You Can Tell A Lot About A College By The Way It Treats Its Adjuncts

To borrow a turn of phrase, you can tell a lot about a college by the way it treats its adjuncts. If you read the PASSHE Negotiation Objectives recently distributed to PASSHE faculty via email (referred to parenthetically in this post as “Letter”), you are likely angered and dismayed by most if not all of their positions. For a moment, I’d like you to consider the repercussions of one element of their attack on quality education, their proposed treatment of contingent faculty. And make no mistake: the use and treatment of these faculty does indeed affect and reflect the education the state makes available to students.

Before I came to Kutztown University, I had been an adjunct at several colleges, though “adjunct” became a ridiculous term when I was running the writing center, directing the theater production and teaching several classes at a single institution on three “part-time” contracts. One of the reasons I respected and applied to KU, then, was the way in which it treated contingent faculty. Unlike the national trend, temporary faculty at KU were mostly full-time; benefits were available; the pay system was above the national average; the union included and protected them; and caps were placed on the number of temporary faculty overall. I noted that temporary faculty in the English department were given the title of “Assistant Professor” if they had the PhD, and their scholarship was not only recorded in annual reviews, but supported. Most impressive, temps even had the chance of being converted into permanent faculty after five years, since five years of need suggests that it is not temporary.  I was impressed not only by this ethical approach to labor, but also by the ways I knew, from my own experience, that the quality of education would benefit as a result.

Instead of celebrating and promoting the PA system for these positions, the Chancellor’s new proposal tears them apart. Let’s look at just a few of his objectives and explore the repercussions not just for the faculty involved, but for the quality of education

Out of an expressed desire to “increase the flexibility of the workforce,” the Chancellor lists as a negotiation objective: “Develop an additional non-tenure track faculty member status of “Lecturer.” Faculty members in these positions will be employed on an extended renewable contract basis. The contracts may be terminated with a 90 day notice. (New Provision)” (Letter, page 1).

According to APSCUF-KU officers, lecturers in PASSHE’s proposed plan are not required to complete scholarship and service, and their workloads would increase to 5/5. The PASSHE objectives clearly indicate that no increase in pay would accompany the increase in courses taught.  While this angers me for its disregard for the faculty involved, the administration and, sadly, many in the public, aren’t persuaded by arguments for fair labor practices. So, let’s consider the goal touted by all fourteen schools in the PASSHE system: quality education.

The 5/ 5 workload

Research in the last 10 years has demonstrated that contingent faculty already have workloads that allow them less time to prepare for class; fewer opportunities to meet with students one-on-one; and less time to respond to student work. For example, in “How Effective Are They? Exploring the Impact of Contingent Faculty on Undergraduate Education” Paul Umbach analyzed data collected in the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, administered to 132 institutions. He found that “compared with their tenured and tenure-track peers, contingent faculty…are underperforming in their delivery of undergraduate instruction” (110). Specifically, “Part-time faculty interact with students less frequently, use active and collaborative techniques less often, [and] spend less time preparing for class” (110). Full-time contingent faculty also spend less time interacting with students and “require slightly less effort from their students,” but spend “more time than tenured and tenure-track faculty preparing for class” (110).  Umbach is careful to note, and I emphasize here, that these outcomes are not the result of less dedication on the part of contingent faculty. Rather, while contingent professors are smart, capable and motivated, their schedules and workload impede their efforts to teach to the best of their ability.

A case in point: as Coordinator of Composition in our English department, I encourage teachers to use one-on-one conferencing and large group workshops in our freshmen courses, pedagogies proven in research and recommended by our professional organizations. Working under the 4/4 load, contingent and permanent faculty already ask me how they can possibly manage these approaches with so many students. We don’t have the time and resources, as it is, to give each student the attention they need. A 5/5 load obviously exacerbates this problem, especially when contingent faculty teach a disproportionate number of introductory courses like composition. The tension is felt even in, perhaps particularly in, disciplines that don’t rely as heavily on individual attention in pedagogy. Consider how many freshman-level courses are relegated to large lecture halls. Adding a single course to a contingent faculty’s load may then translate into adding 100 or more students, with all of the accompanying papers, projects, and tests to prep and evaluate. As our rosters grow, we are forced to abandon many tried and true pedagogies for scantrons and multiple choice quizzes just to manage time. As a result, students aren’t getting our best—they’re getting the best we can do under the working conditions management has set, a significant distinction.

The End of Scholarship

Management might be implicitly arguing that temporary faculty will have plenty of time to prepare for classes since scholarship will no longer be required. The truth is, however, that our scholarship informs our teaching. It is one of the most important means by which we engage with the latest research in our fields. Through scholarship, we learn about and contribute to the bodies of knowledge we then discuss in our classrooms; it is often the vehicle through which we discover new pedagogies and teaching tools. Our scholarly work demonstrates our ongoing conversation in our professional fields, and this participation is a necessary step if we are to invite students into these conversations. To suggest that scholarship does not matter, as PASSHE’s proposal does, is to say that teaching is generic, that expertise does not matter. It ignores the reality that expertise is not something one gains once and for all with a PhD, but is a constant pursuit in an ever-changing world.

The Chancellor further proposes that PASSHE “Develop exceptions to the Article 11 F 25% temporary and regular part-time faculty member cap specifically exclude sabbatical replacements, sick leave replacements, grant funded faculty replacements or acknowledge the ability to develop local agreements to exceed the 25% limit (Article 11 F, 1 and 2)” (Letter, page 2, my emphasis).

Under “Other Issues to Consider,” the Chancellor lists, “Develop a structure which recognizes the importance of using Graduate Assistants and Teaching Assistants in additional educational roles other than currently used (Article 7)” (Letter, page 3).

Legions of Lecturers, Gaggles of Grad Students

There is no doubt that using temporary faculty, whether they be part-time adjuncts, full-time lecturers or graduate teaching assistants, is cheaper than hiring full-time permanent faculty. But research tells us that the quality of education suffers as a result.  Multiple analyses of surveys and institutional data reveal a negative correlation between the number of contingent teachers in an institution and student retention and graduation rates (Bettinger & Long; Harrington & Schibik [cited in Eagan and Jaeger; Ehrenberg & Zhang; Jaeger and Eagan; Jaeger). The reasons for this are logical and clear: when faculty can be easily terminated, even with “a 90 day notice” (Letter, page 3), the likelihood that they can establish long-term relationships with students is diminished. Researchers have known for some time that the relationships students make with teachers and staff have a significant impact on their progression towards graduation. In a system of adjuncts and lecturers, the professor—sorry, lecturer—who supported you last semester may be gone the next. Their replacement doesn’t know you, can’t write you a letter of recommendation, has less insight as they advise you on classes and internships. The temporary workforce naturally has a greater turnover rate, with groups of new teachers having to learn the culture of the institution, the town and the students anew each academic year—and we all know that the learning curve at a new school can be tremendously challenging.

I remember very well from my adjunct days, too, that my classroom practices were very much tied to my tenuous employment status. Without tenure, I didn’t want to rock any boats, try anything too progressive, too radical, too…anything. I didn’t want to be noticed unless I was inviting people to notice me: Come see the play we’ve rehearsed! Read this poem my student published! Karen Thompson argues in “Contingent Faculty and Student Learning: Welcome to the Strativersity,” that “When academic freedom is weak, quality education becomes threatened by conformity, mediocrity, and the safest approaches…, grade inflation, and choosing to protect one’s position rather than extend students’ horizons” (45). In “Contingent Faculty and the New Academic Labor System,” Gwendolyn Bradley likewise suspects, “Largely unprotected against sudden termination of their employment, contingent faculty have every incentive to avoid taking risks in the classroom or tackling controversial subjects.”  In my own adjunct career, I had to make some difficult pedagogical choices, and I now have the luxury of admitting that some were bad.

I’m drafting another post for the KU Xchange, one that focuses on the ethics of a labor system like the one the Chancellor is proposing, one that asks you to consider further how the contingent faculty are derided and exploited by this approach. As a first step, though, let’s repeat this to the administrators, local and state: The proposed system is not set up to foster quality education. Instead, the budget’s bottom line trumps good practice. That we teach as well as we do under current circumstances is a testament to our dedication and skill. But can we dance any faster, and if so, for how long?


Bettinger, E., & Long, T. L. Help Or Hinder? Adjunct Professors And Student Outcomes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 2005. Print.

Bradely, Gwendolyn. “Contingent Faculty and the New Academic Labor System.” Academe. 90.1 (2004): 28-31. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 24  May 2011.

Eagan, M. Kevin Jr. and Audrey J. Jaeger. “Effects of Exposure to Part-time Faculty on   Community College Transfer.” Research in Higher Education. (2009) 50:168–188.

Ehrenberg, R. G., & Zhang, L. “Do Tenured And Tenure-Track Faculty Matter?” Journal of Human Resources. 40.4 (2005): 647–659.

Jaeger, Audrey J. “Contingent Faculty and Student Outcomes.” Academe.  94.6 (2008): 42-43. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 24 May 2011.

Jaeger, Audrey J. and M. Kevin Eagan. “Examining Retention and Contingent Faculty  Use in a State System of Public Higher Education.”  Educational Policy. 25.3 (May 2011): 507–537

Thompson, Karen.  “Contingent Faculty and Student Learning: Welcome to the Strativersity.” New Directions For Higher Education. 123 (Fall 2003): 41-47.

Umbach, Paul D. “How Effective Are They? Exploring the Impact of Contingent Faculty on Undergraduate Education.” Review of Higher Education. 30.2 (Winter 2007): 91-123.

1 Comment to You Can Tell A Lot About A College By The Way It Treats Its Adjuncts

  1. Excellent post and excellent argument. I have to particularly agree with the section on scholarship. Teachers should always continue learning so that their own knowledge and expertise can grow and thus can expand the knowledge of the students and conduct better-informed classroom discussion. What’s more, her argument concerning relationships between professors and students is a vital one. I know that the relationships I developed with professors were incredibly helpful to me in not just graduating, but also growing as an intellectual and in searching the job market. Without these strong relationships, I would not have been as successful of a student.

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