An Interview with Dr. Dan Jacoby

Interviewed by P.D. Lesko

Please tell us a little about yourself professionally.

Well, I’m an economist who has had the fortune of working in an interdisciplinary studies program for the past 17 years. Over that time, I have been able to teach and conduct research related to my twin interests in education and labor. My first research project examined the history of training in the US by looking at the conflicts that emerged between 1880 and 1940 between unions, industry and schools. In good measure, I was motivated then, as I am today, to know how training facilitates or obstructs the entry of less advantaged workers into the skilled positions. In this respect, my current research on part-time faculty simply develops those discussions in this new context. I’ve been fortunate to be awarded the Harry Bridges Chair in Labor Studies at the University of Washington, which has facilitated a world of wonderful connections and insights.

Could you please tell our readers a bit about your study, i.e. number of participants, number of schools examined, etc….. and how you decided to conduct your study “Effects of part-time faculty employment on community college graduation rates?”
Let me start with the second half of your question first. As I mentioned I have been interested in the intersection of education and labor for a long time. I’ve been particularly interested in community colleges because, today, nearly half of all entering students attend community colleges. More importantly, because they are low cost institutions, they tend to attract more “at-risk” students and thus have the potential to be important players in building a fairer economy. I taught at a Seattle Community College in the early 1980s and quickly became involved with several actions that a number of us took to improve our part-time positions. It struck me as immensely unfair that we were paid only for by the contact hour and, at rates much lower than those received by full-time faculty. The district had a rule that if you worked three courses in one quarter you would receive full-time pay, and miraculously, in my third quarter of work I managed to put together three courses across two campuses.

Whether it was the higher pay, or the activism, I wasn’t invited back to teach the following year.
I’ve stayed in touch with part-time issue over the past several years, and it began to be clear to me that part-time faculty were arguing for equal pay for equal work, but were doing so, in part, by saying that they weren’t able to do their job well. I remember most distinctly, one day hearing a part-time faculty person say at a meeting that he felt afraid to grade his students strictly because he feared it would be reflected in lower class evaluations and that this would make rehire more difficult. It started to become clear to me that the equity pay issue among part-time faculty was likely also an educational issue. But, if faculty were going to get anyway to pay any attention on this score we had to see if there were any measurable affects to reliance upon part-time faculty. So, I began to think about how one might go about measuring effects and realized that there were only a limited number of measures one could use. Grades, test-scores and graduation rates were among the chief candidates. Of these, graduation rates seemed the most reliable, and also the most accessible measure across a large number of schools.

This study uses data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics which are assembled and made available online through the Institutional Post-Secondary Database [IPEDS]. I was able to gather data on the more than 1000 public community college in the United States. IPEDS collects data on student characteristics, such as race and ethnicity, as well as their part or full-time status. To do a reliable study, I new I had to use these controls, and eventually I was also able to add others that provided some indication of student preparedness for community college. However, the variables that I was most concerned with were the percentage of part-time faculty, the student faculty ratio, and the several measures that indicated school successes in graduating students.

Many news sources that reported on your study focused upon the conclusion: “The principal finding of this study is that community college graduation rates decrease as the proportion of part-time faculty employed increases.” However, you also write, “It is more likely that ill effects are the consequence of multiple disincentives inherent in current part-time faculty contracting.” Thus, doesn’t your study also conclude that problem lies with the way colleges and universities employ part-time faculty?
In my experiences, I’ve found part-time faculty to be every bit as capable as full-time faculty, and sometimes more motivated. So, its not the faculty themselves, there are strong and weak contingent faculty as there are strong and weak full-time faculty. In some cases part-time faculty are much more reliable and energetic than full-time faculty, in no small measure because they work harder for less pay in the hopes of proving themselves. Yet, with the numbers of part-time faculty as high as they are – averaging two-thirds of all faculty – across all community colleges, we need to consider how work conditions may affect job performance. In the end it would be hard to imagine that faculty suffering morale problems associated with degrading working conditions and low pay; who frequently perform their duties inadequate tools—offices, phones, mailboxes, and computers– who are not paid to hold office hours and who are worried about dismissal, and who are not integrated into the professional environments in which they work, can perform at the same level as faculty treated better.

Your study posits that the use of part-time faculty impacts minority college graduation rates in particular. As a result, couldn’t the study be used as a rationale to require full-time faculty, tenure-line and tenured faculty to teach exclusively in developmental and introductory courses? Can you talk about this a bit?

Actually, I have not disaggregated community college graduation rates by race or gender. I am simply relying upon the fact that lower income and minority youth are more likely to attend community colleges and that community colleges are more reliant upon part-time faculty than four-year institutions.

If I obtain funds to do some specialized studies, I think one of these would definitely be too examine ESL and developmental coursework. ESL, in particular, seems to rely very heavily upon part-time faculty and, I can’t help but think that the disincentives towards rigorous instruction in these classes is likely to have an impact upon basic and remedial courses. This is especially so when we consider the growing number of studies that indicate insecure adjunct or non-tenure track faculty tend to grade more leniently than do more secure faculty on permanent lines. The problem, of course, is that passing on students from these kinds of courses on to more advanced courses sets up academic failure.

The study also touches on the hot button topic of grade inflation. You write, “Inasmuch as low grades have been shown to be inversely related to positive student evaluations (Greenwald & Gilmore, 1997), contingent faculty who lack secure long-term contracts have reasonable cause to worry about renewal, especially when administrators possess few sources of information other than student evaluations upon which to base part-time instructor rehiring decisions.” Do you believe more rigorous, far-reaching evaluations of part-time faculty could have a positive effect? In addition, mightn’t your findings suggest that administrators who rely solely on student evals of part-time faculty oughtn’t to do so?

Evaluation which only relies upon student feedback is not professional evaluation. All faculty should be evaluated both with regard to the content of what they teach, their knowledge base, and their effectiveness upon agreed upon measures. Rigorous evaluations will occur when community colleges are paid not solely for the students they enroll, but for the quality of the education they give those students. Once that happens, paying all faculty a living wage will follow. Without higher wages, schools will simply create a revolving door through which they march inadequately prepared faculty. Once wages rise, colleges will begin to understand that their entire faculty constitutes a resource to husbanded and nourished.

Your study answers quite definitively a question that adjunct activists frequently debate: “Are there significant differences between part-time and full-time faculty instructional practices?” You conclude there are. The cause you cite, however, is very interesting. You write, “Part-time faculty are often neither part-time nor temporary, except insofar as their contracts indicate they must be rehired each term….The part-time or “permatemp” system provides few incentives to foster rich interactions between faculty and students, and thus undermines the campus-learning climate.” Can you discuss this a bit?

With notable exceptions, part-time faculty are locked out of departmental committee meetings, excluded from professional development, and ineligible for a host of campus-wide relationships. Instructors who do not see or talk to their colleagues who must build upon the work with the students contingent faculty pass on can not know whether their instruction has met is mark, in fact, they are quite likely not to know what the mark is. Too many contingent faculty feel like social pariahs, shunned by their more favored colleagues. That is note a healthy situation.

Politicians and education unions aim at having full-time faculty teach a set number of FTE’s, for instance, or a set percentage of courses. Can you talk a bit about the perfect mix of full-time and part-time faculty at a community college as you see it based on the findings of your research? Mightn’t we conclude that, based on your research, simply increasing the number of full-time faculty, FTE’s or percentages will not ameliorate the problem as you’ve identified it?

As I indicated earlier, I don’t think it’s the part-time work, itself, that is the problem, but rather it is the conditions associated with this work. If we had a lower caste of full-time underpaid and insecure lecturers, I doubt the system would look much different. Higher pay and better conditions for part-time faculty act as their own cure-all to ensure that schools hire fewer individuals part-time because doing so would no longer be convenient or, more to the point, economic. When institutions really prefer part-time faculty because they need the flexibility for educational reasons, then with higher pay and better conditions they will do more to make sure they get their money’s worth. Right now, we have disposable instructors, use once, and if not satisfied, throw away.

You zero in on many well-known woes associated with teaching part-time (lack of institutional support, low pay, lack of job security), and cite these problems as contributors to the negative impact the employment of part-time faculty has upon graduation rates at community colleges. In a sense, you are preaching to an immense choir, the academic community. Your study suggests academic deans and department chairs at community colleges all over the country need to completely rethink how they employ part-time faculty, or graduation rates will continue to suffer. A good percentage of community colleges have open enrollment. In such a system, everyone is encouraged to “get their learn on” and give college a whirl. Administrators might be excused for seeing this as a steady stream of revenue, regardless of graduation rates. Any comments?

I wrote a short opinion piece for Teachers College Record comparing what Burton Clark called, “the cooling out function” that community colleges serve with respect to students in higher education to the “cooling out function” they serve with regard to potential faculty. Clark made the point that community colleges are open admission institutions tasked with the job of shutting out inadequately prepared students from BA. His idea was that Community Colleges did this gently and subtly by lowering student expectations, and redirecting them towards more attainable goals.

That is what he meant by cooling out. This is a deeply cynical understanding of the function of community colleges, but it is one that a substantial number of educators adhere to. That understanding is increasingly challenged today by the presumption that Community Colleges should open doors, and that these are institutions of opportunity, not constrains. If one takes the former view, a cheap faculty is all you need. If one takes the later view, we need a whole different staffing paradigm.

You write in your conclusion, “…[T]he dangers in expanding part-time faculty appear to outweigh any benefits. There now appear to be few real defenses that can justify maintaining a system of employment that evidence increasingly suggests has adverse results for students as well as for faculty.” It’s a rather damning conclusion, but despite it the system lurches ever forward. Are you the Prophet Elijah, Dr. Jacoby, preaching catastrophe to the King Ahabs who oversee our country’s community colleges? What will make them listen?
The question is whether state officials and educators believe that we are really moving towards a knowledge economy in which our nation’s success requires better prepared citizens and workers up and down the line. If so, then self-interest will push decision makers towards these conclusions.

Hmmm…..Dan Jacoby, Prophet of the Knowledge Economy … I wonder how that would look on my office door?

Any final comments you’d like to add?
I’m optimistic. We really are seeing a period of intense activism that has succeeded in putting this issue front and center on state educators agendas. Thanks for the opportunity to discuss my work.

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