Students, instructors suffer as colleges rely more on fill-in faculty
Published: Monday, September 17, 2012, 5:00 AM
Just in time for the fall term, a new report from the Center for the Future of Higher Education critiques the growing reliance on contingent labor in colleges and universities across the country. In order to cut costs and maximize flexibility, higher education administrators have increasingly turned to part-time instructors, who work for very low wages with few if any benefits. In fact, the contingent workforce now represents more than two-thirds of faculty in higher education nationally. The results are bad for faculty and students alike, as the report demonstrates.
Based on a survey of 500 contingent faculty nationwide, the report highlights the anonymous status of contingent faculty, who are generally listed only as "staff" in course schedules. Not only are students in the dark about who will be teaching a given course, the instructors too are often only informed at the very last minute what they will be expected to teach. Most respondents were assigned classes less than three weeks -- some only a few days -- before the term started.
Contingent faculty consistently reported limited access to copying services, library privileges, private office space, sample syllabi, or computer and software information systems. Moreover, there was no continuity in their teaching assignments. Rather than repeating a given course once they had taught it well, they were often shuffled off to fill a new gap in the curriculum somewhere else.
The adjunct faculty surveyed face immense challenges. The majority had to commute between at least two campuses to make ends meet. They complained of crowded group offices, which afforded no privacy for conversations with students; many had no offices at all. Most -- 94 percent -- received no orientation to the campuses where they worked, and thus could not advise students about such basic questions as curriculum guidelines or academic requirements. Many report being treated as second-class citizens by the tenure-stream faculty on campus, and they worried that their lack of prestige would negatively affect their relationships to students. Yet, even with wages so low that many were eligible for food stamps, some also reported that they spent their own money on photocopies, software, personal computers and more in order to provide a high-quality learning experience to their students.
Despite their best efforts -- and often excellent qualifications -- contingent faculty are not able to provide what students need, namely faculty with whom they can develop relationships over time, for advising, to supervise independent projects, for letters of recommendation and for help with job placement.
Administrators generally explain the turn to contingent faculty as the result of tight budgets and a need for greater flexibility. But the survey found that no follow-up studies were being performed to assess the efficiency of this shift, nor its impact on the quality of education. Moreover, a number of changes, such as increasing advance notice of which classes faculty will teach, and granting them library and computer privileges, would not cost the university a dime, but would clearly enhance instructors' ability to teach well. Given the complete predictability of fundamental course offerings, the cry for "flexibility" often appears as a simple cover for lazy management.
The growing reliance on adjunct professors is quite familiar to us at Portland State University, where 75 percent of our student class hours are taught by contingent faculty. Many of these instructors are hired year after year, but never given the minimal job security of even a one-year contract. This fall, the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers will collaborate to conduct a survey, to better understand the working conditions of adjunct faculty at PSU. Clearly, "just-in-time" hiring practices are shortchanging students across the country. We are eager to understand its effects on our own campus.
Brooke Jacobson teaches film at Portland State University and is president of the PSU Faculty Association. Marcia Klotz is assistant professor of English at PSU, and serves on the Executive Committee of the PSU American Association of University Professors. Phil Lesch is the executive director of PSU-AAUP.