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Institutional Approaches to Adjunct Faculty Harmful to Educators and Students

Institutional Approaches to Adjunct Faculty Harmful to Educators and Students
As higher education institutions look to improve the learning experiences and environments of the growing population of part-time and non-traditional students, administrators should take care to seriously consider the working conditions of their adjunct faculty members.

On a chilly day in Washington this past April, I, like many Americans, found myself in an extended conversation with the IRS. The focus of the conversation, however, was not my — or anyone else’s — individual financial health but, rather, the general health and well-being of higher education. The occasion was the day designated for oral comments about the proposed Employer Mandate provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Higher education institutions had been thrown into turmoil by the law, which will require colleges and universities to provide healthcare to anyone working 30 hours a week or more. The problem for higher education is so-called part-time faculty do not punch a time clock, so the number of hours we work (or should work) per week is impossible to standardize. In fact, the impetus to standardize faculty work at all is a point of profound controversy. In January, the IRS had attempted to address this dilemma by proposing higher education institutions simply adopt “reasonable” methods of calculating faculty work hours, noting only that in figuring out conversion formulas, institutions should not ignore hours spent outside the classroom preparing lessons, meeting with students and grading assignments.

The ensuing debate about — and ill-considered actions around — understanding faculty work has been groundbreaking for higher education. It has exposed some surprising ideas and is forcing a conversation about the principle at the heart of our work at New Faculty Majority (NFM): faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.

More importantly, the year-long extension just granted on the Employer Mandate provides a rare opportunity for colleges to make adjunct faculty policy decisions that are thoughtful and inclusive rather than rushed, top-down and reactive; the conditions that have traditionally been operative when crafting policy related to adjunct faculty.

At the heart of NFM’s work is the idea that students and professors are human beings who teach and learn in contexts and in relationships — and in material circumstances — that affect their ability to do their work effectively. Studies regularly demonstrate that the single most important factor in bringing about positive student learning outcomes, particularly for vulnerable students, is students’ opportunity to work intentionally and individually with faculty who have the time and the resources to put into the hard work of education. For part-time and adult learners, the ability to form mentoring relationships with faculty is particularly important, especially given the added financial and time pressures such students typically encounter. Institutional actions in response to the ACA, by contrast, have led to many higher education leaders taking public positions that increasingly (and ironically) subjugate the humanity of students and their professors to alarming, misguided notions of efficiency, productivity and success.

One of the most striking examples of this dehumanizing position is the assertion that faculty do — or should — work only one hour outside of class for every hour they are in class, regardless of how many students are in each class. Those who champion this formula know it ensures a “part-time” faculty member can continue to be hired to teach the equivalent of a full-time teaching load without having to be offered health insurance. The formula is predicated on the assumption faculty cannot and should not:

  • Spend time meeting with students
  • Engage in professional development or prepare classes
  • Respond to student work with care

The formula is also predicated on the knowledge many adjuncts will spend that necessary time on their students anyway, even if it means cheating themselves and their own families, out of concern for professional integrity. These administrative assumptions are irresponsible and exploitative.

Another contradictory response to the IRS’s request for reasonableness has been the wholesale reduction of the number of credit hours adjuncts are allowed to work at any one campus, without corresponding increases in pay. This practice forces many adjuncts to work at numerous institutions simultaneously, further fragmenting their commutes, their communities and their commitments to individual institutions … and to students.

Part-time and adult students should be especially concerned about the effects of faculty working conditions such as these on their learning. It can be even harder for such students to make the time in an already-compressed schedule to meet with faculty who are rarely on campus because they must commute to another campus to teach. And students whose own educational and career goals depend on instructors to be apprised of the latest developments in their disciplines and professions are ill-served by institutions that refuse to provide such professional development to their faculty.

At the IRS hearing in April, no fewer than six people — almost all representing organized groups of adjunct faculty — stood to speak to the importance of the quality of education, defined both in terms of student outcomes and employment practices. In my remarks, I requested the agency consider educational quality and the integrity of the profession in its rulemaking because higher education is a public trust. I asked that its rules require colleges and universities to do the same.

The IRS panelists at the hearing were gracious, asked good questions and treated adjuncts and their representatives with respect. To those of us at the hearing, our April day with the IRS was, contrary to all expectation and stereotype, inspiring as an exercise in thoughtful discussion and democratic practice. As it moves forward in determining how best to ensure high-quality student learning conditions and faculty working conditions, higher education would do well to learn from the IRS.