Nobody Wins When Colleges Hire Too Many Part-Time Professors

Part-time faculty lack opportunities to move up in higher education.
Professor writing on whiteboard. (Photo: Getty Images)
Aug 25, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sean Eckhardt is TakePart's editorial fellow.

Three years ago, when Megan Debin was an adjunct art history professor in Los Angeles, she taught four classes at four campuses—but the toughest challenge she faced wasn’t the three or four hours a day she spent navigating gridlock to get to class.

With little guidance or professional development, she feared she would be trapped in a world all too familiar for part-time professors: struggling to pay bills without much opportunity to land a stable, full-time position.

“When you’re going to a full-time interview, they’ll ask you questions about curriculum or committees that you’ve served on, and you haven’t because you work part time and you’re not compensated to do those jobs,” Debin told TakePart. “So you don’t want to do them because you’re not compensated to do those jobs, but you also don’t get that experience.”

The situation Debin was in is not unique. Roughly three in four college professors don’t hold tenure-track positions, according to the American Association of University Professors.

While college and university faculties are becoming more diverse, women and minorities lag far behind in obtaining tenured positions—the jobs with the highest pay, best benefits, and greatest job security in higher education, according to a recent study from TIAA Institute, which conducts research for educational, nonprofit, and public sectors.

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The study examined federal data from 1993, 2003, and 2013 to compare groups that have been historically underrepresented in college and university faculties, including African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

In 2013, those minorities held 13 percent of all faculty jobs but only 10 percent of tenured jobs.

The study also looked at women, who now hold 49 percent of total faculty positions but only 38 percent of tenured positions.

According to the study, those disparities are a result of a trend in higher education of increasing the hiring of part-time adjunct instructors, who are now as many as six in 10 faculty members at colleges nationwide.

“Just as the doors of academe have been opened more widely to marginalized groups, the opportunity structure has been turned on its head,” said the study. “The available jobs tend, less and less, to be the conventional ‘good’ jobs, that is, the tenure-track career-ladder jobs that provide benefits, manageable to quite good salaries, and crucially, a viable future for academics.”

Because of the amount of time it takes to earn a Ph.D. and work up the ranks to a tenured position, results of recruitment efforts to increase diversity in higher education that started decades ago are just starting to be seen, according to Martin Finkelstein, professor of higher education at Seton Hall University and one of the researchers on the study.

“The academic profession has been a white male bastion culturally. There are a lot of attitudes about women [and] people of color. Whether they are explicit or implicit, they’re there,” Finkelstein said. “When you start the process of diversification, there’s a pipeline, there’s a long lead time.”

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With limited funds and more pressure on campuses to attract students, however, fewer tenure-track jobs are available, and those in tenured posts stay in those positions longer, said Finklestein. This means that there are few tenure-track positions for women and minorities to fill.

Since 1993, according to the study, the number of part-time faculty in colleges and universities has more than doubled, while the number of tenure and tenure-track jobs available has increased by only 11 percent. Among women, the proportion of faculty who are on the tenure track has gone down from 13 percent to 8 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of women in part-time appointments jumped from 46 percent to 56 percent.

“The biggest issue is money. State resources for higher education are declining. There’s lots of pressure to maintain or even expand student numbers,” Finkelstein said. “So you have to find a way, and part time is very attractive.”

A 2015 analysis of census data by the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education showed that 25 percent of “part-time college faculty” and their families now receive public assistance such as Medicaid, food stamps, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, cash welfare, or the Earned Income Tax Credit. Various groups have protested and have attempted to form unions among part-time college faculty to advocate for better treatment.

“Institutions don’t do much for their part-time faculty. They don’t provide secretarial assistance, graduate students who can help them in research—they might not even provide a gym membership,” Finklestein said. “It’s really tough—you don’t have the organizational support.”

Therese Edwards, a part-time communication studies professor at Loyola Marymount University, who is involved with Faculty Forward LA, which seeks to improve conditions for part-time professors, has seen that lack of institutional support firsthand.

“Like part-time employees in a traditional service industry, adjuncts are often viewed as disposable and are regularly reminded, directly and indirectly, that there’s always someone ready to take their place,” Edwards said.

To improve the situation for adjunct faculty, Edwards’ group seeks access to health benefits, increases in pay, research grants, and leadership roles like spots on the faculty senate.

“If adjuncts are 50 percent of your teaching staff, they should have a more proportional voice on your campus,” Edwards said. “We have seen efforts on the part of some universities and colleges to try to mend this divide, but still, the culture of exclusion is very embedded at most institutions.”

Debin eventually found full-time work. It was a challenge that she got through with support from others—but not from any of the four institutions she was commuting between.

“I’m able to take care of myself now,” Debin said. “I’m lucky that I had friends and family who can help and did at times help, but many people won’t have that support that I did.”