Not Our Adjuncts
I just finished doing something I do every Monday (well, every day, really) browsing news pieces about part-time faculty. In particular, I am interested in what college and university administrators are planning to do in the current economic situation with respect to part-time faculty hiring. Will the idled workers around the United States who choose to return to college, to either continue their further education or begin upon a course of study that will prepare them for a new career, be taught by an ever-growing cadre of part-time faculty?
As you may know, currently making the rounds (and often being presented simplistically or being outright misrepresented), is Paul Umbach’s latest study concerning student retention and part-time faculty. Umbach’s research suggests the commitment of part-time instructors to teaching is less than the commitment of full-time faculty. Umbach found that because part-time faculty spend less time preparing for class, advising students and attending workshops student persistence is adversely effected.
Anyone who has ever taught knows very well that if one teaches, say, 6 courses per semester (equal to the load associated with two tenure-line appointments), one simply cannot interact with one’s students, evaluate one’s graded assignments and even prepare for one’s courses as well as one could while teaching, say, two courses each semester. Experienced full-time part-timers may argue that they teach the same courses each semester and as a result have, say, their Introduction to Biology course down to a science. Be that as it may, efficiency of scale and individual ingenuity aside, I don’t any full-time part-timer who would turn down an opportunity to teach half her/his course load in exchange for a full-time salary.
Tomorrow, my friends at the Modern Language Association will release the results of their own study which will, I imagine, announce (and bemoan) the increasing numbers of part-time faculty employed in foreign language and composition programs around the country.
So, with all the bad press part-timers are getting thanks to studies conducted by Andrea Jaeger, Paul Umbach, the American Federation of Teachers and the MLA, will administrators finally sit up and take notice? I don’t think they will. This quote from Provost Kathleen Roundtree at Ithaca College, in New York, provides a perfect example of the rationale (as well as rationalizing). When a student reporter suggested to Roundtree that Umbach’s study concludes part-time faculty are less dedicated to their students, Roundtree responds thusly:
“My perception of Ithaca College is that we use well-trained adjuncts and that they come in, and they are dedicated to students, and that in many cases, they don’t just teach their class and leave,” she said. “A full-time teacher can be an excellent professor or not, and so can a part-time.”
In other words, the problems identified by researchers Jaeger and Umbach, as well as those researchers employed by the American Federation of Teachers and the Modern Language Association, just don’t exist in Dr. Kathleen Roundtree’s universe. The adjuncts who, (says Umbach) because of horrid institutional support, are not able to dedicate themselves to their students’ success, are not to be found at Ithaca College. Ithaca College has 172 happy, well-adjusted, dedicated adjuncts. Maybe so. However, Kathleen Roundtree is by no means the first administrator who has made such claims since Umbach’s study was released.
So should we conclude that Kathleen Roundtree is living in La-La Land? Perhaps, but the bigger issue at hand is that Provosts, Deans and Presidents like Kathleen Roundtree are not going to be moved in the least by studies that conclude adjuncts need better institutional support so that student success and retention are not adversely impacted. After all, (and call me Machiavellian) when students take longer than 4 years to finish, when they are forced to repeat a course, or drop-out of a 4-year institution and end up at the local community college, this means more money to some college administrator somewhere. If a student takes 6 years to complete a 4-year degree, the cost of that degree has increased by 50 percent. Those are tuition dollars, student loan dollars—billions of dollars—college administrators can take right to the bank.
While state legislators and federal officials turn the screws on K-12 teachers and administrators to gauge the effectiveness and quality of the educational services provided by the country’s 94,382 public schools, there remain no such initiatives to gauge the effectiveness and quality of the higher education services offered by 1,699 public 2- and 4-year colleges to 12.9 million college students in the U.S. While we enjoy an 85 percent high school graduation rate nationwide, according to research done at the Manhattan Institute, the United States ranks 15th out of 29 developed nations in terms of college degrees granted. In fact, on December 3, 2008, the Christian Science Monitor reported, “…nearly half of American students at four-year colleges don’t finish within six years, according to a report card released…by a higher-education policy group.”
Four-year colleges, of course, employ the least part-time faculty. In fact, fewer than 25 percent of faculty employed at 4-year institutions hold part-time appointments. Interestingly, according to research done by ACT and released in 2002, between 1988 and 2002, as the total number of faculty off the tenure-track doubled from 300,000 to 600,000 out of 1.2 million total, at both public and private institutions the percentage of first-year students who returned for a second year dropped from 74.5 percent to 74 percent. Here’s how Wes Habley, director of the ACT Office for the Enhancement of Educational Practices, interpreted the data: “When the percentage of students going to college increases, it is likely that some of them will be less academically prepared. Those students are more likely than others to struggle in the classroom.”
And this is where I think Umbach, Jaeger, the AFT and the MLA have completely missed the boat with their studies which focus on part-time faculty “dedication.” None of the studies took student preparedness into account. While colleges admit increasing numbers of undergraduates and blithely cash their tuition checks, there are, among them, people who (for whatever reason) are grossly unprepared to pursue a college degree. They comprise slightly less than one-quarter of all students admitted each year, it would appear, judging from the ACT’s study.
So what does this mean about the “dedication” of part-time faculty and student retention? Well, for starters, branding part-time faculty as a significant part of the student retention “problem” is ignoring the fact that at 4-year institutions, where a minority of part-timers teach a minority of courses, graduation rates have been steadily falling over the past two decades. One could conclude from these data that tenure-line and tenured faculty, who enjoy healthy salaries and institutional pampering, are almost singlehandedly trashing student graduation rates in our country’s 700 four-year public colleges and universities. Studying any faculty impact on retention without looking at the preparedness of the students whom they teach leads to almost meaningless conclusions, much like the now-infamous and thoroughly discredited 1989 Bowen report that predicted “a substantial excess demand for faculty in the arts and sciences.” The report was embraced and quoted by sources far and wide throughout higher education (as well as by mainstream media).
I would suggest that the same thing has happened with the research on student retention in courses taught by part-time faculty. Those who want to get rid of part-time faculty because they threaten full-time faculty jobs, as well as tenure, have embraced the recent research with a fervor that can only be described as religious. Not a single researcher, union official, association leader or higher education reporter (other than me, of course) has stepped forward to question the validity of this “student retention” research.
Well, it wasn’t until 1994 that the assumptions behind and validity of the Bowen Report were questioned in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education. By 2003, the number of part-time faculty had doubled to 600,000, and the job bonanza Bowen’s “research” had predicted still had not materialized. I can only hope it will take less than 5 years for other higher education journalists, researchers and association leaders to see through the fallacy that is the connection between the employment of part-time faculty and the “student retention” frenzy. As for the AFT (and other education unions), national and state leaders there are determined to hang the union’s 45,000 part-time faculty members out to dry, so to speak, so that state legislators will cough up money for the union’s FACE initiative. AFT union leaders have testified that part-time faculty are bad for higher education. Now, they have paid for a study to back up those claims.
Regardless, it’s clear from Ithaca Provost Kathleen Roundtree’s response that it’s going to take a bigger kick in the pants than the current student-retention-palooza to get college administrators to significantly change how they hire, compensate, employ and evaluate the 700,000 college faculty off the tenure-track. I actually think it’s going to take a national union for part-time faculty (which current national union leaders heartily discouraged at the August 2008 COCAL VIII meeting of part-time faculty activists, held in California). Either that, or someone in Washington, D.C. will finally realize that gauging the effectiveness of education services offered at 1,700 public colleges and universities could, potentially, raise the overall education level of our populace, and actually save students, families, states and the federal government billions of dollars each year.