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.