Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Professional Development for Adjuncts

A new correspondent writes:

What is your take on "professionalism" among adjunct faculty? Since there's so little money available for professional development for anyone, especially adjuncts, the attitude has developed that adjunct faculty don't really need to keep current in teaching and research in composition; that it's not fair to ask them to do so since there's no support. Most of our adjunct faculty get full benefits but have no job security though we have an informal seniority system--those with most seniority choose their schedules for the next year first. My question is what is a fair expectation regarding "professionalism" at least as it refers to currency in one's field, given adequate teaching evaluations? I've been leading an effort these past three years to develop a writing program--one with a coherent curriculum, vigorous assessment, and meaningful professional develoment. The toughest of the three to get going has been professional development, since it seems an added burden to adjunct faculty who get paid only 80% or so of what full-time faculty receive. I should note, however, that some full-time faculty also resist what they see as a call to currency in the field of composition, since they identify themselves as literature people, though they teach mainly composition. I should also note that across town from us is a very good graduate program in comp/rhet that churns out new graduates every year. Doubtless, they pose a threat to long-term adjuncts whose training is ten or fifteen years old. Also, we don't have any campus-wide professional development efforts or office to promote that, as of yet. And given the budget realities, we probably won't for a year or two more, in spite of our new president's desire to implement something like that. Thoughts?

Nope, no third rail here!

Many years ago, Microsoft got sued for employing what got called "permatemps." As I understand it, Microsoft had hired (and paid) employees as temps, but kept them around for years doing all the same things, for the same hours, as full-time employees. Eventually the chickens came home to roost, Microsoft was hauled into court for back pay and benefits, and wound up paying a chunk of change. (I don't remember whether they actually lost, or they reached a settlement. Readers who know the case better than I do are invited to clarify this account in the comments.)

I wouldn't be at all surprised to see something similar happen in higher ed. As the demands placed on adjuncts continue to increase, the justification for paying them proportionally less than full-timers becomes harder to sustain.

That's the background condition against which I come to this question. As an officer of the college, part of my job involves keeping the college out of trouble. That means, among other things, maintaining a clear and meaningful distinction between the expectations of full-timers and the expectations of adjuncts.

In your case, since you don't have meaningful professional development for full-timers, there's no difference for adjuncts. But if you're going to start a program, you should absolutely target the full-timers first.

The legal imperative here cuts against my preference as an educator. As an educator, I believe that any professor who gets up in front of a class should be as current and prepared as possible. But from an institutional perspective, where that preparation comes from makes a difference. The more the expectations for adjuncts parallel those of full-timers, the harder it will be for the institution to fend off a 'permatemp' suit. Perversely enough, well-intentioned efforts to break down the caste system can actually backfire for the college. (Ironically enough, this is one reason I support adjunct unions. At least with a distinct union contract, it's possible to spell these things out and negotiate them. When too much is left unsaid, expectations can spiral, and suddenly you're on the receiving end of a subpoena.) Systems take on logics of their own, and we ignore them at our peril.

Of course, in a perfect world, this wouldn't be an issue. Most faculty would be full-time, with adjunct roles existing only on the margins (for the occasional working practitioner, and for the occasional enrollment surge.) Those adjuncts would be paid a pro-rated assistant professor's salary, and we'd have single-payer universal health care, so health insurance wouldn't be an issue. But with the funding structure (and politics) we have now, that's not in the cards.

The tragedy of the current system, obviously, is that so many eager instructors are relegated to the economic margins, with professional development left entirely up to them on pathetic salaries. I'm inclined to believe that this is a sign of a deeper systemic unsustainability that will lead to entirely new forms of education emerging in the alarmingly near future, but that's for another post. I'm still working on that one.

So my answer is along two tracks. Ideally, adjunct roles would be few and far between, and to the extent they'd exist, they'd be pro-rata. However, in the world as it is, one college moving too quickly in that direction in some areas (teaching loads, professional development) without doing others (salaries, benefits) would be putting on a sign that says "SUE ME." Yes, there's a fundamental contradiction there. Welcome to my world.

Wise and worldly readers -- has your college found a reasonable way to handle adjunct professional development without getting itself into a bad legal position?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.