationally,” he said, referring to college-level economics lecturers. “This fact gives me the opportunity to do what I enjoy without fear of suddenly losing my job.” In addition to job security (with a multi-year contract renewable by mutual consent), Mateer is paid well, has an office with a nice view, and has a team of assistants to prepare and grade exams, book travel, etc.

In my initial investigation into the pervasiveness of the trend, most of the information I obtained was about economics departments, and that seems to be where the concept has gained the greatest foothold. In the June 2010 Job Openings for Economists listings sponsored by the American Economic Association, twelve out of the 23 American university economics positions mentioned only teaching in the job description. Six of those twelve were specifically for “instructors” or “lecturers.”

Clearly, the idea of non-tenured lecturers has caught on in economics departments, which makes sense, considering that econ professors extol the “virtues of specialization based on comparative advantage,” in the words of Campbell R. McConnell, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In  fact, in a chapter in Teaching Undergraduate Economics: A Handbook for Instructors by William B. Walstad and Phillip Saunders, McConnell remarks on the “curious spectacle” of traditional economics professors who praise division of labor in the classes they teach, then insist on combining teaching, research, and service. “If our profession practiced the specialization it preaches,” he wonders, “might it not be possible to obtain both a higher level of economic literacy for students and the generation of more new knowledge from a given quantity of academic inputs? In short, might we not collectively be more productive?”

The idea is also catching on outside of economics departments, though. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in 1975 only 13 percent of all full-time faculty were non-tenure track; by 2005 the number had climbed to 29.4 percent.

Not everyone is embracing the idea whole-heartedly, however.  In fact, some people are fed up with it. Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, for instance, will be speaking at the ninth annual conference of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), to be held in Quebec this summer. In between the advertised cocktail hour and dinner cruise on the St. Lawrence River, conference attendees will gather to discuss how they are “tired of being marginalized” and “dismayed by the working conditions and lack of academic freedom protections that come with being hired on a contingent status.” The activists will discuss ways to improve their condition, including “developing solidarity,” pushing for recognition, and potentially unionizing.

In some fields, it is understandable why non-tenure track teachers would be less than satisfied. Leslie Mateer, spouse of the aforementioned Dirk Mateer, is a part-time non-tenure- track lecturer in the humanities, where the labor market is not nearly as favorable for those seeking non-tenured teaching jobs.  Instead of having a team of assistants and a nice office as her husband does, she has to grade all papers herself and has to share an office. Further, there is less prestige, less pay, and little job security for instructors like Mrs. Mateer. In contrast to her husband’s multi-year contract, she is hired on a semester-by-semester basis.

Overall, though, the trend seems to be a positive one. Despite COCAL’s objections to the “corporatization of the university,” the benefits to researchers and students (both in terms of improved instruction and lower tuition) seem to outweigh the costs (and the teaching specialists, at least in some fields, seem to make out just fine as well). To be sure, more empirical studies like Jaeger and Eagan’s would be a helpful alternative to the anecdotal evidence supporting specialization, but the current evidence is clearly favorable for the non-tenured lecturer position.  It is something that all major research universities that are serious about academic excellence should look into, and perhaps invest in.