Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Adjuncts and Accreditation

This article in IHE is one of those peel-the-onion pieces in which the more you think about it, the more there is to discuss.

Apparently, a new report by the AAUP takes the regional accreditation agencies to task for failing to confront the trend towards adjunct faculty.

My first thought was, finally. Let's get some bright-line rules out there – you're allowed x percentage of adjuncts and no more – and those of us who are constantly arguing upstairs for resources can use that as a club. It brought back memories of the disappointment faculty felt at Proprietary U when the accrediting team didn't address faculty teaching loads, which were 50% higher than at nearby community colleges.

But then I thought about how a bright-line rule might actually work.

Say that the agencies get together and declare ex cathedra that no more than 50 percent of your faculty can be adjuncts. What would happen?

Colleges with adjunct percentages in the thirties or forties (hi!) would have a green light to go to 50.

Colleges with more than 50 would start playing myriad counting games. “We don't count non-credit (remedial) courses.” “We count dual-enrollment as full-time, since they're full-time at their high schools.” “We count lab assistants and college staff who teach as full-time, since they're full-time employees.”

In conversations with colleagues at other colleges in my state, I've found that different colleges calculate their percentages in very different ways. My preferred method is by credit hour, as long as remedial classes are included. Some exclude non-credit classes. Some do headcounts, rather than credit-hour counts, which raises your adjunct percentage dramatically. Some create neither-fish-nor-fowl ranks that are full-time but low-paid and off the tenure track, and use those to inflate their full-time percentage. Some have 'visiting' full-time faculty. Some colleges don't have tenure systems at all, but they do have full-time faculty, so a measure like “percentage of tenure-track faculty” would give a very misleading picture.

Then there are the more basic issues. Say the agencies came up with one set of definitions, one method of counting, and the like. (For the sake of argument, let's stick with 50 percent as a magic number.) Then what?

Nationally, the last figure I saw for community colleges placed the share of credits taught by adjuncts at around two-thirds. If it had to come down to half, where would the money for that come from? Would the states suddenly see the error of their ways and pour millions into higher ed? (What a wonderful world that would be!) Maybe they'd start funding us at a level comparable to that of the public four-year schools? (Oh, happy day!) Or would we start cutting programs and raising tuition? And who, exactly, would that benefit?

More to the point, what is the point of accreditation? I've always understood it as a way of assuring prospective students that the institution is what it says it is, rather than some fly-by-night operation. To the extent that it's really about the students, I'm not entirely sure what a magic cutoff number for adjuncts has to do with it. Yes, I understand the argument that freeway flyers' situations suck, and that they were led to believe that the job market would be better than it is. I get that; hell, I've lived that. But why is that an accreditation issue? As long as the students are learning what they're supposed to learn, why is the employment status of the faculty at issue?

Before the inevitable flaming, let me clarify: I'm not saying that the trend towards all-adjuncts all the time is a good thing, or even an indifferent one. I object to it primarily on the grounds of fairness, and I consider it fair game for, say, unions. (For example, a few months ago I praised the Rutgers faculty union for accepting smaller raises to pay for more tenure-track positions.) But accrediting agencies aren't unions, and they aren't supposed to be.

From the public's perspective, I really don't think the drift towards adjuncts is the primary concern. They're concerned about cost and employability. To the extent that adjuncts help the former and have minimal impact on the latter, I don't see where most of the public would care. (Those who disagree are invited to campaign for tax increases to support higher ed. I'll be right there with you, and we'll lose together.) To pretend that it's just a matter of strongarming some obtuse administrators is simply to get it wrong. The trend towards adjuncts is a symptom of shifting public priorities (and, to a lesser degree, the near-impossibility of increasing the economic 'productivity' of teaching as measured in credit hours). Will the public suddenly support tax increases because the AAUP says so?

Uh, no.

Lobbying accreditation agencies to become advocates for a jobs program for academics is the wrong battle. It's well-intentioned and superficially attractive, but it's the wrong battle. Explain to the wider public, in terms it cares about, why instruction-on-the-cheap is bad. (While you're at it, you might want to take a crack at rehabbing the concept of progressive taxation, too. If you're gonna dream, dream big.) Until then, colleges will play the hand they're dealt, and accreditation agencies will reflect that. Harvard has infinite money, but it's also an outlier. Here in the mainstream of higher ed, failure to address underlying costs just means failure.

While it doesn't speak to the meat of your post, here's one idea for how to count faculty. Instead of the rule "no more than 50% Adjuncts" use something along the lines of "at least X% receives Full-Time insurance and benefits". Obviously the language needs to be fixed into something valid, but it gets the point across: the only metric we're going to track is the one you can't fudge - how much (money/benefits) ends up in the hands of your instructors. There would probably still be attempts to game the system, but I suspect that in most cases it would be easier and cheaper to comply.
Not sure how "pay and benefits" equates to "quality of education."

If the AAUP wants to measure the quality of education, it should measure quality of education. Using "% adjuncts" as a surrogate, partial measure of "quality" is misleading at best.

More Input obviously does not equal More Output.

How well is that union monopoly on labor working out in K-12?

I started out as an adjunct (a terminally degreed one). Initially, I was viewed as a "scab" or "rate buster" by my colleagues (especially after my sections started maxing out and I added several very popular elective offerings).

Net effect on the department: the students got more choices, a better eduation, and the rest of the faculty had to start "stepping up" in their own classrooms.

Where is this "anti-adjunct" sentiment really coming from? Concern for students? Not bloody likely.

[Back before human subjects boards were invented a lot of interesting behavioral research was done. One of my favorite studies involved reward systems for 5th graders involving candy and math quizzes. Give individual students individual rewards for individual performance, everyone's performance goes up. Give everyone the same reward based on aggregate performance, everyone's performance went down. Do our students *really* benefit from the "iron rice bowl" of unions+tenure?]
I agree that there are a lot of problems involved with the adjunct issue, and that many of them are incidental to accreditation. That said, I have adjuncted at more than one school where all the survey courses were taught by adjuncts, and all the electives by tenure-track faculty. There were some serious problems with this, since there was NO communication between the two groups to specify what skills students were expected to learn in the surveys. There was a lot of bitching about poorly prepared students in upper-level classes, but that never translated into any discussion with the adjuncts about course assignments, citation standards, or any other topic that would have resolved the issue. Of course, that was partly due to the fact that the t-t people had 4-4 loads even without teaching lower-level classes, but that's another discussion. But I think a situation like that one *should* affect the school's accreditation, because it had a negative impact on the students.
I'm with Anon 6:20 AM.

Count who's an adjunct by benefits. If they're not given (nor have actively declined) sick time, vacation, or health insurance, then they're adjuncts. If they are, they're not adjuncts.

- TL

I appreciate your experience and can sympathize! However, I would offer that what you describe is a curriculum committee issue, not an "adjunct" issue.

Before I started teaching as an adjunct I met with the curriculum committee to discuss how the course objectives for the classes I was about to teach were part of the knowledge "weave" within the programs the classes supported.

[Full Disclosure: out of the three adjunct/two full time professor jobs I have had, this "integrative" discussion was initiated by the department twice, and I had to request it three times.]

If your school doesn't do a very good job of rationalizing classes and objectives within programs, well . . . higher pay and fewer adjuncts isn't going to help. Expecting (demanding, even) more out of your faculty will.
yet another confused professor asks, "How well is that union monopoly on labor working out in K-12?"

Out here in California, there are NO adjunct K-12 teachers. As a consequence, funding for K-12 schools is somewhere around $10K/full-time student. Community colleges get less than $5k/full-time student.

The "union monopoly" is working pretty damn well, if you ask me.

Is that actually how accreditation works? Setting bright lines?

I've only ever been on the fringe of accreditation, but I recall people writing massive papers at the division, even the department, level describing and defending their practice: self-studies, if I remember correctly. I do not see that bad consequences flow from requiring that self-study cover staffing issues: how is the department, the division, staffed -- tenure-track, full-time contingent, part-time contingent, both by head-count and credit-hour (departments exist where the tenure-track faculty teach two courses per semester and the adjuncts three!) -- and how does this staffing mix contribute to its success?

And if the accrediting agency finds weaknesses and requires the college to come up with a plan to remedy those weaknesses, surely that can be used by the college administration to scare up some money from somewhere. Remedial plans have to be funded to be real.

Sorry if your remarks were "Tongue in Cheek" or sarcastic; my comments assume they are to be taken at face value.

Umm yeah if by "working out great" you mean that we are paying a ton of money for a crappy education . . . oh you mean from the standpoint of the teachers' union! Oh well yes then it is working out exactly as all unions intend- driving the marginal cost of something well above its marginal value . . . which you can only do effectively if you have a monopoly (in this case, on labor).

You want to cut way back on the number of international students coming to the US for advanced education? Bring secondary schools down to same relative level as our K-12 schools.

It's already happening OBTW, even without "unionization." The more we squeeze competition out of the system, "the more we will pay for the less we will get."
yet another confused professor:

You're absolutely right--but only if you buy into the argument that all public school K-12 students are "getting a crappy education."

But that's a subject for another discussion, no? And not on Dean Dad's blog.

Accreditors are interested with the overall quality of the program and predicting that for so many years into the future. The problem with adjuncts is their excellence usually only extends as far as the classroom or their office hours and only for that contract period. Accreditors can't project that forward, however much goodwill the adjunct possesses towards the program. So seeing a lot of adjuncts or LTAs is a worrisome red flag to an accreditation team: what assurance do they have that this staffing level will continue, let alone at the same quality? What does it do to a program to turn so much of its basic operation over to underpaid temp workers? What else is the program losing by pretending that the degree is nothing but a lot of courses, taught piecemeal?

Working on program accreditation over the past few years, I've witnessed some incredible shoe-string systems where the academic program only remains viable by exploiting a number of sessional instructors and demanding a wealth of unpaid overloads from the full-time staffers. My experience there has taught me to look at what percentage of courses in the regular program offering are being taught by sessionals or on overloads. When you can equate these course credits with so many full-time position equivalents (and we can be talking a LOT), it's a sign of weakness that the consultants should force home in their talks with deans, VPs and in the final reports.
The problem isn't with adjuncts, it's with the conditions most work under--and the incentives those conditions produce. Sisyphus just nailed what this means for the UC system.

The need to get accredited or keep your accreditation is a HUGE institutional motivator. My institution is considering creating a new administrative position for this purpose: one key rationale for changing our School of Business into a College with a Dean is that the accrediting agency is a "dean's club." When you consider how many non-faculty positions have been created due to accreditation--think of all the offices of assessment that have sprung up all over the country--you'll see whay the AAUP is trying to put pressure on accrediting agencies to act on behalf of all the faculty.

Dean Dad is right that this is a funding issue at heart. But don't accrediting agencies already look at the financial health of an institution and how effectively it is using its resources on behalf of its students? Why shouldn't looking at the working conditions of all the faculty be part of that project? Just because it's easy to come up with bad solutions doesn't mean there isn't a problem.
Two more points and an invitation: as grad students across the country have been demonstrating about for quite some time now, Harvard may be an outlier when it comes to nontenurable faculty, but it's in the mainstream when it comes to abusing what should be an apprenticeship system. Whether your contingent labor comes from "adjuncts" or "grad students" is immaterial; the real outliers are the small liberal arts colleges with huge endowments that try to compete with both kinds of Academic Taylorism.

Second, public higher ed doesn't need any new taxes to be better supported. My little efforts to encourage the Harvards of the academic world to become philanthropists to the rest of the higher ed system in the U.S. may seem pie-in-the-sky. But growing endowments is one key avenue for public systems that have control over neither tuition nor state funding. It's really too bad the NYS legislature paid lip service to Spitzer's idea but didn't even try to fund it. And even worse that they've taken SUNY's few mega-tuition increases over the decades and dedicated them to other parts of the state budget. And a slap in the face that they give some $300M/yr. in direct aid to privates in NY.

So the lobbying/PR campaign Dean Dad sees as a political non-starter can be reframed away from new taxes and toward a more equitable and efficient distribution of existing taxes.

Now the invitation to Dean Dad: what Craig Smith and I have been trying to do is connect the dots--explore the relations between the training/credentialing system, the job search system, the academic staffing system, and the institution of tenure. Since you're basically identifying problems with the FACE campaign he's helping coordinate, I think it would be particularly important for you to explicitly join our conversation and look at the big picture together. What do you say?
Maybe this is overly simplistic, but I have a fear if limtis are placed on the percentage of adjuncts in any given dept. The fear is that if limits are imposed, especially in the "Evergreen" fields, the dept. will simply counter by cancelling various upper level classes and re-assigning full time or tenured faculty to the intro and survey courses handled by adjuncts.

In other words, it will fail to have the intended effect. Many adjuncts will be laid off, and no new jobs will be created.

Yes, the tenured faculty will whine and moan, but in the end, they work for the institution and will do what they're told.
Concerning 1:20 PM yacp:

It would be a mistake to assume that a teacher in a 25 or 30 student classroom is getting $250,000 to $300,000 in compensation, yet that is the premise when discussing unions versus cost per student in K-12. K-12 schools have many costs that a college does not, starting with transportation.

It is also a mistake to treat the per-student appropriation to a college as if it was the sole source of funds to educate that student. Not even close.

Our college budget works out to under $40,000 per employee, and f-t faculty make up less than 20% of the total number of employees. (That number must include work-study students, anyone on the payroll, since that number of employees is huge compared to the number I know for p-t faculty and f-t admins.)

Dean Dad: You might blog about how your college's budget is put together - suitably anonymized, of course. Fraction spent on faculty, support, fuel!, admin. How much of it is fixed costs (salary) and how much is variable?

I'd be interested
I will immediately cede that K-12 and 13+ education differ quite a bit along the dimensions of funding/budgeting, mission, role in society as public/private goods, how much the football coach is paid, rules regarding field trips, etc.

It was an "analogy;" perhaps more conceptually a metaphor but never mind.

The point is this: the attitude of "Adjunct Bad" vs. "FT (tenured) Good" is the invisible elephant in the room.

I mean, come on- this seems to be a major tenet of faith in the modern university. It is the underlying assumption of the AAUP article, Dean Dad's original post, and the responses of many of my colleagues in this thread.

I challenge that assumption. I know many adjuncts who provide a greater value/cost ratio to the students than many FT/tenured faculty; and vice versa.

I was (inaptly? ineptly?) trying to steer the discussion to exposing that tenet; and clarifying the fundamental issue of "under what circumstances are adjuncts good/bad?"

Anyhow, having worked both sides of the fence for a while I find the scapegoating of the modern university adjunct to be somewhat interesting.

Still confused, still a professor . . .

Fair points, and I would be the last to argue with some of them because there is good evidence that I was a better teacher than some of the faculty back when I was a TA. But teaching quality of individuals is not what has to be evaluated.

What has to be evaluated is how stable that teaching quality will be for the institution as a whole over time. Who will teach there next year? Who will select those adjuncts and help them fit into the curriculum at the college? Who will decide what the curriculum will be? Who will care about the long term viability of the college? Those are the concerns (or should be) of accreditation.

Also, concerning your early (9:05 AM) remark: The point of using "pay and benefits" rather than "tenure" has nothing to do with "quality"; it has everything to do with finding a metric for institutional commitment that is independent of the many different contractual schemes that exist across the US.
The math is just not adding up for me. In my dept. there are 7 full timers which includes the chair and 25 adjuncts. Doesn't it cost more to have so many adjuncts than to hire at least two more full-timers? In our union if you teach at least 2 classes (which is the limit for adjuncts - 3 classes equals temp. full-time status) you can get health benefits.

Also, if there is such a need for classes due to student enrollment, why doesn't tuition cover at least some of this?
1 FT/TT @ $100,000 (not including long term liabilities) providing mediocre* classroom performance on a 3/2 load = $20,000 per 3 SCH.

Anyone paying their adjuncts $20,000 per 3SCH class?


In business, you staff FT at the minimum demand level, and use temps/on calls/part time employees to handle any demand above the minimum demand.

So, *even if* you are generally "anti adjunct" (as unions have to be, for obvious reasons), the rational actor would:

1. Calculate "worst case" scenario for enrollments;
2. Staff FT/TT at 80% of "worst case" scenario; then
3. Hire contract faculty to bring capacity up to 120% of worst case; then
4. Use adjuncts to staff up to the actual enrollment level

A "typical" (based on the future of the discipline and enrollments) department in, say, a business (growing) discipline would therefore have about 1/3 FT/TT, 1/3 contract instructors, and 1/3 adjuncts.

A "typical" department in a "not growing so much" discipline would need about a 25%, 25%, 50% mix.

Remember FT/TT faculty carry a whole bunch of long term liabilities on their backs . . .

*the higher the research focus of FT/TT faculty, the less effort they put into the classroom. Ditto for FT/T "service load" that includes building programs, interfacing with stakeholders, etc. Adjuncts, and contract instructors, are "paid for performance" in the classroom and therefore provide more value tot he students in the first place; the value/cost ratio of FT/TT vs. adjunct-contract is just flat out ridiculously different.
This has been more or less said by others, but I tend to be direct. If the accrediting agencies decide this is an issue for them they only need to do two things:

1. In the letter to the institution before the visit insert a couple of lines: We are increasingly concerned with the increase in the number of adjunct faculty in higher education and evaluation of their work. Please pay special attention to this in your self-study

2. A line in the final report: While we have granted accreditation to your institution, we are specifically concerned with the high proportion of adjunct faculty teaching introductory courses. If this situation is not changed by the time of our next visit you run the risk of a provisional or even a denial of accreditation.

Of course, things being what they are, accrediting agencies are poaching on each others territory to get more business so this has little chance of happening.
Thanks for posting on this topic. Adjunct use and accreditation is an issue that deserves much more discussion. I think there are some good reasons to tie the two together, though, and I've written about some of those reasons over on my blog in A Cog's Eye View.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?