Why neglect 70 percent of your workforce? Notes from an adjunct

After 30 years working in the chemical industry, I knew that I wanted to teach as a second career. I was fortunate in 2002 to find my way to Ursinus College, a highly regarded liberal arts school near Philadelphia, where I have worked for a dozen enjoyable and stimulating years on both faculty and staff. My staff duties centered primarily on community relations, serving as liaison with selected academic partners, and admissions support. On the academic side, I taught courses in marketing, management, and international business.

In June 2012, I retired (again) and have continued to teach — but now as a member of the part-time adjunct faculty. One of the most striking things that I have observed is how haphazardly colleges and universities integrate the large number of part-time adjunct faculty into the institutions’ planning and communication strategies.

According to a 2013 report by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, the number of tenured positions has decreased dramatically in the last 30 years. Tenured and tenure-track faculty represent only about a third of all faculty positions nationwide, half the proportion that existed 30 years ago.

The remaining 70 percent of the faculty is split roughly between “visiting” professors who work under one to five year contracts, and part-time adjunct faculty who are hired only for one course at a time. Schools invest an enormous amount of effort in hiring tenure-track faculty, as might be expected. These faculty represent the true governing presence on campus—developing curriculum, doing research, advising students, and in general creating the academic “look and feel” of the institution.

Filling tenure-track positions involves advertising openings in all of the appropriate academic journals, gathering recommendations from contacts in graduate schools, vetting the candidates on paper, inviting selected finalists to campus for presentations, and then making selections with the aid of cross-disciplinary faculty and senior administration officers.

But what about the remaining 70 percent of the faculty? For the visiting faculty, the process is much less intense than for tenure-track faculty. In my experience, the final candidates are selected primarily by the department chair, with some informal oversight from the dean’s office. Given the fact that these visiting faculty members will be part of the faculty for several years, with the term often renewable, it’s surprising that the selection process is not more like that used for tenure-track faculty.

I have worked alongside visiting faculty who unfortunately did not have much teaching ability, and they were not offered the standard renewal that comes with most of the visiting contracts. One was given a two-year contract, but the college reserved the right to cancel after one year, so concerned were they that this might not be the right person. These kinds of mistakes happen much less frequently with the tenure-track vetting process.

This brings us to the other half of the contingent faculty, the part-time adjuncts, representing at least a third of all college faculty nationwide. They are engaged only for one semester at a time and are paid by the course. No benefits attach to these positions, no likely career track, and the pay is rock-bottom. At Ursinus, part-time adjuncts receive a stipend of $4,000 per course — and this is on the high end of the range for most colleges and universities.

Colleges and universities see part-time adjuncts as a way to balance supply and demand—to teach a section that was added at the last minute to cover student overflow, to fill in for tenured faculty on sabbatical, to substitute for ill faculty, etc. Those are all valid reasons, but there should be more systemization in the process.

During my long career with FMC Corporation, we never lost sight of the fact that our ability to compete depended heavily on how well we developed our assets. We always considered our employees to be the most important part of our success and spent untold hours recruiting, developing, and retaining these critical sources of our intellectual capital.

It is incomprehensible to me that a college or university would spend so little time and effort doing the same thing with non-tenure track faculty, who make up 70 percent of their intellectual capital. Indeed, one could make the case that half of these (the part-time adjuncts) are considered little more than contingent labor.

Departments should forecast the need for adjuncts on a rolling basis, coincident with the time horizons they use when hiring visiting faculty.

Courses need to be identified that will likely require the use of adjuncts, the best adjuncts available need to be identified and thoroughly vetted, and they need to understand the role they are likely to be asked to play over a horizon of three to five years.

If proven adjuncts are not able to make themselves available that far into the future, then the search for replacements can get underway with at least a year’s advance notice. But this just isn’t happening today. The hiring of adjunct facility is very much at the tail end of the semester planning process and is done on a semester-by-semester basis. In fact, my current Ursinus contract states that this one semester agreement “does not imply renewal of this contract.”

At times, department chairs are forced by unforeseen circumstances to search for adjuncts at almost the last minute. In these cases, they advertise frantically, send emails to contacts and search out candidates who will be hired to teach a course often with very little vetting as to teaching abilities. While some work out well, many others do not—and the students suffer the consequences by paying for a course that is not up to the standards they expect.

Students generally don’t understand the differences among faculty. All they know is that the instructor makes or breaks any given course. To the extent that a faculty member performs poorly in the classroom, the student is cheated, and they are not bashful about letting others know. Comparison of course enrollment numbers is always a good way to gauge the “market” (student) response to individual teaching performance.

Besides a better hiring system, how can colleges and universities convert part-time adjuncts from little acknowledged, short-term assets into a more integral part of the faculty profile and performance?

To help ensure the availability of quality adjuncts, compensation should be raised to levels that will entice the adjunct to keep the school as part of his or her own professional planning. Rigid stipends of around $3,000 per course won’t accomplish the objective.

Schools need to learn to “pay for performance,” as does every private company. If a faculty member takes ill and the school is scrambling for a one-semester adjunct, a standard stipend probably makes sense. But engaging the very best adjuncts and mutually committing to a multiple-semester teaching schedule will require that schools pay a premium to get and keep the best.

Adjuncts should also participate in departmental planning meetings, which means holding them at a time that accommodates their schedules.

At Ursinus, we have a “Liberal Arts +” philosophy — everything we do on campus is to be done with a practiced eye toward life for the student after graduation. Thus the proper use of adjuncts working in their fields adds a dimension of currency and perspective to any academic department. In my own case, although I continue to consult for industry, I have been out of the full-time business environment for a number of years, and can sense that I am starting to get somewhat “dated.” How much more this must happen for full-time faculty members who have spent a career on campus!

“Working” adjuncts can provide an ongoing window into changing workplace developments. They also provide invaluable networking opportunities that complement the institutional Career Services offices. Such offices routinely ask working alumni to visit campus, talk about their career paths, and provide networking points of contact for the students. Who better than adjuncts teaching on campus to do the same?

As an example of how this can play out, I recall a student of mine who planned to go to law school. During the semester, I engaged a corporate attorney from my former employer to speak to the class. Afterwards, the student made contact with him, was offered an internship that lasted for two years, and later received a wonderful recommendation for law school.

Colleges and universities should more carefully hire adjunct faculty and make better use of their knowledge, since they can be an excellent complement to the teaching mission of the institution. They can contribute greatly to student outcomes and should be a more integral part of the faculty.