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Statistically speaking

By
September 19, 2007

The always-interesting “Almanac Issue” of The Chronicle of Higher Education arrived this week. Its 96 pages contain a fascinating array of significant and obscure statistics about the current state of higher education in our country. For instance, did you know that in 2005-06 the University of Southern California enrolled 6,881 foreign students, who comprised 21 percent of its student body?

Or that 4.2 percent of all college presidents who are not members of religious orders have never married? You could look it up.

But a small table on page 25 puts numbers to what may be the most significant trend in higher education in the last two decades: In 1987, the Almanac reports, colleges and universities were staffed by 793,000 faculty members; 34 percent of them employed on a part-time basis. In 2005, the number of faculty members had grown to 1,290,000, while the percentage of part-time instructors, after a steady yearly climb, had reached 48 percent — almost one out of two.

Sometimes colleges and universities hire part-time faculty members for sound educational reasons, for example, to bring to their campuses specialists with some sort of professional expertise. But for the most part, the trend is driven by practical considerations: Part-time faculty members — euphemistically called “adjuncts” — are paid much less than full-time teachers and ordinarily they receive no benefits or promise of employment beyond the current semester.

Compared with full-time faculty, they are a bargain, a budget windfall and a cushion in the event of falling enrollment.

Many adjuncts have the same credentials as full-time teachers, as well as considerable teaching experience. Often they cobble together a humble salary by rushing among different colleges and universities. For the most part, they do the grunt work, academia’s “dirty jobs,” staffing the courses that are left after the schedule has been picked over by the full-time faculty.

In short, they are just about as near the bottom of the academic hierarchy as it’s possible to be — lower even than community-college teachers, like me — but without them modern higher education could not function.

But there are at least three things wrong with this trend toward part-time instruction:

The part-time system is, at its heart, exploitative. Business, of course, has learned to cross international boundaries to find the cheapest possible labor; colleges and universities are forced to find efficiencies closer to home. Adjuncts who are willing to work for low wages and no benefits because of their attraction to teaching, learning and ideas are a perfect solution. But education should be driven by larger ethical considerations than merely the bottom line.

Second, part-time instruction isn’t the best we can do for students.

I know of no evidence that indicates that students suffer when they sign up for a class taught by “staff.” In fact, students may get more attention from an energetic adjunct than from an entrenched professor who’s been teaching the same course for 30 years.

But parents might be disconcerted to discover that at many public colleges and universities, some of the most important initial classes are taught by inexperienced graduate students, by short-term full-time instructors (another disturbing trend), or by itinerate adjuncts.

Many of the individuals in these categories do better-than-adequate jobs, but their effectiveness suffers from their exclusion from the ideal academic community that ought to be the goal of every good college. Full-time professors are busy enough, but adjuncts have to hurry on to the next class, which may be on the other side of town at a different institution. After a few years, poverty may drive the adjunct out entirely, which means that she’s no longer available to students for any sort of long-term mentoring or letters of recommendation.

Finally, adjunct faculty who constantly walk on a narrow ledge of employment are much easier to control. But our society benefits from maintaining a group of people who are free to articulate their vision of the truth, whether the rest of us agree with it or not. This becomes much harder to do when next semester’s paltry wages hang from such a tenuous thread. In fact, this may be the chief administrative attraction of this false economy.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)