Accreditors have many detailed rules that they expect colleges to meet -- requirements that relate to courses, faculties, facilities, money and more. But what about the use of adjunct faculty members -- an issue that is the subject of increasing debate in higher education? What have the accreditors said or done?
"One might expect them to be in the vanguard of the debate over part-time faculty. They are not," says a report, "Looking the Other Way? Accreditation Standards and Part-Time Faculty,"  being issued today by the American Association of University Professors. The report says that accreditors generally say little about the use of adjuncts, are vague when they address the topic, and have rarely taken actions against colleges that have shrunk the sizes of their tenure-track faculty in favor of more use of adjuncts.
The report, prepared by the AAUP's Committee on Contingent Faculty and the Profession, is being released along with other statements  encouraging faculty members to become more involved in accreditation and urging colleges to make it more realistic for professors to devote the time and energy necessary to serve on review teams and to become involved in accreditation debates. Of the various statements being issued, the study related to the use of part timers is by far the most critical and could be controversial. The head of a national accrediting group said that the report reflects "a misunderstanding of the role of accreditation."
The AAUP's report builds on the view of many faculty groups over the years that one group that could be an ally for creating tenure-track positions should be accreditors. The accreditation process already looks at faculty quality so it would be natural for these agencies to start criticizing colleges that shift too many slots away from the tenure track, the theory goes. A key part of this view is that accreditors have power -- by virtue of the requirement that students receiving federal aid use it only at accredited institutions -- that would get administrators' attention.
The first problem noted by the AAUP is that the voluminous rules and regulations of accreditors make relatively little mention of part-time faculty issues, and that many references to "the faculty" do not indicate whether they are about tenure-track faculty members only, adjuncts, or both. In many other cases, the report notes, there are details about the evaluation and review of tenure-track faculty members, with little or no mention of whether adjuncts are to be provided with the same sorts of reviews or any reviews at all.
The report notes some cases where different accreditors do have specific mention of part-time faculty members:
- The Western Association of Schools and Colleges asks colleges to provide information on ways in which "part-time faculty are oriented, supported, and integrated appropriately into the academic life of the institution."
- The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities has a guideline that states: "Employment practices for part-time and adjunct faculty include dissemination of information regarding the institution, the work assignment, rights and responsibilities, and conditions of employment."
- The Middle States Commission has a requirement that criteria for appointment and review of part-time faculty members should be "consistent with those for full-time faculty."
- The Southern Association of Schools and Colleges has specific rules on the overall reliance of part-timers: "The work of the core faculty may be supplemented and enhanced by judicious assignment of part-time faculty."
Other accreditors -- while not using language as specific as the Southern group on overall use of non-tenure-track professors -- also imply that it is important for colleges to have strong core faculties of people with job security, offices, tenure, and long-term ties to institutions. But the AAUP finds that these statements are generally vague and not enforced.
"Despite a collective sidestep on the issue of part-time faculty, statements on student learning and support, faculty development, and the necessity of maintaining a faculty of involved and knowledgeable individual exist in all accreditation handbooks," the report says. "The problem with these lofty statements, however, is that their vagueness allows institutions to spin their compliance evidence."
The AAUP reviewed recent reports of accreditors on institutions that had been sanctioned some way. Accreditors vary widely on explaining why an institution has been denied accreditation, placed on probation, and so forth, but among those that provide explanations, only the Southern Association was found to be citing requirements on the use of full-time faculty members. This was cited, the AAUP said, in one denial of candidacy for accreditation, and one instance in which an accredited institution was placed on probation.
The Southern Association's actions are "rays of hope," the AAUP said, in comparison to the apparent inaction of other accrediting groups. "While a few accreditors have added statements dealing with the evaluation and support of part-time faculty, there is little evidence that noncompliance with these statements has been a consistent factor in institutional evaluation," the report says.
Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, said via e-mail that she thought the AAUP was misreading the evidence of what accreditors are doing and misunderstanding their role. She said that the various statements cited by the AAUP as exceptions to the rule actually demonstrate that accreditors are adding criteria that relate to the growing adjunct contingent of the professoriate.
More fundamentally, she said that the lack of specific numbers isn't a failing, but a result of the role of accreditation in "partnership" with colleges -- a partnership in which much of the work goes on in discussions of accrediting teams with campus officials, not through sanctions.
"Accreditation standards are setting general expectations of quality associated with part-time faculty. It is up to the institution to determine how it will address the standards," she said. "Alternatively, do the AAUP and faculty across the country really want accrediting organizations (instead of institutions) to determine full-time/part-time faculty ratios? Decide what evaluation systems are appropriate? Decide qualifications for part-time faculty? Dictate training for part-time faculty?"