Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Caps on Adjuncts

My cc is gearing up for yet another discussion of the proper 'cap' on the number of credits taught by an adjunct in a single semester. It's one of those awful cases in which every option is wrong.

The theory, as near as I can tell, is that if you don't cap an adjunct's load at something below a full-timer's, then there's very little to stop a college from simply phasing out full-timers altogether. After all, if we can get good teachers at piecework rates, but our other costs aren't nearly so flexible, then the gravitational pull in that direction will be powerful. If you place an arbitrary cap on how much you can ask of a given adjunct, the theory goes, then you will force colleges to hire more full-timers.

There's something to that, even if it undercounts some of the other roles than traditional f-t faculty play (like student advisement). But it creates other issues.

For one obvious one, our 'cap' is campus-based, rather than statewide. That means that adjuncts will sometimes cobble together assignments at multiple campuses, the total of which is well over the usual full-time load. It defeats the intention of the cap, and imposes obvious transportation costs on the adjuncts. (In the age of four dollar a gallon gas, that's nothing to sneeze at.)

It also impacts different disciplines differently. Since we count credits, rather than classes, an adjunct in disciplines with lots of credits per section (like studio art or lab sciences) can bump up against the ceiling very quickly. Department chairs in those areas are constantly pushing for either exceptions or a general increase to the cap, since they want to staff their sections with the best available people.

(The danger in bumping ceilings, as I've learned the hard way, is that if someone at the absolute max bails on you, it's that much harder to replace them. At PU, the max was annual – as opposed to semesterly -- so someone hired in the Spring could teach more or less as much as anyone wanted. That worked fairly well until I had someone teaching far too much drop out the second week of class. Not pretty.)

Some adjuncts clamor for more hours at one college, to reduce their freeway flying to other colleges. I get it, and it makes sense from a particular angle, but it really raises the issue of what full-timers bring to the college to justify their higher salaries and benefits. Yes, they bring institutional memory and college service, but is that enough to justify a compensation package three to six times larger than what the adjuncts get? It seems like a stretch. And the idea of pro-rating, while it has a certain moral appeal, is a flat-out budget-buster. Without a serious, massive, sustained, predictable subvention from the state, or a herniating tuition increase, or both, it's just not gonna happen.

(Before the ritualistic “well then, just fire all the administrators and distribute their salaries!” attacks, I'll just note that colleges don't run themselves, money comes with oversight requirements, the money 'freed up' wouldn't even come close to being enough, and community colleges are administratively thinner than any other branch of higher education. We have more adjuncts, and fewer admins, than any other branch of higher ed. What this says about the Bousquet hypothesis – that the adjunct trend exists to feather administrative nests – I'll leave an as exercise for the reader.)

I don't have an elegant solution to all this, but I wish I did.