Budget problems in the realm of higher education are not new. Unfortunately, not all past initiatives have brought about stellar results. For instance, budget cuts a few decades ago caused colleges to fill many positions with “adjunct” faculty instead of tenured, full-time professors. Accreditation requirements typically dictated to what degree the practice was employed. Economically, this was an attractive idea, especially since adjunct faculty were typically part-time, hired as independent contractors and receiving little or no pensions or benefits. At first, these positions were limited to general education classes required at the college level, or even graduate classes, as accreditation requirements would dictate faculty ratio requirements, especially in the upper division classes.
With another round of budget cuts, more adjunct faculty were retained. Now, many adjuncts could be found in the ranks of the upper division classes. No longer just an economic decision, the hiring of adjunct faculty carried a new significance that was heavily marketed. Terms like “educators with real world experience” or “teachers from the private sector” became phrases du jour, and universities began promoting the adjunct faculty they retained as a desirable benefit.
Without a doubt, educators with industry experience are very important in the academic setting. When hired prudently, these teachers provide a counterpoint and balance, contrasting applied research, best practices and external forces with the basic research and formalized theory that full-time faculty might introduce. In many cases, students can greatly benefit from this duality.
An academic might offer more of an emphasis on theory, which opens up new possibilities that may not be feasible to the denizens of the “real world”. Our world owes many advancements, such as heart transplants, to theory. The external faculty offer a different view: external forces tend to challenge theories, just as war and drought can challenge even universally-accepted economic assumptions.
Once economics drives the hiring of adjunct faculty, major issues arise. For instance, a respected California university retains a large number of adjunct faculty for their extensive upper-division engineering courses. Students who stay on track are still assured of 6 years in school towards a B.S. in a range of engineering majors. Naturally, the coursework is challenging, so an extra year of study might be considered de rigueur. Yet, the extended period of matriculation, culminating with 6 or even 8 years of undergraduate study, often results because of the unavailability of a professor for select classes needed to graduate.
Adjunct faculty might teach 2 classes, sometimes alternating each every two years. However, if the adjunct is working in industry at the same time, “their real world job”, their availability is often impacted by the projects in the pipeline at their company. The admonition, “Don’t quit your day job” definitely applies here, and with many companies working under challenging conditions and schedules, employee-academics will certainly be affected. Availability and preparation time can become severely limited with short notice.
An adjunct not being available to teach a required course can be devastating to a student ready to graduate. It happens quite often. At times, the college can offer the student an alternative course for graduation, or allow the student to take the course at a different institution (which the student may have to pay out-of-pocket). At other times, no option is available, and the student will have to limit interning or career opportunities to serving as an non-degreed employee of a nearby company, perhaps a fast food chain, while waiting for a chance to complete the coursework and graduate. This situation further impedes the resolve of a student to apply to a graduate school, which will bring additional, practically untenable, time and economic demands. In contrast, some students may take on internships or part-time positions during those “extra” years, becoming less “available” on their part to completing their studies. The University cannot afford this overhead any more than the student.
Often, students studying on grants do not receive any aid for the extra years spent in the college, even if the delay is through no fault of their own. Scholarships that do aid these students will now have less funds for incoming students. The overhead to the college is felt in classrooms, administrative costs and the parking lots.
The current situation has gotten so out-of-hand in some institutions that major corrections will now be difficult to implement in the foreseeable future.
An additional problem with the prevalence of adjuncts relates to the mission of the university. A large number of adjunct professors working 12-hour-weekly stints in a department are not always available for departmental meetings. With meetings often held at the convenience of permanent faculty, during which many adjuncts might be working elsewhere, it is more difficult to manage a department’s curriculum with a large group of teachers not present.
The adjunct has a place in institutions of higher education. However, when relied upon too heavily, the system can suffer. In a hybrid class format, adjuncts are better able to work and fulfill the mission of the university.
Another response to budget limitations is a large increase in class size. Especially in lower division courses, lecture halls that hold between 500 and 1,000 students are becoming more and more common. Graduate students hold weekly discussion sections with students in most cases, but many students in these large classes never have the opportunity to speak one-on-one with the professor. As a result, there is less chance for intervention when a student falls behind because they cannot absorb the course material.
© 2012 Laurie Mena