The Next Higher Education Woe That Will Be Blamed on Adjuncts


By P.D. Lesko

Over the course of the past three years, adjunct and part-time faculty have been systematically scape-goated for any number of problems plaguing the Academy. Students dropping out like flies? Why, blame the adjuncts. As I wrote in a 2009 blog entry for the Chronicle of Higher Education: “College administrators rend their garments and wail about student retention. Turns out, though, fretting over that issue is much like fretting about fried food: No matter your depth of concern, at the end of the day no one wants to believe that gorging on French fries is unhealthy.”

Yes, adjuncts impact student retention rates, but not because they’re adjunct or part-time faculty off the tenure-track. Adjuncts impact student retention rates, because of the way they are (or are not) supported by their institutions. Therefore, the ultimate responsibility for rising drop-out rates rests squarely on the shoulders of college administrators who still believe that it’s fine to hire by the seat of their pants, let students decide which adjuncts stay by virtue of teaching evaluations, and treat faculty development as if it were a perk for full-time faculty only, and not a requirement of all faculty.

Be that as it may, thanks to “studies” commissioned by the nation’s education faculty unions to support the crazy notion that rather than compensate part-time faculty fairly, support them equally, hire them carefully, and evaluate them rigorously, it would be better just to get rid them and hire faculty on the tenure-track. The American Federation of Teachers push to further its FACE (Faculty and College Excellence) program and legislation is the single worst fraud that has been perpetrated in the name of “promoting” faculty excellence. In the name of FACE, AFT, NEA and AAUP leaders have testified before state higher education committees that adjunct faculty are, in essence, doing a disservice to their students and, by extension, a disservice to the Academy. AFT national and state leaders have tried mightily to convince state legislators who know no better that hundreds of millions of dollars need to be allocated in order to replace adjunct faculty with full-time faculty. Only then will we be able to “fix” what ails the American higher education system.

From NPR:

As enrollment rates in colleges have continued to increase, a new book questions whether the historic number of young people attending college will actually learn all that much once they get to campus. In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, two authors present a study that followed 2,300 students at 24 universities over the course of four years. The study measured both the amount that students improved in terms of critical thinking and writing skills, in addition to how much they studied and how many papers they wrote for their courses.

Richard Arum, a co-author of the book and a professor of sociology at New York University, reveals the fact that more than a third of students showed no improvement in critical thinking skills after four years at a university was cause for concern.

I read this and felt queasy.

Surely the fact that one-third of college students leave without having learned critical thinking skills will be the next problem blamed on the nation’s 700,000 faculty off the tenure-track. I can hear the arguments now: If only 70 percent of college faculty were full-time, surely a higher percentage of students would leave college with stellar critical thinking skills. Experts hired by faculty unions to conduct studies provide ammunition to back-up the absurd notion that college excellence is predicated on more money being pumped into higher education to hire and compensate full-time faculty.

According to Arum’s book:

…One possible reason for a decline in academic rigor and, consequentially, in writing and reasoning skills, is that the principal evaluation of faculty performance comes from student evaluations at the end of the semester. Those evaluations, Arum says, tend to coincide with the expected grade that the student thinks he or she will receive from the instructor.

Thank you. It’s about time someone pointed out that allowing students to determine whether a faculty member is competent borders on the negligent. However, who among college faculty are most likely to be principally evaluated using the student evaluation? Adjuncts. Then problem will become about the fact that there are adjuncts, as opposed to the fact that adjuncts are not, as a rule, evaluated with the same rigor as tenure-line faculty. Of course, as long as a faculty member with tenure doesn’t teach naked or murder someone, there generally is no post-tenure review process at the majority of colleges and universities.

Again, according to Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses: Overall, though, the study found that there has been a 50 percent decline in the number of hours a student spends studying and preparing for classes from several decades ago. Arum told the reporter from NPR: “If you go out and talk to college freshmen today, they tell you something very interesting.” Many of them will say the following: ‘I thought college and university was going to be harder than high school, and my gosh, it turned out it’s easier.’ ”

Well, that’s because so many courses are being taught by adjuncts. Not. It’s because adjuncts often don’t have the protection of due process at the schools where they teach. Thus hundreds of thousands of faculty, unprotected in their jobs, don’t dare grade rigorously. The problem is not that there are adjunct faculty, of course. The problem is that the majority of adjunct faculty are not protected from arbitrary dismissal by college administrators who find firing an adjunct infinitely less complicated than standing up on behalf of adjunct faculty in the face of student complaints that grades are assigned using rigorous criteria.

I give it half a year, tops, before the “problem” of the lack of critical thinking skills among college students becomes about the faculty that there are “too many” adjuncts. In another six months, there will be a “study” from one of the education unions verifying what everyone suspects: The Adjunct Did It.

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