When it comes to the plight of adjunct faculty, it can seem hard to be hopeful. From low pay to job insecurity to punitive evaluation practices, many adjunct faculty members still face a myriad of tough challenges, stymieing their efforts to become great teachers and mentors to their students.
As a researcher who studies changing faculty trends, I’m well aware of these and many additional hurdles that adjunct faculty encounter in their daily work lives. But in the last year, I’ve found much room for hope. I’ve learned many campuses are finally responding to the growing crisis of adjunct labor. Leaders are now aware, more than ever, that a lack of support for contingent faculty can impact their efforts to retain and graduate students, upend initiatives to improve teaching and learning, destroy campus morale, and prevent institutions from meeting their mission.
Forward-thinking colleges and universities have begun to address the needs of adjunct faculty in innovative, creative and distinctive ways. Take California State University, Dominguez Hills, for example. It launched an impressive set of reforms to pursue equity for all faculty members and to initiate a new culture where non-tenure-track faculty members were included and respected. Instead of tackling the many issues that concern non-tenure-track faculty in a piecemeal, ad hoc fashion, as many institutions have tried to do, the university took a comprehensive approach, with a focus on an inclusive culture that began by including non-tenure-track faculty from the get-go, in the planning process.
One major area of change for the university centered on salary and benefits, which campuses often do not recognize is tied to faculty performance. After analyzing the salaries of all non-tenure-track faculty members, the institution increased non-tenure-track faculty compensation through equity pay programs and range elevation pay increases, narrowing the compensation gap between non-tenure-track faculty and tenured/tenure-track faculty. The pay increases now allow non-tenure-track faculty to focus more deeply on their teaching and less on establishing additional, alternative income streams to supplement too-low wages and limited benefits. This fundamental support allows non-tenure-track faculty members at the institution to do what they do best: support students, engage in scholarly work and create exceptional learning experiences.
California State University, Dominguez Hills, also now reviews non-tenure-track faculty for advancement into multiyear contracts and encourages them to apply for reassigned time and sabbaticals for scholarly projects. Similarly, non-tenure-track faculty are eligible to apply for and have been granted university research funds, scholarships, creative activity awards and other research awards, providing them with the time and funds to pursue creative and scholarly work. Non-tenure-track faculty are also included as participants and leaders of the Faculty Learning Communities and Freshman Dream Seminars that are a growing part of the university’s learning culture. Through these opportunities, the university recognizes all faculty members are scholars and deserve opportunities to build and share their scholarly work.
Additionally, the institution now actively encourages campus leaders to hire non-tenure-track faculty for tenure-track roles. In the past, while non-tenure-track faculty were permitted to apply for tenure-track positions, they often did not end up getting hired due to a culture that discouraged a consideration of non-tenure-track faculty as peers of tenured and tenure-track faculty. Since the university made changes to its faculty culture, several non-tenure-track faculty members have successfully moved onto the tenure track, proving that the university’s efforts have started creating a process and pipeline for non-tenure-track faculty to transition into tenure-track roles.
The university also initiated and awarded its first annual outstanding lecturer faculty award, dedicated to recognizing and honoring a non-tenure-track faculty member’s contributions to the university. In addition, it created dedicated positions on the Academic Senate for non-tenure-track faculty, formally including this population in university governance. Non-tenure-track faculty are compensated for their service in all areas of shared governance and universitywide task forces, effective 2019. There’s now a shared recognition that treating non-tenure-track faculty fairly contributes to a broader culture of diversity, equity, inclusion, learning and respect, contributing to the richness and interconnectedness of the campus community.
Innovative initiatives to nurture adjunct faculty aren’t limited to four-year colleges and universities. Harper College, a community college in Palatine, Ill., has also instituted major changes to support non-tenure-track faculty in recent years by embarking on a process of reflecting on and redesigning the evaluation process for adjunct faculty.
Evaluations are often used to hire and fire adjunct faculty and are thus very high-stakes processes for such faculty members -- yet these evaluations are often poorly developed, relying heavily on unreliable student evaluations. Harper College, for its part, used to depend mostly on traditional classroom observations but chose to update those observations to make them more effective and relevant. Today, non-tenure-track faculty members can choose from three different options: 1) goal-based self-evaluation, 2) reverse peer observation and 3) traditional classroom observation.
With goal-based self-evaluation, faculty members identify a teaching goal, then craft a planning document and meet with an instructional designer at the start of the semester to finalize goals and discuss strategies and resources for achieving it. Those who choose reverse peer observation observe another faculty member’s class and meet with that person to learn more about the practices they observed. They then submit a short reflection indicating how the experience may influence changes in their own practice and what support or resources they might elicit from the Academy for Teaching Excellence to help them implement the new practices. The traditional classroom observation still remains a choice for adjunct faculty, but the option has been modified to make it more effective based on feedback from non-tenure-track faculty.
I learned about both efforts at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and Harper College while reviewing applications for the Delphi Award, an annual $15,000 cash award given to each of two applicants who have worked to support non-tenure-track, contingent and/or adjunct faculty. Part of the Delphi Project for the Changing Faculty and Student Success, which I direct, the award aims to champion and bring attention to existing efforts to support non-tenure-track faculty members, including new faculty models, so that other postsecondary institutions might adopt these successful models on additional campuses.
Of course, many problems remain for adjuncts on campuses across the United States, and we need continued vigilance to address these issues. In fact, research shows that the contingency and deprofessionalization of higher education instructors continue to be rampant and are spreading to postdocs, staff and graduate students.
Yet, if we ignore the progress being made, we miss opportunities to see beacons for change. The two institutions that I’ve described -- the winners of the inaugural Delphi Award -- provide inspiration. They represent very different approaches to change -- one quite comprehensive, the other pointed at addressing a deep and vexing concern. They occurred at very different campuses with distinct histories and contexts. But both involved collaboration with adjunct faculty to develop solutions to the problems on campus and to better support faculty.
These institutions show what’s possible for colleges and universities today. It is now up to the rest of us to learn from and build on their examples.