WASHINGTON – Accreditors "can and should be doing more" on site visits and in their standards to address concerns about adjunct faculty employment and its effect on student learning, says a report out today from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
“Campuses often do not evaluate the type of support they have in place to help faculty perform to their highest capabilities,” the report says. “The negative student learning outcomes [associated with overreliance on adjunct faculty] that have been documented have occurred in part because institutions have not updated or changed their policies and practices as their faculties have changed.”
“However,” the report continues, “this issue has not typically been a focus of accreditation visits.”
The paper suggests that accreditors meet with adjunct faculty on site visits; include “non-tenure-track faculty” explicitly in references to faculty in accreditation standards; and create guidelines for providing professional development, orientation and mentoring for adjuncts, among other possible initiatives to force institutions to rethink their polices and support for part-time faculty.
“An Examination of the Changing Faculty: Ensuring Institutional Quality and Achieving Desired Student Learning Outcomes,” was written by Adrianna Kezar, co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California and director of the Delphi Project to examine and develop the role of the adjunct faculty; her research assistant, Daniel Maxey; and Judith Eaton, CHEA's president. Its findings are based on a meeting among accreditors and adjunct faculty advocates that took place in July. Its release coincides with CHEA’s annual meeting of college and university officials and accreditors, starting here today.
The paper includes a thorough review of the existing literature on adjunct faculty employment in relation to student success, and a summary of the July meeting. There, accreditors expressed concern over the documented associations between high rates of employment of adjunct faculty versus tenure-line faculty and student success, such as decreased retention and completion rates and decreased rates of transfer from two- to four-year institutions. But their knowledge of that literature varied, as did their efforts to address the issue in their standards or processes.
Nevertheless, those present saw the data as “very compelling evidence” to continue to address the matter.
Attendees discussed other ideas, such as:
- Including an experienced adjunct faculty member on site teams to institutions with large adjunct teaching populations.
- Encouraging institutions to pay part-time faculty for involvement in professional development.
- Encouraging institutional transparency about what percentage of the faculty is part time, including on institutions' websites.
The report also includes steps some accreditors already have taken to address concerns about adjunct faculty employment. AACSB International: the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, for example, requires that 75 percent of instruction be provided by “participating” faculty, or those faculty members who are engaged in various on-campus activities beside instruction.
Other accrediting bodies not mentioned in the report have faulted institutions in recent years for overreliance on adjunct faculty. In 2011, for example, the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put the high-profile Miami Dade College on notice  because it could not document that it had sufficient numbers of full-time faculty members. SACS has cited additional institutions for the same. And in 2012, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges' senior college commission rejected  for-profit Bridgepoint Education Inc.’s, bid for Ashford University, saying it lacked a “sufficient core” of full-time faculty members. (Ashford won accreditation in a later bid ; the accreditor said it it had been "fundamentally transformed.")
The paper’s central theme is that those advances can be built on through greater involvement of adjunct faculty in the accreditation process.
But that poses concerns. For the same reasons that adjuncts may not be as effective as teachers as they could be if they were compensated and otherwise supported for the work they do outside of class, it might be hard to get them involved.
Kezar said in an email interview that institutions can work around that by paying adjuncts for their involvement during accreditation. “I think is realistic to involve [adjuncts],” she said.
“It will not take much work, just a few tweaks in the process can have a significant impact on having campus leaders rethink and support all faculty on their campuses,” she said. “The mind shift and attention to these issues can occur quite rapidly if these recommendations are implemented.”
The harder part will be redirecting institutional resources to support these changes, she said, noting that the Delphi Project website includes some suggestions. “But we still need accreditors to help shed light on the problem and help campus leaders to start addressing it.”
Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy group, participated in the July meeting. She said it’s “very encouraging that CHEA is trying to confront the contingent faculty crisis and we were happy to participate.” She said she agreed with the report's recommendation that accreditors focus more sharply on the working conditions of adjuncts, since they are the majority of the faculty.
Like Kezar, however, Maisto acknowledged that getting adjunct faculty to the accreditation table will be a challenge. Among possible solutions, she said, would be for her foundation and other disciplinary organizations to start a fund to help compensate adjuncts who want to be involved in the accreditation processes at their campuses. But that involvement also would have to be backed by explicit protections of academic freedom, so adjuncts, who are untenured, don’t feel pressured to perform in any “right” way by their institutions, she added.
Kezar said the report is just the start of a longer conversation, but that accreditors so far have proven themselves to be partners. "These suggestions came from the accreditation leaders themselves, who really want to address the issue," she said.