Two Steps Back?

New England accreditor says it's trying to update its standards, but many adjunct activists fear changes would undercut efforts to protect those off the tenure track.

December 15, 2015

In non-tenure-track instructors’ campaign for better working conditions, activists have pointed to accreditors as possible allies. Some accreditation standards, adjuncts say, already protect the rights of those off the tenure track, and college administrators ignore accreditors at their own peril. But a major accreditor is poised to eliminate specific protections for non-tenure-track faculty members from its standards, and some are worried that the body is taking two steps back.

The accreditor denies such charges, saying it’s not trying to hurt adjunct faculty members, but rather update its standards to reflect the increasingly diverse faculty role.

“What the commission was trying to do is make standards that fit the different kinds of [faculty] models,” said Barbara Brittingham, president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. “We range from very traditional institutions where nearly all the faculty are full time or tenure track to campuses that have disaggregated the faculty role …. This is the part of the draft that the commission probably spent the most time on, and probably would have anyway, even if they hadn’t heard some of the issues.”

The issues in question relate to the commission’s proposed changes to its higher education accrediting standards, last updated in 2011. The commission has been working on them since last year, and has solicited feedback from a variety of faculty and administrative groups, but some advocates for part-time faculty say the process hasn’t been public enough. Moreover, they say, the changes on the table equate to weaker assurances regarding the working conditions for adjuncts.

Currently, for example, the standards say faculty members “are accorded reasonable contractual security for appropriate periods consistent with the institution's ability to fulfill its mission,” and that “salaries and benefits are set at levels that ensure the institution's continued ability to attract and maintain an appropriately qualified instructional staff whose profile is consistent with the institution's mission and purposes.” The new proposed standards don’t include language on “reasonable contractual security” -- a major issue for adjuncts who say that working on course-by-course contracts negatively impacts their ability to teach effectively.

In another example, the standards now say that the “full-time/part-time composition of the faculty reflects the institution’s mission, programs and student body and is periodically reviewed. The institution avoids undue dependence on part-time faculty, adjuncts, temporary appointments and graduate assistants to conduct instruction. Institutions that employ part-time, adjunct, clinical or temporary faculty assure their appropriate integration into the department and institution and provide opportunities for faculty development.” The proposed update eliminates the “undue dependence” language, possibly opening the door to a bigger reliance on adjuncts, and says, “Where graduate teaching assistants are employed, the institution carefully selects, trains, supervises and evaluates them.”

Critics also say that numerous tweaks throughout the standards seek to eliminate or make invisible adjunct faculty members who already struggle with recognition and obtaining the salaries and benefits they say they need on their campuses. Examples include a note on evaluation. Currently, standards say that an institution “has equitable and broad-based procedures for such evaluation applying to both full- and part-time faculty,” but the reference to full-time and part-time faculty has been removed and replaced with “faculty” generally. And a note on public disclosure now says that the institution publishes “a list of its current faculty, indicating departmental or program affiliation, distinguishing between those who have full-time and part-time status.” Under the proposed changes, the note would say that only “continuing” faculty need to be listed.

It’s hard to argue that eliminating a reasonable contractual security standard for adjuncts or the expectation that all faculty members -- not just continuing ones -- be publicly listed so that their students may contact them won’t harm adjuncts. But some of the changes critics have highlighted as problematic wouldn’t necessarily hurt, since adjuncts are technically faculty members and standards regarding faculty generally should apply to them, as well. Supporters of the proposed changes say that adjuncts, as faculty members, remain covered. But critics of the proposed changes note that many colleges, given the option, don't provide much to adjuncts.

Jeremy Thompson, a Boston-based director for higher education for Service Employees International Union, which has organized adjuncts on numerous campuses in the area, said the changes make it that much harder for adjunct faculty members to file complaints when an employer deviates from the standards. For example, many part-time faculty members say they’re not evaluated in any robust way. So it might be harder to formally complain if there aren’t specific assurances that part-time faculty members merit evaluations.

Equally importantly, the commission is shying away from an opportunity to advance expectations regarding the treatment of adjuncts, Thompson said. “They have the power to respond to some of the concerns raised by these faculty members.”

Thompson also took issue with the commission’s process, saying that federal regulations require that such changes involve “all of the agency’s relevant constituencies in the review and affords them a meaningful opportunity to provide input into the review.” But an SEIU survey of 1,000 faculty members in Massachusetts that asked if they were aware of the changes found that just 19 percent knew what was going on, and just 8 percent were encouraged somehow to participate in the process. (Thompson also said the survey painted a picture of widespread noncompliance with the current standards pertaining to non-tenure-track faculty members.) He also questioned why 19 of the 20 commissioners were administrators. The other is a faculty member emeritus who is not an adjunct.

Brittingham disputed the findings, saying the commission solicited feedback from a variety of groups, including through its website. A draft was released in late August, and it met with some serious faculty criticism. Some 500 non-tenure-track faculty members signed on to a letter saying, “The accreditation standards recently proposed undermine the work we are doing to improve higher education -- work that we feel should be carried out with [the commission], not in opposition to it.”

Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education and director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California, who works with faculty members, administrators and accreditors on adjunct faculty issues, also weighed in.

“In 2015, it is disappointing to see that accreditors responsible for encouraging quality do not seem to be able to stem the negative tide,” she said in an SEIU news release. “[The commission’s] proposed standards neither recognize the changes in the faculty nor embrace ways institutions should be working to support faculty.”

Kezar added, “We are unlikely to obtain suitable changes unless accreditation processes are rethought. Accreditation standards should be created with stakeholders who they impact and faculty of all types should have been given voice to inform new standards -- including adjuncts.”

The Brandeis University Faculty Senate reached out to the commission, too, expressing concern about the proposed changes to part-time faculty and academic freedom standards, which it saw as interrelated. The senate is “unanimous in our serious concern about the new standards proposed by the [commission] for accrediting institutions like Brandeis,” members said in a letter to Brittingham. “We are especially concerned about the weakening of the current standards’ language protecting academic freedom (which we know to be under assault nationally) and at the related weakening of language concerning part-time and adjunct faculty, whose frequently precarious, and sometimes desperate, financial circumstances have been much documented over the last few years.”

In response to some of the criticism, the commission at its November meeting restored a specific academic freedom provision from the 2011 standards, saying that the institution “protects and fosters academic freedom of all faculty regardless of rank or term of appointment.” (The August draft said the institution “assures academic freedom for faculty and students in teaching, learning and research. It works systematically to ensure an environment supportive of academic integrity.”)

The other changes remain in the draft. SEIU is encouraging its members to contact the commission with outstanding concerns through the end of the public comment period on Jan. 1. Brittingham said the commission will take all such comments and concerns into account at its meeting next month, after which the standards will be finalized.

Asked if adjunct faculty concerns were a bigger focus for the commission in recent years, Brittingham said yes. The commission used a major 2014 report from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (with which Kezar was involved) calling for more focus on adjunct issues in accreditation in workshops for evaluators, for example, she said. At the same, time, she added, adjuncts aren’t a homogenous group in terms of their needs and aspirations. Case in point -- one of the commission’s 230 member institutions had surveyed its (mostly online) part-time faculty and found that just one-quarter of faculty members wanted a full-time position.

Ultimately, Brittingham said, the commission’s standards prioritize things that impact educational quality, such as employee compensation that is sufficient to attract and retain qualified candidates.

Thompson said Brittingham’s thinking was out of touch, since other data suggest that many more than one-quarter of adjunct faculty members want full-time work, as well as better working conditions and supports.

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, agreed, calling the changes “an alarming step back.” She said the commission’s rationale broke with the spirit and conclusion of a meeting on which the 2014 Council for Higher Education Accreditation report was based, in that there was “a clear understanding of and commitment to addressing the crucial situation of contingent faculty, in the clear interest of both quality and equality.”

Maisto said she was glad the issue was being brought to light, however, and that there appears to be a strong, coordinated faculty response. “It's also a lesson to faculty to be vigilant and proactive,” she added, “especially where accreditation is concerned -- that was also one of the conclusions that we came to in the meeting -- that faculty need to be more involved in accreditation and that they, especially contingent faculty, need to be encouraged and supported in that involvement.”


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