Publication Date

January 1, 1998

Perspectives Section


There is a troubling increase in the use and abuse of part-time and adjunct faculty at the nation's four-year colleges and universities, according to representatives of almost a dozen scholarly societies who gathered in Washington this September. The three-day Conference on the Growing Use of Part-Time/Adjunct Faculty was organized by the American Historical Assoc iation and drew participants from discipline-based organizations such as the Modern Language Association and American Political Science Association, as well as faculty organizations like the American Association of University Professors.

Papers prepared as background for the meeting fell into three categories—statistical data on the growing use of part-time and adjunct faculty, insights into the experiences of faculty in these positions, and larger discussions of the pros and cons of using temporary faculty, as seen from varying campus perspectives.

Statistical Findings

Although the AHA served as lead organizer, the data presented at the conference indicates that other disciplines are considerably more reliant on part-time and adjunct faculty. According to Charlotte Kuh of the National Research Council (NRC), across the disciplines "full-time tenure-track employment is shrinking relatively and in many fields absolutely . . . [and] being replaced by research and other nontenure-track appointments and, to a lesser extent, by part-time and adjunct positions."

In the field of mathematics, for instance, the proportion of faculty employed part-time grew when compared to the observed decline in full-time faculty. According to James W. Maxwell, associate director of the American Mathematical Society, math departments have suffered from "a sizable cumulative reduction in tenure track faculty across all mathematics departments—more than a one-quarter reduction [between 1990 and 1996—and the constant or slightly declining numbers of part-time faculty." Similarly, according to Kuh, "Physics stands out as a field where there has been a rapid growth of adjunct and part-time faculty, while full-time academic employment, both tenure track and non-tenure has been constant or declining in the 1990s."

By contrast, in the fields of history and English where the problem is perceived as the most acute, Kuh reported that "the share of part-time and adjunct [faculty], although somewhat high, has remained relatively constant over the past 15 years." According to the NRC data, the portion of history faculty working in a part-time or adjunct capacity has hovered between 6 and 7 percent over the past 10 years. In English, that number has been between 7 and 9 percent.

The Life of the Part-Time/Adjunct Faculty Member

Other presenters at the conference painted a grim picture of the life and livelihood of part- time and adjunct faculty, who earned a limited income and received even less departmental support. According to David Leslie, professor of education at the College of William and Mary, his interviews with faculty at 25 campuses "made it abundantly clear that part-time faculty felt and were treated as if they were 'invisible.'. . . Full-time faculty and administrators seemed to feel that part-timers were mainly temporary employees and would vanish once the financial health of their institutions was restored."

Participants in the fields of English, history, and sociology all reported on faculty driving dozens of miles to multiple work sites; receiving little to no departmental assistance for such basic needs as photocopying and office space; and receiving compensation at or near the poverty level with no insurance or retirement benefits.

The Value of Part-Time/Adjunct Faculty

However, David Adamany, president of Wayne State University, defended the benefits of using adjunct faculty. He noted the high quality of most adjunct faculty as classroom teachers, and their important role in allowing full-time faculty to devote themselves to other pursuits. He also conceded the institutional pressures produced by declining faculty teaching loads and tightening budgets, but in a concluding series of "provocations," Adamany challenged the participants to see the important roles that adjunct and part-time faculty currently play.

Leslie echoed the views of many participants in agreeing that "part-time faculty constitute an exceptionally rich talent pool for most colleges and universities, and—when treated equitably—perform as well as full-time faculty in the work to which they are assigned," but he expressed concern about their increasing use. However, Ernst Benjamin of the American Association of University Professors pointed out that administrators are feeling pressured to use more part-time and adjunct faculty to cut costs.

In the end, most of the participants incorporated Adamany's positive construction of the use of adjunct and part-time faculty, but placed it within a larger and considerably less positive context. A statement drafted by participants at the conference maintained that "The terms and conditions of such appointments are too often inadequate to support responsible teaching or a career."

The statement and other papers and findings of the conference will be published in the coming year by many of the supporting organizations.

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