Report from AACC: Adjuncts are in, Sweetie

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I am currently in Philadelphia. We displayed the books published by the Part-Time Press at the annual conference of the American Association of Community Colleges. I visit between two and four conferences a year as either an exhibitor or participant. I came to AACC because our professional development books are aimed at part-time faculty, and community colleges employ more adjunct faculty than the Surgeon General has concluded is good for the health of higher ed.

AACC is a bigwig fest. Attendees include presidents, provosts, trustees, deans, VPs of instruction and a wide variety of other upper-level administrators. If you have ever gone to MLA, CCCCs or some other annual conference sponsored by your discipline’s association, let me tell you that those conferences, in comparison, are fine events, but nothing like trailing in the wake of the attendees of AACC. The spouses of participants of AACC get name badges festooned with festive (yet tasteful) ribbons identifying them as married to the Big Cheese. There were lots of spouses. At MLA and CCCCs, one sees thousands of people on cell phones and catches snippets of conversations that include things like “tell the kids we’ll deconstruct their fight when I get home….”

How can I put this next observation nicely? Oh, I can’t. At AACC, participants were, well, older, shall we say? At CCCCs or MLA, I feel like a fogey. There are all those soon-to-be-minted Ph.D.s in their basic black with their impossibly small glasses, frowning, trying to look important and professorial. At AACC, participants aren’t worried about looking cool, and most everyone had huge smiles plastered on their faces as they processed through the Academic Marketplace (aka Exhibit Hall). Deans trailed along behind presidents and presidents alongside trustees. I lived in Rome for three years, and I crossed paths accidentally several times with Pope John Paul II and his papal processions around the city. At AACC, I felt as though I were in the Eternal City again.

Over the course of the three-day conference, I had many great conversations with presidents about our books, and the importance of their professional development programs for part-time faculty. At the end of many of those conversations, the president would shake my hand warmly and assure me that s/he would send over the Dean of _________________ (fill in the blank) to talk to me. And that’s just what happened. Time and again. I have a two-inch thick stack of business cards from people who want more information for their professional development and orientation programs.

Now, for those of you who work for Deans and Department Chairs who make Darth Vader look like a Boy Scout, there were people at this conference who gave the impression that they’d been trained at the Dark Side Academy of “leadership.” There were Vice Presidents of institutions who, when asked if there were adjunct faculty employed by their institutions, replied glibly that there were but that adjuncts were not their responsibility. I even had a trustee smile, wave and say that the school employed 1,000 adjunct faculty, but that she had nothing to do with them. One can only hope she finds a doctor soon to get something for her delusions.

There were, thankfully, more trustees who stopped in to get materials to give to the presidents of their schools.

With the release of recent research and studies that conclude that poor institutional support of part-time faculty leads to dips in student retention (not to mention dips in faculty retention), I am hopeful that more administrators will be moved to ramp up their support, development and orientation programs. The more your school invests in you, the more valuable you will become to them. Ultimately, this will lead to better opportunities for part-time faculty to compete for tenure-line jobs. In the long run, the goal is to make administrators value all faculty equally, because all faculty are expected to produce the same results in the classroom.

Meanwhile, AACC gave me valuable perspective and insight into what college leaders are thinking about part-time faculty. The good news is that adjuncts are no longer invisible to those who lead universities. In fact, AACC confirmed something I have suspected since finding out both candidates for president of the American Association of University Professors were running as self-proclaimed “contingents.” As British actress Jennifer Saunders of “Ab Fab” fame might put it, “Adjuncts are in, Sweetie.”

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