Easy Come. Easy Go.
The session presentation was titled “Optimizing the Use of Part-Time Faculty.” Titles like this make me queasy, because “optimizing” people generally goes well for those doing the optimizing and badly for those who find themselves “optimized.” I was at the NISOD conference in Austin, Texas. It’s the first time I’ve attended (well, exhibited, actually), and can tell part time faculty reading this blog that few disciplinary conferences offer the quality of the sessions at NISOD. Add to this the number of presentations that focused on part-time faculty (including the one above), and, well, I encourage you to attend.
Back to the “optimization” of part-time faculty as envisioned by Dr. Jim Hammons, Professor and Program Coordinator in the Higher Education Leadership Program at the University of Arkansas. Unlike the sparsely-attended presentations at CCCCs and MLA that deal with part-time faculty management, Hammons’s room was jammed with about 50 people—program directors, Department Chairs, deans, provosts and college presidents. Hammons told me he’d given a similar presentation the year before that had drawn 100 people. NISOD had invited him back for an encore presentation.
Hammons, a fan of the Socratic method, questioned his audience: Who were they? For how many part time faculty were they responsible? At one point, as he spoke about best practices in hiring, he asked a simple question: “How many of you check references of part time faculty applicants?” In a room of 50, five hands went up. Hammons was non-plussed, but I was stunned. Hammons explained that many a disappointing hire could be avoided by simply checking references. Well, duh! You can’t get hired to sling coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts without having your references checked, but evidently you can find a post at your local college teaching astrophysics part time without having a prior employer vouch for your ability to teach how one calculates the luminosity of a star.
Granted, the statistical sampling of employers referred to above was in no way scientific. Be that as it may, I think Dr. Hammons may have stumbled on one reason why the “quality” of part time faculty suffers, and turnover is problematic at some schools. Hiring processes directly impact the quality of hires, and as a rule in higher education part time faculty are hired using less than optimal practices. Perhaps, then, recent studies concerning the “problems” associated with the overuse of faculty off the tenure-track are less about the faculty studied, and more about the unstudied hiring practices of the institutions.
So while national education unions employ academic researchers to document the impact part time faculty have on higher education, and while those same higher education unions call for the use of fewer part time faculty in order to improve the quality of higher education, perhaps the answer has been staring us all in face all along: drastically retool and improve hiring practices when filling positions off the tenure-track. By doing so, if Dr. Hammons’s experience is any marker, we’d solve many of the “problems” for which faculty off the tenure-track are routinely blamed.
I’ve actually thought for many years that higher education unions ought to have pursued the bargaining strategy of, say, requiring all hires off the tenure-track to have terminal degrees, or requiring those same hires to be put through most of the same rigorous procedures and standards used when hiring on the tenure-track. In other words, I think education unions should concern themselves with the qualifications and quality of their members when negotiating hiring and rehiring terms. To have bargained, instead, for retention based on seniority has been a monumental failure for part-time faculty—these bargaining strategies, after all, were crafted for the 1930s assembly-line worker at the Rouge Plant. At the moment, thanks to this outmoded strategy, unionized part timers in Washington, California and Oregon are bearing the brunt of forced layoffs. Easy come. Easy go.
As for Dr. Hammons’s workshop, he outlined best practices for part time faculty hiring that include a multi-step hiring procedure, comprehensive orientation of part-time faculty, written job descriptions, evaluation, as well as mandatory professional development programs. If this sounds radical, well, it’s not. As Dr. Hammons pointed out, it’s how most large corporations in our country find, train and retain all of their employees—both full and part time.