As the use of adjuncts has proliferated, opponents of the practice often base their objections on social and economic justice grounds. Adjunct faculty, they say, tend to be exploited and seldom benefit from meaningful job security.
But, in a contract dispute in Washington state, those seeking to temper the use of adjuncts have focused more narrowly on what they say is another consequence of the practice: its impact on educational quality.
Fifteen years ago, the faculty union at Green River Community College, which is about 40 miles from Seattle, persuaded administrators to add one new full-time faculty position each year (in 2003, it became two positions per year) in order to better balance the percentages of full-time and part-time faculty members (there are now more than twice as many part-time instructors as full-time faculty members). In the most recent contract, which lapsed earlier this month, a Memorandum of Understanding  spells out the rationale, saying that Green River "is motivated to improve the ratio of full-time to adjunct faculty to support the highest quality of teaching for our students."
Extending that agreement into the next contract has become a major stumbling block in negotiations, said Hank Galmish, a full-time faculty member of the English department and treasurer of the Green River United Faculty Coalition, which represents both full- and part-time faculty, and is affiliated primarily with the American Federation of Teachers, as well as with the National Education Association. “This has become the bone of contention: the Memorandum of Understanding,” he said. “People are very concerned we may be losing some of our mission here.”
Faculty members have taken a strong stand on the issue, he said, because the needs of Green River students have grown more intense. “In the last 20 years the shift has been dramatic,” he said, adding that the past five years -- replete with economic upheaval -- have witnessed a striking growth in the academic and personal needs of students.
The college is under the leadership of a new president, Eileen Ely, following the retirement last year of Rich Rutkowski after 26 years. Nonetheless, the college says it supports the idea of hiring more full-timers and has kept up its end of the bargain, even amid financial duress. But the current state of the economy and forecasts for its future make it untenable to continue the MOU, said John Ramsey, spokesman for the college. “The new norm is to receive less and less state support,” he said. “That makes it awfully difficult to advance the notion of hiring more full-time faculty when our budgets are being cut by double digits.”
The proposed budget for Washington, which has been approved by the Legislature and awaits Governor Christine Gregoire’s signature, would reduce Green River’s state appropriation by $4.8 million over the next two years -- a cut of about 12 percent, said Ramsey. “I think we all understand the reasons why we’d want as many full-time faculty teaching as possible,” Ramsey said. “The economic reality is that this is not feasible to do.”
Ramsey said that Green River had found cost savings elsewhere by cutting administrative positions and not filling vacancies. Hiring part-timers also continues to be cheaper for the college: employing a part-timer instead of a full-timer to teach three courses every day saves the college $35,000 over the course of a year. At the same time, full-timers argue that their jobs include more advising, service and oversight, which makes it difficult to reliably compare their pay and job duties (while many adjuncts say that they would love the chance to share in the duties reserved for full-timers). And some full- and part-timers seem to agree that the financial savings realized by hiring adjuncts can exact longer-term costs in the graduation and retention rates of students.
Concerns about faculty balance are not limited to Green River, of course. Four years ago, academic labor unions launched an effort  to beef up the number of tenured and tenure-track jobs being created and to help improve the working conditions of adjuncts.
More recently, Middle Tennessee State University announced that it was going to create more full-time faculty jobs due to concerns about the ratio  of full-time to part-time faculty members and the possible impact on educational quality. Although about three-quarters of the faculty at MTSU are tenured or on the tenure track, said spokesman Tom Tozer, the university has become worried about growth in the use of adjuncts. To pay for the new jobs, regents in Tennessee propose increasing tuition and fees 9.8 percent, which will allow the university to convert 15 to 20 adjunct faculty positions to tenure-track lines, and to hire an additional 30 adjuncts to meet growing student enrollment.
“This is needed to mitigate a growing imbalance between the number of core faculty and temporary faculty,” Sidney A. McPhee, MTSU’s president, said in a statement. “Without it, we will struggle to maintain the quality of our programs and ensure the success of our students.” Similarly, Elon University in North Carolina successfully launched an effort  to increase the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty members -- and hired some of its adjuncts on a permanent basis.
Full-time faculty at Green River are quick to point out that their concerns about quality are not based on any sense that part-time faculty make inferior teachers. In fact, several pointed out the opposite -- that the teaching skills of adjuncts may be superior, but that they and their students suffer when low pay compels them to juggle multiple jobs, none of which comes with dedicated office space. “It’s not that they’re not good teachers,” said Mark Millbauer, president of the Green River United Faculty Coalition. “They just don’t have time.”
Millbauer and John Avery, a full-time faculty member of Green River's English for Speakers of Other Languages Department, cited research  conducted by Daniel Jacoby, a professor of economics at the University of Washington at Bothell, which sought to draw attention to the correlation between higher rates of full-time faculty at community colleges and the graduation rates of students. The inverse was also true. “Those institutions with the highest percentages of adjuncts also had the lowest graduation rates,” Avery said in a memo addressed earlier this month to Green River trustees. “That information is compelling and believable since it is full-time faculty who have the time and the commitment to design effective curriculum, manage programs and maintain contact with students through advising.”
Advocates for adjuncts stress a more nuanced perspective. The relationship between employment status and graduation rates has less to do with whether adjuncts or full-time faculty are teaching, per se, said Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority and adjunct instructor of composition at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio. What matters is the working conditions of the faculty.
“Thoughtful faculty and administrators recognize that studies like Jacoby’s support the conversion of persons as much as the conversion of lines, preferably both at the same time whenever possible,” Maisto said. “That is, Jacoby’s study, and others like it, always point out that it is the lack of institutional support and not the individual adjuncts that are the problem.”
Others have suggested that the relationship between adjuncts and educational quality likely has more to with the way these part-time positions are constructed and managed. Administrators typically offer little in the way of orientation and mentoring to part-time faculty, or opportunities for input on curriculum and reading lists, or such basics as office space and clerical support -- all of which have an impact on student learning, Adrianna Kezar, associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, wrote in a newsletter  for the American Association of Colleges and Universities.
“I need to emphasize that this is not because part-time faculty are not quality instructors, but instead because of inferior working conditions and lack of institutional expectations around student engagement,” Kezar wrote.
Another byproduct of the over-reliance on adjuncts is that it can cause problems in operating and supervising programs, say full-timers. Such has been the case in some areas of Green River, said Millbauer, who is the only full-time member of the auto-body technology department. “I order the parts, I do the syllabuses, I run the program,” he said. Two part-timers -- one a retiree and the other with a full-time job managing a shop -- are his departmental colleagues. “I teach twice the hours they each do,” he said. “Plus, I run the program, serve on tenure committees and I’ve been a very active member of the college community.”
While some adjuncts have embraced efforts to create more full-time and tenure-track jobs in the hopes that they will be hired for these positions, others have come to see them as problematic because they can displace adjuncts from their jobs and are perceived as doing little to change their working conditions. And many adjuncts across the country have noted that, while they may be interviewed for newly created full-time positions, they seldom seem to land  the jobs.
It is unclear whether adjuncts have substantially benefited from the MOU that has been in place at Green River, where 32 full-time positions have been established since 1996 (several new positions remain unfilled, as do as many as 12 places left open after retirements and resignations).
Sources in the administration and on the faculty could not cite an exact number of adjuncts, who worked either at Green River or at nearby campuses, who were hired for the full-time positions -- though they could point to individual cases in which that had occurred. One source estimated that as many as 40 percent of the filled positions went to adjuncts.
But, as much as the full-time faculty members -- who are the ones who make personnel recommendations to administrators -- may want to give those positions to adjuncts, they also say they must follow a process. “I think we have a responsibility to hire the best person available, and hopefully that person is an adjunct,” said Avery.