University Professors Get Outsourced
By John N. Hickman
Patricia Cronin, an adjunct professor of art at New York City's Cooper Union, sets out into the rain, dragging two heavy duffel bags full of still life subjects and lighting equipment for her water-color class. You might think such a beloved professor, hailed by The New York Times as a "complex and provocative" artist, could avoid this hassle, but Cronin is an adjunct professor -- an academic migrant hired by the semester and paid by the course. She has no office and no place to store her equipment. She scrapes together rent by teaching at three or four schools, sometimes all in the same day. And, as she heaves the rain-soaked bags onto the subway train for the long commute to Cooper Union, she becomes a walking reminder that the ivory tower isn't the academic haven of yore. Adjuncts and part-time professors, once a stopgap solution to unexpected enrollment or a temporary fix for lack of expertise in a particular academic field, now account for nearly half of all American professors. And this development has changed the nature of higher education, mostly for the worse.
Adjuncts are now ascendant everywhere from state schools like the University of Colorado at Boulder, where use of part-time faculty has doubled since 1991, to the University of Pennsylvania, where, system-wide, part-time instructional and research faculty tripled from 1,015 in 1991 to 3,719 in 1995. Even Harvard hires an elite squad of part-timers to teach in its extension school and expository writing program, although it's primarily the two-year schools and smaller, state-supported colleges that have seen the most dramatic increases.
Most university administrators claim they are merely doing the best they can with shrinking budgets. And it's true that state and local funding for higher education has steadily declined over the past decade. By paying adjuncts a few thousand dollars a course and by keeping benefits to a minimum, institutions can save 60 to 75 percent on faculty costs -- the same logic behind corporate downsizing. But are faculty salaries the most logical place to tighten the belt? For example, though former Northeastern University Provost Michael Baer insists that "if we wanted to increase our full-time numbers, the costs would be prohibitive", his school is planning construction of a $50 million, 185-room dormitory in the style of luxury condominiums with kitchens and private bathrooms.
Of course, the growth of adjunct faculty also reflects the influence of market forces. Even as demand for new, full-time professors has dropped, the supply of aspiring academics has grown. In the late '80s and early '90s, more students than ever rushed into graduate school, and newly minted Ph.D.s increased by 40 percent. Now, aspiring professors are lining up for part-time positions once considered untouchable. Barbara Wolf, an independent filmmaker, actually produced a documentary called Degrees of Shame, which went so far as to compare adjunct professors to migrant farm workers.
Whatever its cause, though, the trend toward adjunct faculty might be more significant for what it's doing to students than to professors. "Frankly, the adjunct sob stories make me sick", says P.D. Lesko, head of the National Adjunct Faculty Guild. "The real question is competence. How well can the person teach?"
On the one hand, adjuncts are surprisingly prolific in their publishing. And, although adjuncts are less likely than full-time professors to hold Ph.D.s, they are frequently better teachers because they can worry less about curriculum planning and research. According to the few studies on this topic that exist, students on average are no more or less satisfied with adjunct professors than they are with full-time, permanent ones.
But, while students might sometimes appreciate having professors who aren't so caught up in their research, the fact that adjunct faculty members have no time for their own intellectual development hurts the students in the long run because those faculty members end up falling behind in their fields -- which inevitably affects what they teach. In addition, adjuncts frequently receive less institutional support -- e-mail accounts, secretarial and computer services, peer review -- than their full-time colleagues do. And, without these resources, even the most talented professors teach at a distinct disadvantage. In protest, last February, one Washington state adjunct drove his 1979 Saab onto the statehouse steps with the sign "typical part-time faculty office". Sibyl Cohen, an adjunct philosophy professor at Temple University, was once locked out of her small office mid-term. A full-time professor had annexed it. "For a few days, I couldn't even get to my class notes", she says.
Don't forget, too, that part-time faculty members are seriously overworked. At $1,500 per course (the typical salary for an adjunct), just making it to the national poverty line means teaching four or five courses a semester -- more than double what many full-time professors teach -- usually at two or more campuses. Cohen, well into her seventies, had almost 800 essays to grade during one term; University of Cincinnati adjunct Mark Lehman teaches four sections of freshman English, which produce about 500 papers every quarter. For Susan Stoltzfus, an adjunct teacher in Washington state, teaching four courses meant four hours of commuting per day. Figuring in the cost of gas and child care, Stoltzfus calculated she was actually losing money teaching.
Not all adjuncts are making a full-time career out of part-time appointments. In fact, a slim majority, 51 percent, prefers to teach part-time. But, as full-time jobs dry up and new Ph.D.s continue to flood the market, even more academics might be forced into adjunct teaching as a career. And it's difficult for all of these under-resourced, overworked professors to serve their students. For example, giving students individual attention is an essential component of good teaching. But, according to Ernst Benjamin of the American Association of University Professors, 41 percent of part-timers at four-year colleges have no office hours, compared with only nine percent of full-time faculty. It's not that they don't want to take time for individual instruction, according to the adjuncts I interviewed, their schedules are just too hectic.
Full-time faculty members at four-year colleges are also much more likely to give essay exams -- proof, Benjamin says, that full-timers have more time to spend on each course. And, although part-time professors at four-year schools spend slightly more time each week in the classroom than full-time faculty members do -- 7.1 hours for adjuncts to 6.8 hours for full-timers -- they spend only half as much school-related time -- 8.2 to 16.3 hours a week -- outside of the classroom on things like developing lectures and grading papers.
Teaching semester-to-semester presents even more problems when adjuncts must worry about next term's reappointment. Not only does this "sword of Damocles" policy further compromise research, but it also erodes the ability to teach creatively. Stray from the syllabus, teach controversial works, or venture an excessive number of low grades, and next semester's job might be in jeopardy, adjuncts say. "Good teachers need to take risks, and this really isn't possible when you're an adjunct", says Karen Thompson, an adjunct labor leader at Rutgers University. And, Lesko adds, how can a professor teach when her only evaluation comes from her students? "I've heard stories about adjuncts giving nothing but Bs", she says. "They were so afraid of losing their appointment that they didn't even bother to teach and just tried to keep the students happy."
There are no easy answers to academia's over-dependence on part-time faculty. Labor leaders agitating for higher adjunct pay and better working conditions run into the problem all labor organizers do -- by making part-time faculty less affordable, they could effectively argue their constituents out of jobs. And, when universities hire fewer adjuncts, they defeat one of their original, and loftier, goals: putting more teachers in the classroom. The challenge is to find a middle ground where adjunct salaries and benefits support attentive, dynamic teaching, while keeping universities financially sound. Already, individual schools have started down this path, allocating more funds for face-to-face teaching and preparing Ph.D.s for nonacademic careers. But the best hope still lies with informed and concerned parents and students. They've paid into the world's best system of higher education, and they deserve the best out of it.
John N. Hickman is a writer in Washington, D.C.