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The idea that most adjunct instructors have day jobs and teach one or two courses per semester to make a little extra cash or fulfill a desire for service, or both, has been pretty thoroughly debunked. But a new study published in The Journal of Higher Education offers the most up-to-date data on just how many part-time instructors want a full-time teaching job and can’t find one: some 73 percent.

Perhaps even more noteworthy is the finding that underemployment isn’t adjuncts’ leading cause of job dissatisfaction. Rather, it’s their perceived lack of respect from full-time faculty colleagues and administrators. And while making adjuncts feel like a genuine, essential part of the academic enterprise won’t be easy, the study argues, it’s also not that hard. Little things, such as offering teaching awards or professional development opportunities, go a long way, and they need to become more commonplace.

“This is a compelling issue that people are talking about [within academic units and at the national level], but we’re still not having this conversation at the institutional level,” said Audrey J. Jaeger, a professor of higher education and Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor at North Carolina State University. Jaeger co-authored the new study, called “Supporting the Academic Majority: Policies and Practices Related to Part-Time Faculty’s Job Satisfaction,” along with M. Kevin Eagan Jr., assistant professor in residence and director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California at Los Angeles and interim managing director of the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) there, and Ashley Grantham, a Ph.D. candidate in education research and policy analysis at NC State.

At the institutional level, Jaeger continued, “is where change can happen.”

For their study, Jaeger and her co-authors tapped into survey data from more than 4,000 part-time faculty members working at nearly 300 four-year colleges and universities in 2010-11. The data, collected every three years and maintained by HERI, is the most comprehensive survey of college faculty since the end of funding for the federal National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty in 2004. The survey asked about various measures of satisfaction and the conditions under which part-time faculty members work.

Just about three-fourths of adjuncts said they considered themselves underemployed because they were involuntarily working part-time. Part-timers had spent about 9 years working at their home institutions and 34 percent had earned a terminal degree. But what the authors characterize as a perceived lack of respect from full-time faculty peers and administrators had a bigger effect on their satisfaction than their part-time status, based on a statistical analysis.

Some 18 percent of part-time faculty members said they had an office of their own, for example, while 45 percent of adjuncts shared office space with colleagues. The remainder had no space. Part-timers with private office space were significantly more likely to express job satisfaction than their peers with no office space.

Involuntary part-time faculty members were significantly more likely to perceive a lack of respect than their colleagues who preferred to work part-time. For those respondents who didn’t experience a positive relationship with administrators and colleagues, the “lower order needs” or working conditions became more important.

For some reason, part-time faculty members at private colleges and universities rated themselves much more satisfied than their peers at public institutions.

Other examples of desired support or shows of respect for part-time faculty include providing personal computers for instructors and offering help with administrative tasks.

The authors recommend that colleges and universities invite part-time faculty members to professional and social events, make them eligible for teaching awards and professional development, and seek their unit input on planning, decisions and governance.

Jaeger, who has written previous articles on adjunct faculty, said much of the literature on part-time and non-tenure-track faculty thus far focuses on their impact on student success. Less is known about what adjuncts think and feel, she said. But the two research areas are linked, since feeling disrespected could impact their performance in the classroom.

Adrianna Kezar, professor and director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California, and an expert on adjunct faculty issues, said that point, coupled with theory on how underemployment affects productivity (which the article addresses), was probably the most important element of the study -- and the one most likely to get people’s attention.

Research suggests that “employees who are underemployed tend to have weaker outcomes (absenteeism, poor work, turnover, etc.) for the organization,” Kezar said via email. In other words, she added, “universities’ systematic underemployment could mean students are getting shortchanged by disengaged faculty.” 

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said the report reaffirmed what advocates already know: that “what all adjuncts want is respect for the work that they do and by extension for the students they educate.”

She added, “Whether that respect translates for them on individual levels into better compensation, better attitudes and policies, or all three, the point is that they recognize the institutional and structural inequities that exist and need to be changed.”

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