Later this week, I’ll be hanging out with some of the most inspiring, dedicated educators I know. People like Judy Olson, who teaches English composition at California State University Los Angeles and chairs NEA’s Contingent Faculty Caucus. And Loretta Ragsdell, an adjunct professor at the City Colleges of Chicago and president of the union.
The 2017 NEA Higher Education Conference, March 17-19 in Dallas, will bring Judy, Loretta, and many other higher ed members of NEA together to delve into crucial issues, including the rise in part-time, adjunct and contingent faculty, and what it means for academia.
These people live for higher ed. Too bad higher ed doesn’t give them much to live on.
Part-time, adjunct and contingent faculty members—more likely to be women, by the way—account for more than 70 percent of faculty in higher ed. Many are so underpaid they have to rely on food stamps and other public assistance.
The trend in part-time and contingent faculty is one sign of the corporatization of higher education. This model provides a simple recipe for higher ed: First you standardize it, then you privatize it and then you deprofessionalize it. Under this model, colleges view faculty members as warm bodies who can teach a class rather than experts who are devoted to their subjects and to their pedagogy, as well as advising and mentoring students.
Commodifying professionals in this way means hiring part-timers make perfect sense; colleges can pay them less and provide few-to-zero benefits and get more “bang for the buck”—or at least that’s what they believe. Tenure? No way. Academic freedom? Forget about it. And without job security, it’s harder for instructors to participate in debate about controversial issues such as climate change, health care reform and immigration.
And yet, without part-time faculty members, campuses would shut down in a heartbeat. After all, they keep the doors open. That’s partly because they spend so much time running from campus to campus and building to building, patching together one full-time job with two or three part-time teaching posts. When they leave their classrooms at the end of the academic year, they’re not even sure if they’ll return.
This way of operating higher ed reveals “the general lack of understanding of faculty’s central role in providing a high-quality education,” wrote Adrianna Kezar and Dan Maxey in “Faculty Matter: So why doesn’t everyone think so?” in the Fall 2014 Thought & Action. Kezar and Maxey noted that interactions between faculty members and students improve students’ learning and overall experience, and are especially beneficial for first-generation college students and students of color.
Meaningful interaction is hard to foster, however, when part-time faculty are running from one campus to another, forced to meet with students in their parked cars because they don’t have office space (and may not even be paid for these meetings), and often lack campus-issued email addresses. Many are not included in the broader life of their departments, and they have few opportunities for the professional development, mentoring and support that helps all teachers grow.
But union membership can be a game-changer. It means adjunct and part-time faculty can negotiate for better pay and more job security. And it means that together, we can lobby for policy and legislation that improves the lives of these faculty members—such as the Department of Labor guidance we recently won that makes it easier for adjuncts to get unemployment compensation between academic terms. After several years working with the NEA, the department revised their guidance letter last December.
This is not to suggest that there isn’t a place for part-time faculty. Often, part-timers also work in their fields, and the arrangement enlivens their teaching. However, many part-timers would rather have one full-time position instead of three part-time ones, not only for their own security but also to offer students the support and tools they need. And the research tells us exactly what that is: faculty members they can interact with, who can play key roles in their development, and who can mentor them and provide one-on-one attention.
Looking back, I can’t imagine my college career at the University of Utah without the full-time, tenured professors who guided me and helped me forge a path. My professors were rock stars. That’s what I want today: faculty with the bandwidth and the time to invest in students. If we can achieve that goal on more of our campuses, all of us will benefit.