The Full-Time Faculty Factor

Professors from across New York’s public colleges say that all students, regardless of race or what campus they’re on, should have equal opportunities to study with full-time professors. Those chances are now concentrated on predominantly white campuses, one analysis suggests.

December 2, 2021
(Mykyta Dolmatov/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

City University of New York and State University of New York system professors are drawing attention to disparities between the full-time faculty-to-student ratios on campuses where students tend to be white and where there are more underrepresented minorities. In what some professors are calling a glaring example of “racialized austerity” regarding state funding for higher education, students at CUNY’s and SUNY’s four-year colleges and universities are more likely to interact with full-time professors if they’re on a campus with relatively fewer Black and Hispanic students.

At SUNY’s Potsdam campus, for instance, where there are about 75 full-time professors per 1,000 full-time students or the equivalent, 26 percent of students are Black and Hispanic. At CUNY’s Medgar Evers College, where 91 percent of students are Black or Hispanic, there are about 33 full-time professors per 1,000 students. Here, full-time means mostly tenure-track or tenured faculty members.

At CUNY’s York College, where 65 percent of students are Black or Hispanic, there are 29 full-time faculty members for every 1,000 students. At SUNY’s Cortland campus, 19 percent of students are Black or Hispanic, and there are 50 full-time faculty members for every 1,000 students.

This dynamic isn’t as exaggerated on other CUNY or SUNY campuses. Yet it is the overall trend across the two systems that more underrepresented minority students means relatively fewer full-time professors, according to a report prepared by Ned Benton, a professor of public management at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and other members of the University Faculty Senate Budget Committee (see Benton’s graph showing this relationship at right).

At New York’s “publicly funded senior colleges, white students have substantially greater opportunities for full-time faculty instruction, compared to Black and Hispanic students,” the report says. “This pattern and practice of allocation of critical educational resources may not only be educationally and morally unacceptable. It may also be illegal,” on the grounds that CUNY and SUNY deliver “comparatively lower faculty/student ratios for state-funded senior college campuses serving higher proportions of Black and Hispanic students.”

Why do full-time faculty-to-student ratios matter? Benton said that the “opportunity for instruction by a full-time faculty member should be approximately the same regardless of the state-funded campus the student enrolls in.”

There’s shouldn’t be “lower opportunities for access to full-time faculty in the state’s minority-serving campuses,” he added. It’s a “matter of basic justice and social equity.”

There is much research to support the idea that students fare better when they’re instructed by full-time versus part-time professors. This is not because full-time professors are innately better teachers, but because these professors have more institutional support and resources at their disposal, and they tend to be around year after year to support and mentor students.

According to an analysis by the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California, for example, rising numbers of part-time faculty members and their working conditions adversely impact various measures of student success, including diminished graduation rates, lower grade point averages, greater difficulty selecting majors and persistence. Outcomes were worst for early college and students in remedial courses.

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Adrianna Kezar, director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC, said inequities regarding access to full-time faculty members extends beyond New York.

“It’s very common for institutions that have large numbers of systemically disadvantaged students to have more adjunct instructors and non-tenure-track faculty,” she said. “So this is a clear trend, but it’s certainly not particularly well-known. And it’s one that we should be talking about more.”

CUNY’s and SUNY’s faculty unions have begun talking about this more, in their own ways. CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress, in particular, is framing this in talks with university officials and state lawmakers as part of the bigger problem of “racialized austerity.”

James Davis, a professor of English at Brooklyn College and the union’s president, said that “when you actually look at data around the structure of who across the state has access to full-time instruction, it’s very stark and clear that that it’s rationed out along racial lines.” That’s not to say that anyone “particularly intended or set out to create a system that did that,” he continued, “but in its effect, the disproportion is very clear and the patterns are stark. So we do see access to full-time instruction as one important—certainly not the only measure—but one really important measure of educational quality in in public higher ed.”

Frederick E. Kowal, president of the United University Professions, SUNY’s American Federation of Teachers–affiliated faculty union, said, “What we have looked at is mostly the issue of diversity of the faculty and staff, and SUNY as being lacking. And that is linked to recruitment and retention of students from underrepresented communities of color.” UUP has called for a “massive expansion” of recruitment, hiring and retention efforts for professors of color, with the goal that 25 percent of the SUNY faculty and professional staff be Black, Latino or Native American by 2025, Kowal said. Faculty diversity rates vary by campus, but the current share of underrepresented minority faculty is under 10 percent, he added.

Benton said this all amounts to a “funding problem.” His report calls on New York State to fully fund the Tuition Assistance Program, a state student aid program, and to fund a separate “faculty gap” initiative to improve full-time-faculty–to–student ratios over time. Example target goals for certain campuses include 50 full-time professors per 1,000 students within five years.

“State budget authorities, and CUNY and SUNY leaders should take steps to assure that this type of disparity in access to essential education resources does not recur in the future,” the report also says. “Development and implementation of instructional staffing policies by SUNY and CUNY would also remedy disparities within their systems. It could also rationalize faculty staffing expectations and funding for the community colleges of both systems. In this way, campuses could allocate their faculty positions in ways designed to improve student learning, graduation and career success.”

‘The More Policymakers Invest’

Asked about the report, SUNY chancellor Jim Malatras said in a statement, “We must address equity gaps in our system be it student/faculty ratios or increasing diversity of our faculty to be representative of our diverse student body. While our student ratios are comparable on a national level, the more policymakers invest in SUNY, the more we can lower our student to faculty ratios, especially in some campuses that have struggled with enrollment and other issues causing fiscal constraints.”

Additionally, he said, SUNY has “recognized the need to diversify our faculty to better mirror the diversity of our students. This is a driving reason for our PRODiG initiative, established in 2017, to attract more tenure-track members—and 41 percent of all faculty hires at SUNY last year were diverse. Having an excellent and diverse faculty is critical to our students’ success, as well as resources and direct financial support to help students succeed in getting their degree.”

CUNY’s budget request to the state for the 2023 fiscal year seeks $94.1 million for 1,075 new full-time faculty lines. Of those lines, 500 would be reserved for non-tenure-track lecturers, with some expected to be recruited from the system’s current pool of part-time instructors.

CUNY said in a statement about the report that it values “the critical contribution of our adjuncts, and the key role they play in the educational lives of our students across our 25 campuses”—something underscored by CUNY’s 2019 contract with the PSC, which improved pay and working conditions for the system’s 12,000 adjuncts.

Beyond student demographics and full-time faculty numbers, Benton’s analysis highlights the growing gap between full-time faculty-to-student ratios at CUNY and SUNY over all. Where no real gap between the two systems used to exist, it emerged in 2003 and has widened ever since, the report says. Bringing CUNY senior colleges up to the SUNY average would require 1,649 additional faculty members, the report says.

Both CUNY and SUNY had about 43 full-time professors for every 1,000 students in 2003. In 2019, the most recent year for which data are available, SUNY had 49 full-time professors for every 1,000 students. CUNY had 34 by then.

As Benton and others make clear, much of how CUNY and SUNY address these issues depends on funding. The funding environment is of course challenging at the moment, with COVID-19 still circulating and both CUNY and SUNY suffering enrollment declines. But some state lawmakers are sympathetic to Benton and his colleagues’ call for more and more equitably distributed instructional resources, namely more full-time professors.

Karines Reyes, New York state assembly member for the 87th District, who attended CUNY, for one, recently published an op-ed in the Daily News citing the report.

Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1965 affirmed decades ago that unequal access to education for minority students is wrong. But the situation in our SUNY and CUNY senior colleges is like a school district that routinely provides fewer teachers to schools serving Black and Hispanic youngsters,” Reyes wrote. New York “should fully fund both university systems’ budget requests for more professors” and “ensure that the budget prioritizes equal access to full-time faculty for all students—across SUNY and CUNY, and across senior colleges and community colleges.”

Referring to a bill currently before the Assembly, Reyes said legislators should “also pass the New Deal for CUNY, which would in its first year mandate a ratio of 45 full-time faculty for every 1,000 full-time equivalent students.”

CUNY has already requested funding to those hire 1,075 new full-time faculty members, Reyes said, “which would make substantial headway on this vital priority.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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