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Not Too Expensive to Fix

October 16, 2013

Collecting better data on adjunct employment on campus. Inviting adjuncts to participate in departmental meetings and curriculum design. Some of the biggest ways institutions can improve the working conditions of adjunct faculty are free or cost little, debunking a common argument against rethinking higher education’s changing faculty make-up.

Or so argues a new paper from the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, a partnership between the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities to examine and develop the role of adjunct faculty.

“[Although] leaders in higher education do face budgetary constraints and uncertainty over future funding sources, it is a myth that resources are the sole reason that prevents us from ensuring that all our faculty members are adequately supported so they can provide the highest quality of instruction to their students,” reads Delphi’s “Dispelling the Myths: Locating the Resources Needed to Support Non-Tenure-Track Faculty.”

The paper, written by Adrianna Kezar, director of the Delphi Project and professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, and Dan Maxey, Kezar's research assistant, outlines a variety of practices institutions may adopt to better support all faculty – not just adjuncts – rated on a scale from “$” (free to marginal in cost) to “$$$$” (indicating a “more substantial” expense).

Some obvious means of supporting adjunct instructors, who make up nearly three-fourths of the higher education work force -- better pay, benefits -- are costly. But others -- such as enhancing data collection efforts to better track adjunct employment on campus, ensuring protections for academic freedom in faculty handbooks, and inviting adjuncts to participate in curricular discussions and governance – aren’t.

That’s the paper’s biggest takeaway, Kezar said, given the many “myths and stereotypes,” coupled with the lack of national data, about the costs of rethinking adjunct employment conditions. It’s based on previous case studies of different campuses’ costs and strategies related to adjunct faculty members.

“This new resource on how to understand the actual costs to support [adjuncts] should be paradigm-shifting for campus leaders,” she said via e-mail. “So many changes cost little or marginal amounts of money. But they do require priority-setting and making this a goal for departments or institutions.”

Inexpensive Ways Institutions Can Support Adjunct Faculty
Cost Practice
$ (marginal) Enhance data collection efforts on adjunct employment on campus
$ Ensure or clarify protections for academic freedom
$ Provide access to instructional materials, resources and support services (library, photocopies, etc.)
$-$$ (some additional expense) Provide access to on-campus professional development opportunities
$-$$ Extend opportunity to participate in departmental meetings, curriculum design and campus life (inclusive in e-mail distribution lists, etc.)
$-$$ Participation in governance
$-$$ Facilitate opportunities for faculty mentoring
$-$$ Ensure access to orientation for new hires
$-$$ Access to administrative staff for support

Maxey said that once institutions begin to make meaningful but inexpensive changes to adjunct working conditions, they can become convinced of the value of such investments.

"Non-tenure-track faculty are committed educators and should be provided proper support and fair compensation," he said via e-mail. "We see all of the recommendations as important, but by offering this range of choices, campuses can target a few to start with that are within reach. In our experience working with campuses, those that start out with just a few low-cost changes often quickly realize that these changes to better-support the faculty are worth any added expense."

The latter part of the paper discusses how institutions can fund such support, arguing that “[decisions] about funding are essentially a reflection of our institutions’ priorities. If we want to invest in student success, then we need to invest more heavily in the faculty.” (Citing the American Institutes for Research’s Delta Cost Project, the authors note that while college costs are rising, instructional costs have remained flat.)

“[We] have to think strategically and long term about campus budgets,” Kezar said. “[Adjuncts] are now an enormous part of our enterprise and we need to think about policies and practices to support these faculty.”

Streamlining expenses to “identify and capture funding that can be reinvested to improve instruction and faculty support,” such as the University System of Maryland’s Effectiveness and Efficiency Initiative to reduce required time to obtain a degree; increasing faculty teaching commitments; and more effectively using teaching technology, is one way to find funds for adjunct supports, the paper says.

Targeted reinvestment into academic programs, such as the State University of New York System’s ongoing 5 percent reduction in administrative costs to redirect an estimated $100 million to instruction and student services, is another example. The system’s Shared Services Committee recommended strategic sourcing to combine the buying power of its campuses, streamlined information technology management, and centralizing some administrative and human resources functions to achieve that goal.

Institutions also should examine their high-growth expenses in relation to their missions, the Delphi paper argues. Citing Delta Cost Project data, it says that institutions “are spending three to six times as much on student-athletes than they do to provide instruction for the average student on campus. This is an area where campuses could seek to cut costs to support instruction.” Internal funds devoted to research and development also have doubled, from 11 percent of budgets to more than 20 percent, since the 1970s, Delphi says. Funds freed up by faculty retirements also can be strategically reinvested in adjunct supports.

More Expensive Adjunct Faculty Supports
Cost Practice
$-$$$ (moderate increase or reallocation of funding Provide access to office space
$-$$$ Reconsider or change hiring practices (more notice of employment or promotion opportunities)
$$$ Provide access to off-campus professional development opportunities
$-$$$ Extend employment contracts to multi-year terms
$$-$$$$ (more substantial expense) Compensate adjuncts for office hours
$$$-$$$$ Increase pay
$$$-$$$$ Provide benefits (health care, life insurance)

The paper has attracted praise from adjunct advocates, who agreed that cost is a major barrier to administrators pursuing better adjunct working conditions.

Gary Rhoades, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, said that “costs are certainly one claimed impediment, but that’s a matter of misplaced priorities, and it’s time for some tough choices to reverse the ongoing disinvestment in instructional expenditures while other college expenditures go up, and to shift the balance in the other direction."

Rhoades said some institutions already have in place many of the practices highlighted in the Delphi paper, particularly those where adjuncts are unionized.

"In those majority of institutions that are not utilizing these recommended good practices, it is a matter of inertia, inattention and insufficient accountability for shortchanging not just faculty’s working conditions but student’s learning conditions," he said. The Delphi paper will help shed light on those shortcomings, he said, but holding institutions "accountable" for them -- including in accreditation and rankings processes -- also would help.

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy group, agreed that cost is the most common -- if not the most genuine -- reason institutions cite for not investing in adjunct faculty's working conditions. (It can be a cover for many other prejudicial hiring practices, she said.)

Maisto said in an e-mail that the most effective recommendation -- "one that is of moderate cost, would be to equalize the hiring process. Adjuncts should be hired using the same or comparable criteria as full-time faculty, and adjuncts should be automatically converted to full time when those lines become available. There should be no qualitative difference between part-time and full-time. Reforming the hiring process would do much to address the built-in prejudices in the system."

Still, not everyone was convinced that disproving the "cost" myths could change adjuncts' status.

Ronald Ehrenberg, a professor of economics and labor relations at Cornell University who served on that institution’s board as an elected faculty member and now serves as a gubernatorial appointee to the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York, said that institutions do and will continue to rely heavily on adjuncts for scheduling flexibility, in turn "filling in holes" and relieving them as instructors at the last minute based on course enrollment.

The adjunctification of higher education can't be stopped, he said. "Although it's not something I'm happy about," Ehrenberg guessed that in 10 to 15 years, nearly all professors will be off the tenure track -- some as full-time lecturers with basic guarantees of employment, and others not even that -- with only elite institutions preserving the tenure track.

 

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