Outsourced in Michigan

Michigan colleges are assigning the hiring and payment of adjuncts to a third-party company. Administrators say it's a win-win, but adjunct advocates say it's a worrisome trend.

July 21, 2014

Colleges and universities have outsourced lots of services in the past several decades, from food preparation and delivery to bookstores to sanitation. But to many academics it is taboo to even consider outsourcing the faculty.

Not in Michigan. In recent years, a handful of community colleges in that state have outsourced the recruitment and hiring of adjunct instructors – who make up the overwhelming majority of the community college teaching force – to an educational staffing company. Just last week, the faculty union at a sixth institution, Jackson College, signed a collective bargaining agreement allowing EDUStaff to take over adjunct hiring and payroll duties.

The union isn’t necessarily happy about the agreement, though. Alana Tuckey is associate professor of mathematics and statistics at Jackson College and president of its National Education Association-affiliated faculty association, which primarily represents full-time faculty member. She said both adjuncts -- who are not part of the union -- and full-time faculty members are “concerned” about what EDUStaff hiring means for the faculty and how it will affect “instruction, students and professional relationships.”

Jackson's faculty and administration have worked hard for the past few years to form stronger connections between adjunct instructors and the college, Tuckey said, so “there is great concern among all faculty that privatization [of adjunct employment] will cause a rift to occur.”

Tuckey said that just how involved EDUStaff will be in the adjunct hiring process remains to be seen, as it depends on the company's final contract with the college. The level of “uncertainty” about privatization makes it hard to know just how things will play out, starting in September, she said.

In 2009, Kirtland Community College, a relatively small college in rural Michigan, floated the idea of using EDUStaff to hire and pay some of its adjunct instructors. The Grand Rapids-based company focused mainly on staffing substitutes and permanent contract employees for K-12 schools, but Kirtland saw opportunity at the college level.

The idea, in part, was to skirt Michigan’s comparatively high mandatory employer contribution (then nearly 17 percent of payroll, and now even greater) to the state’s retirement fund; private employers, such as EDUStaff, don’t have to contribute to the fund – even if their employees are working at public colleges. (The state also requires a smaller percentage contribution from individual employees of public institutions.) Kirtland said that many adjuncts don’t stay around long enough or work enough hours to ever draw from the retirement fund anyway, but the plan proved controversial and was temporarily put on hold.

In the meantime, four other colleges privatized their adjunct hiring processes with EDUStaff. North Central Michigan College began using EDUStaff to employ its part-time faculty members – who make up 84 percent of the faculty and teach about 60 percent of courses – two years ago. Carol Laenen, a college spokeswoman, said ending retirement contributions saved the college at least $250,000 in the first year.

When North Central Michigan needs a new adjunct faculty member but doesn’t know of a candidate, Laenen said, an administrator composes a job description and sends it to EDUStaff to advertise the position. EDUStaff collects résumés from applicants and sends them to the college’s director of adjuncts and the hiring dean. They interview candidates and select one to refer back to EDUStaff for “onboarding” and processing. North Central handles orientation, and EDUStaff continues to serve as the payroll provider.

Kirtland recently signed on to EDUStaff, as well. Sarah Madonna, a spokeswoman for the college, said she couldn’t yet comment on how the agreement with EDUStaff worked, since Kirtland is “only just beginning to use EDUStaff as a personnel solution for our adjunct staffing needs.”

Beyond acting as a payroll provider, EDUStaff offers recruitment, screening and hiring of instructors for schools and colleges -- a constant process, given the short-term nature of most adjunct faculty contracts.

Clark Galloway, president of EDUStaff, said it plays an important role in helping colleges find qualified instructors.

“As it is becoming more difficult to find qualified candidates willing to teach certain classes, these colleges reached out to us to assist in managing and building their adjunct services,” he said via email. “As we also perform all of the payroll and [Affordable Care Act] responsibilities as well, this has been a ‘value added’ service for our community colleges and their continued need to find and retain qualified adjunct professors in today’s employment market.”

At Jackson, Cynthia Allen, vice president of administration and human resources, said EDUStaff is recruiting new applicants from a broader pool than the college can attract on its own, but with final approval on teaching qualifications still coming from department chairs. The service also offers online training for sexual harassment and other work place issues, does criminal background checks on new employees and provides information on an optional 401K plan.

“EduStaff certainly does help from an administrative standpoint, as we have over 600 adjuncts on record,” Allen said via email. “As well, many of our adjuncts are working for the money and don’t work enough hours to get vested in the retirement system. These individuals would love more pay and can now put money in their own 401K."

Even if EDUStaff is taking off in Michigan, adjunct advocates and experts say the faculty outsourcing trend raises lots of concerns about the future of shared governance and other matters.

Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California who studies faculty trends as director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, said she’s heard of instructor outsourcing, but didn’t know how widespread it had become.

It’s part of the larger trend toward outsourcing student services such as residence hall operations, she said, but is much more problematic in that it “moves away from educational values being forefront in whatever the area is."

In other words, Kezar said, it “leads to educational values now being left out of hiring teachers. The core function and mission of the institution being outsourced is fairly ludicrous.” Institutions need to be more “embedded” in faculty hiring, not more distant from it, she said.

Kezar added: “Why aren't we outsourcing administrators and staff if this is such a good idea?” 

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said "the problem with this kind of administrative decision is that it's really not just about keeping costs down, it’s part of the corporatization of higher ed.”

Maisto called the outsourcing of adjunct labor “an attempt to undermine the governance and pedagogical rights and responsibilities of faculty,” and a step in the wrong direction -- even at a time when some administrators and accreditors are showing a growing interest in the changing faculty.

She added: “If I were a student or the parent of a student considering attending these colleges, I would consider this a sign that the institution is probably not really committed to quality higher education.”

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