Our Dirty Little Secret
The faculty in postsecondary education has changed so much in the last 20 years that it has been labeled a "revolution" by researchers who study the professoriate. More than two-thirds of the faculty providing instruction in nonprofit higher education are currently employed off the tenure track, and their numbers continue to rise. This shift alone may be cause for concern, but the real dilemma is that institutions have not developed a new faculty model or employment practices that are based on a realistic conception of the faculty and its composition. The faculty model currently in use has not been achieved through intentional and thoughtful planning. It is the haphazardly derived product of casual, short-term planning and reactionary decision making amid constrained budgets; it reflects little thought or concern for its implications for student learning or enlightened employment practice.
Today, many faculty members have no job security or expectation of employment beyond the current term. Many do not receive benefits and their compensation is extremely low, averaging $2,700 per course, making it difficult to earn a living wage even when they can get consistent work. Sometimes, however, they cannot obtain a full course load. Institutional policies and practices often make them ineligible for unemployment when this occurs. Recent reporting has exposed that some faculty members are living on food stamps. Only 25 percent of non-tenure-track faculty have any form of health insurance, and even those covered often have less than adequate coverage.
Even basic forms of institutional support that could improve faculty performance -- and, by extension, enhance their capabilities to promote student learning -- are lacking. As a result of our failure to acknowledge and address the changing faculty, we have made it unnecessarily difficult for a majority of the faculty to do their jobs. Non-tenure-track faculty members – particularly part-time faculty members – often do not receive an orientation, professional development or mentoring, and they may even be excluded from faculty meetings. So they may not understand institutional goals, learn about pedagogies for effectively educating the students they teach, or have opportunities to strengthen their skills.
Only a very few are involved in curriculum design and governance, even though they may outnumber tenure-track faculty or teach a majority of the credit hours at their institutions. They typically lack office space and may not receive compensation for conducting office hours to support their students. Additionally, hiring decisions are routinely made at the last minute, often within days of a class beginning. Making matters worse, institutions do not always provide these faculty members with adequate materials or resources, including a sample syllabus, to help them to prepare on such short notice.
This model constrains faculty members’ ability to provide a quality learning environment and make their maximum contribution to educating students. There is now evidence that the poor working conditions we impose upon them have an adverse effect on student retention, transfer, and graduation rates, as well as other indicators of learning and student success. Much of the employment literature addresses the need for employees to be motivated and well-trained, but also to have access to basic resources, materials, supplies, and conditions that allow them to perform their duties. Adjuncts have been robbed of the opportunity to give their best effort for their students. With this evidence close at hand and the moral objections inherent in a model that would leave employees without a living wage or safety net becoming clearer, it seems there would be more significant outrage or at least concern within our academic community.
Adjuncts have been writing about their poor working conditions for years. They have done so with trepidation, as many commentators have demonized them as being the root of the problem, rather than recognizing the effects of this poor employment model or the conditions they endure. Yet they continue to lend their voices to the just cause of change.
Why have so few outside these ranks taken up this cause? While non-tenure-track faculty have been vocal in advocating for change, virtually no institutional, foundation, or policy leaders have acknowledged the hard realities of these conditions or expressed concern. In fact, in private, a few postsecondary leaders will note that they feel bad and think the model is morally bankrupt. In public, though, they often show no leadership, nor do they voice their objections to a model that surely cannot be sustained -- nor should it be.
As a result, institutions, foundations, and government pour billions of dollars into initiatives for completion and success, many of which cannot succeed because they fail to understand the faculty responsible for carrying out changes designed to improve the learning environment. Goals for improving access and outcomes are severely affected. We can blame decreasing funding and external pressures. However, many institutions have had a choice and still shifted money away from instruction to fund other priorities. Others, particularly community colleges, are sometimes so lacking in resources that they have been given no options.
This cannot continue. Ours should be an ethical employment model with integrity – one that allows us to draw upon the strengths of all our faculty to create and sustain a high-quality learning environment to best serve students. Today, we raise these concerns; in a short time, so too will a public dissatisfied with the inaction and inattention of our leaders to these problems. So we invite leaders from across the country to join the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success not only in calling for changes, but in helping to create new solutions to this problem now – to challenge the status quo and advance a new employment model for higher education that has integrity.
We applaud the leaders that have joined us so far, including the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, Association of American Colleges &Universities, the New Faculty Majority, American Association of Community Colleges, American Federation of Teachers, League of Innovation, Council for Higher Education Accreditation, Association for Governing Boards, National Association for College and University Business Officers, State Higher Education Executive Officers, various disciplinary societies, and others (listed on our website). We hope you will visit our website and utilize the resources we have prepared to begin to address and move away from this unethical employment model.
Adrianna Kezar is a professor at the University of Southern California and director for the Delphi Project for the Changing Faculty and Student Success.
David Longanecker is president of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education.
Daniel Maxey is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California.
- USC-based initiative releases new tools for adjuncts and their advocates
- New Delphi Project report outlines evolving faculty models and growing support for reform
- Essay on new effort to rethink faculty roles and treatment of adjuncts
- Paper argues more support for adjuncts won't cost much
- New report urges more emphasis on adjunct faculty conditions in accreditation
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