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By Paul Bradley  /  
2014 April 14 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Expanding The Conversation

C  O  V  E  R     S  T  O  R  Y

Expanding The Conversation
CCCSE Report Says Colleges Must Support Adjunct Instructors
By Paul Bradley

By now, the reality of working conditions faced by adjunct professors is beginning to take hold in both the public imagination and in the proclamations of policymakers. One thing is clear: it’s no ivory tower.

Last September, the death of a longtime, part-time professor in Pittsburgh commanded national headlines and placed a harsh spotlight on a trend that has been building for decades: the growing reliance on part-time professors among all institutions of higher education, and their low pay, lack of benefits and poor working conditions.

Margaret Mary Vojtko, who taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, earned only about $10,000 a year and had no health insurance when she died, at age 83, two weeks after she suffered a heart attack.

Her death gave new urgency to the work of the New Faculty Majority, whose leader, Maria Maisto, was invited to testify before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on what she termed an “adjunct crisis.” Prior to her appearance, Congress paid scant attention to part-time professors, even as their number grew to more than 1 million.

Efforts by some colleges to trim the hours of adjuncts to avoid providing health insurance to part-timers under the Affordable Care Act only underscored the plight of adjuncts and emboldened some adjuncts to embrace a nascent effort to form labor unions to represent their interests.

Relatively little attention, however, has been paid to the effects that part-time instructors have on students, academic outcomes and the overall completion agenda.

But a new report by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) represents an effort to expand the conversation about adjuncts by focusing on what the report calls a “profound incongruity” — the growing reliance on adjuncts, who receive little if any professional support and development, even as pressure to improve graduation rates continues to grow.

“Colleges depend on part-time faculty to educate more than half of their students, yet they do not fully embrace these faculty members,” the report says. “Because of this disconnect, contingency can have consequences that negatively affect student engagement and learning.”

“A lot of the discussion has been focused on working conditions, and justifiably so,” said center Director Kay M. McClenney. “But the point for us is the effect on high-impact learning practices and on a higher level of engagement and completion.”

The report, titled “Contingent Commitments: Bringing Part-Time Faculty Into Focus,” is based on data drawn from more than 70,000 faculty responses to the Community College Faculty Survey of Student Engagement between 2009 and 2013. Through more than 30 focus groups, the center also listened to part-time faculty, full-time faculty, administrators and staff at community colleges across the country.

What they found was that colleges’ treatment of part-time faculty is seriously undermining the completion agenda. Few adjuncts get the opportunity to implement practices shown to have a significant impact on student success. They don’t engage in academic advising, student orientation or learning communities.

“I was most surprised by the juxtaposition of reality,” McClenney said. “We found that adjuncts are very committed. But they feel really marginalized. That has all kinds of implications for the completion agenda. What we know from our previous research is that what goes on in the classroom has to change.”

Among the most troubling findings, McClenney said, is the fact that part-time faculty are most likely to be teaching students who need the most help. More than 75 percent of faculty who teach developmental education are employed part-time. Part-time faculty teaching developmental education are also more likely to have fewer years of teaching experience and less likely to have advanced degrees.

“Colleges…. must rethink their relationship with contingent faculty,” the report said. “These colleges know they cannot effectively foster greater student success without making sure that part-time faculty have the support they need to serve their students effectively.”

The report found that community colleges depend on part-time faculty to teach 53 percent of all their credit students, yet college policies and practices typically do not include part-time faculty into their institutions as full partners in promoting student success. Some adjuncts get only a week’s notice, or less, before they are handed a syllabus and told that they’ll be teaching during a particular semester. They have little or no interaction with their full-time colleagues.

In 2009, of the 400,000 faculty members hired by 987 public community colleges in the country, 70 percent were part-time. Between 2003 and 2009, the number of full-time faculty grew by about 2 percent compared with a 10 percent increase for part-time faculty.

For colleges, it’s an economic decision. Part-timers cost far less than do full-time professors. Adjuncts have become a fundamental part of the community college economic model.

But the treatment of part-time faculty reinforces a message that their work belongs on the margins of institutional life.

“When colleges’ commitment to part-time faculty is contingent, the contingent commitment may be reciprocated,” the report said. “For most part-time faculty, both pay and explicit expectations are low, so the message from colleges boils down to something like this: ‘Just show up every Thursday at five o’clock and deliver a lecture to your class. Give a mid-term and a final exam, and then turn in a grade, and the college will pay you a notably small amount of money.’

“This arrangement essentially turns teaching into a transaction that is defined by a few specific tasks, and there often is no expectation — or even invitation — to do more. Thus, the basics of showing up, teaching a class, and turning in a grade can easily become the full extent of a part-time faculty member’s engagement with the college and its students. By contrast, expectations for full-time faculty typically include teaching; developing and evaluating programs and curriculum; holding office hours for meeting with students; and service, such as participating in institutional governance.”

Trying to better engage part-time faculty is hardly a new notion. Researchers have been analyzing the status of part-time faculty for at least 30 years. A 1980 study by Michael H. Parsons of Morgan State University, for example, said, “In an era of consumerism, colleges must ensure that the instruction being provided by part-time faculty is commensurate with that provided by full-time faculty. New students may develop their impressions of the college based solely on contact with part-time personnel.”

Fifteen years later, a study conducted for the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development said that college leaders ignored part-time faculty at their peril. .

“Part-time faculty make critical contributions to teaching and learning in the higher education enterprise — educationally, socially and economically,” the 1995 report said. “Part-time faculty are sleeping giants; their sheer numbers and their impact on college instruction cannot and should not be ignored…the issues that have separated part-timers from the larger academic community will not go away. They will be addressed, or they will maim higher education.”

More recently, in February, the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce produced a paper that said the working conditions encountered by adjunct faculty were having an adverse effect not only on them, but on their students as well.

“The contingent faculty trend appears to mirror trends in the general labor market toward a flexible, ‘just-in-time’ workforce, with lower compensation and unpredictable schedules for what were once considered middle-class jobs,” said the report, prepared by the office of U.S. Rep. George Miller, the senior Democrat on the committee. “The trend should be of concern to policymakers both because of what it means for the living standards and work lives of those individuals we expect to educate the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and other highly skilled workers, and what it may mean for the quality of higher education itself.”

The CCCSE report cited several examples of colleges that have moved to boost part-time faculty. Valencia College offers all part-time faculty members free professional development courses during their first year. Part-timers at Richland College, where adjuncts teach 60 percent of all courses, have a dedicated work area and a part-time faculty association. North Central Michigan College, where 80 percent of faculty are adjuncts, created a new position: director of adjunct faculty.

But these are the exception rather than the rule, McClenney said.

“We had to look hard to find places that had comprehensive programs for working with part-time faculty,” she said.

The report concludes with a guide for colleges interested in creating an institutional culture than embraces the role of part-time faculty. It also offers a challenge to community colleges committed to the success of their students.

“What matters most? Students,” she said. “Providing effective instruction and support for students needs to be at the heart of community college work.”

The full report can be downloaded at http://www.ccsse.org/docs/PTF_Special_Report.pdf

It’s Your Turn:  CCW wants to hear from you!
Q: Can community colleges advance the completion agenda without fully embracing adjunct instructors as part of their institutions?
Comments: ccweekblog | www.twitter.com/ccweek

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