Concern rising about reliance on adjunct, non-tenure stream instructors

By CRYSTAL CHEN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Colleges and universities, including those in Michigan, are increasingly relying on non-tenure track faculty and adjunct faculty.

About 65 percent of faculty positions in all colleges and universities were part-time or full-time non-tenure track in 2014, according to the most recent national figures from the Center for the Study of Academic Labor at Colorado State University.

According to the center, the proportion of tenure positions fell between 2005 and 2013. The drop was especially sharp at universities that award doctorates and at colleges that award bachelor’s degrees.

In Michigan public institutions, non-tenure track instructors, whether full-time or part-time, also make up a large percentage of faculty.

At Northern Michigan, Ferris State, Saginaw Valley State universities and the University of Michigan-Flint, more than half of the faculty were adjuncts or not in tenure-track posts in 2014, the Colorado State study found.

The percentage is much higher at some community colleges, according to the study. For example, it said Grand Rapids Community College had 71.2 percent adjuncts and non-tenure track instructors and Montcalm Community College had 75.2 percent in 2014.

Some had no tenure track faculty, including Alpena, Gogebic, Lansing, Mid-Michigan and Kirtland community colleges, North Central Michigan College and Southwestern Michigan College, the study said.

Michael Hansen, the president of the Michigan Community College Association, said community colleges often employ instructors who are also working in the field in which they teach, especially in occupational programs.

“Many of them work full-time, such as health care professionals, technicians and welders, but also teach part-time at the college,” said Hansen. “Their ‘real world knowledge’ is a valuable part of their teaching content. They bring the most current content information to the classroom, which greatly benefits students.”

For community colleges, employing adjuncts to meet changing demands of enrollment is an efficient method of staffing. It’s also a way to control course and program demand, he said.

“Community colleges are open-enrollment institutions, and their enrollments tend to fluctuate with the economy,” said Hansen. “As unemployment rates rise, so do enrollments. But as the economy improves and people can find work, the enrollments tend to decline.”

According to Hansen, the fluctuation in course demand and enrollment can lead to job insecurity for most adjuncts. “Part-time faculty are hired to meet demand. As demand for more classes increases, additional faculty are hired,” he said. “As demand is reduced, those part-time faculty are not rehired since fewer classes are needed.”

Meanwhile, the problems adjuncts face continue to grow, including financial security, lack of career advancement opportunities and unfair treatment, a union leader said.

“They are paid much less than the value of their contribution to their universities’ teaching mission and not given the job security, even after years, that their hard work and excellence in teaching warrant,” said Ian Robinson, the president of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization. The union represents non-tenure-track instructional faculty on all three campuses of the University of Michigan.

Last-minute course cancellations can be a major problem for adjuncts, and they are treated as “shock absorber,” Robinson said. “They are called in at the last minute if there is more enrollment in a course than expected, or canceled at the last minute if the reverse proves true.”

According to Robinson, a union with significant bargaining power, such as the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, can reduce that kind of last-minute cancellation by “putting a penalty in the agreement for units that cancel too late.”

“That’s not an adequate response to the large issues raised by the rapid growth of adjunct faculty, but it does help significantly with the narrow problem of last-minute cancellations,” he said.

There are other problems, Robinson said.

Some institutions limit adjuncts’ working hours to avoid providing health care. He said that happens particularly in cash-starved universities, where administrations are “looking to cut costs everywhere they can, no matter what the impact on quality.”

The workload for adjuncts and non-tenure stream instructors can be equal to or even higher than that of full-time tenured professors.

According to Robinson, at U-M-Ann Arbor, the normal workload for a full-time adjunct is three courses, and on its Flint and Dearborn campus, four courses per term. “In other places, it could be even higher.”

Also, adjuncts don’t receive “reasonable” pay, and their baseline wage, in real dollar terms, has decreased in past years, said Robinson.

Meanwhile, Robinson said the voice of adjuncts is rarely heard in department meetings and at the administration level. “It’s rare for adjuncts to be treated as fully enfranchised ‘citizens’ of the units in which they teach.”

The increasing reliance on adjuncts may hurt the quality of education, some experts say.

Daniel Hurley, chief executive officer of the Michigan Association of State Universities, said one of the attributes of Michigan’s public universities is quality. The organization represents the state’s 15 public universities.

“I think there is a perception of higher quality when an institution has more full-time faculty,” he said. For that reason, institutions need to “hold the line on the proportion of adjuncts.”

Robinson said a significant share of undergraduates are taught by adjuncts who are brand new and won’t stay long enough to get really good.

“Teaching is a craft,” he said. “More practice means better teachers.”

Though specialization and extra practice tend to generate better teachers, being treated “like commodities rather than professionals” can offset those advantages, he said.

“The quality of their performance hinges in part on being paid fairly and respected in other respects,” he said.