DMI Blog

Craig Smith

The Changing FACE of the Academy: The Effects

This is the second in a series of posts regarding what is happening to the academic staffing system in U.S. colleges and universities.

Our previous post looked at some of the causes that have led to the current situation, where less than half of our higher education instructional workforce is full-time, and more than two-thirds lack important job protections essential to teaching and research. But what does it really mean to have a contingent faculty workforce? After all, most college students probably don’t walk out of class grumbling that their professor is an adjunct faculty member rather than someone who is full-time with tenure. And if the students are happy, isn’t that all that matters? They are the “customers,” right?

The problem with that logic is that a faculty member’s obligation is not only to make students “happy,” but also to engage and challenge them to learn, and that takes dedication, time and support. Unfortunately, while many contingent faculty members are truly dedicated and do an extraordinarily good job of teaching, their employment situation often leaves them with inadequate time and support to do their work the way they would like—and could—if given the opportunity.

Most people imagine a college professor to be well-paid, “lightly” worked, independent, and blessed with lots of time for scholarship and thinking that allows them to bring all of their thinking and research to bear on a classroom. Certainly, there are faculty members who are working under conditions that allow for a healthy mixture of research, teaching and service, but far too many are having a different experience. Consider the experiences of professors such as Phil Jack in Washington state, who shuttles daily between two different community colleges, teaching almost double a full teaching load for half the pay. Or Kathleen Lopez, who decided, after lugging her teaching supplies from institution to institution in Portland, Ore., to give up on the myth that she was ever going to get a full-time position at one institution. Or, in the most extreme case, Marty Slobin, who died in his faculty office at the University of Michigan-Dearborn because he could not afford to stop teaching to get a desperately need medical procedure done.

The structural problem is clear. When contingent faculty members are underpaid, their option is to either cobble together a living by teaching multiple courses at different institutions, or to look for other ways to provide for themselves and their families. In either case, it diminishes the time and attention they can devote to the institution and to students. Of course, you are asking, why do they even continue teaching given those conditions? The answer is that many don’t. This causes high turnover in the contingent faculty ranks, which often creates a situation where students cannot count on long-term mentoring relationships with their adjunct professors.

Despite these realities, colleges are pretending that it does not make much difference educationally if they eviscerate the corps of full-time tenured faculty and replace it with badly treated part-time/adjunct and contingent faculty. The truth, however, is that a faculty corps consisting primarily of full-time tenured faculty is essential to excellent education.

Just as in other professional fields, the full-time commitment and professional treatment of faculty members results in more knowledgeable and focused employees and better service to students and taxpayers. From doctors to lawyers to aerospace engineers, the public expects to be served by practitioners who are paid professional salaries and have the time and resources needed to do the job. Education is very labor intensive and requires a great deal of interaction with students in and out of the classroom. You probably don’t want a doctor who has no medical assistants, no access to computers and no time to read the latest findings in medical journals. Yet, nearly two out of three new faculty hires today are placed in part-time/adjunct or contingent positions that may not pay a decent wage or offer much in the way of professional support.

So what can be done? We at the American Federation of Teachers believe that a significant shift must be made in public policy to reinvest in higher education. Consequently, we have launched the Faculty and College Excellence (FACE) campaign. In our next post, we will describe the goals of that campaign and talk about how you can join in that effort. Until then, we hope you will participate in our ongoing discussion of these issues.

Craig Smith: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:07 AM, Sep 24, 2007 in Education | Employment | Labor
Permalink | Email to Friend