William Pannapacker

Professor of English, Faculty Director of the Digital Liberal Arts Initiative of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, and Director of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholars Program in the Arts and Humanities at Hope College

Squandering Our Moral Capital

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As a parent of three children who are nearing college age, there is one question that I will ask repeatedly when we tour different campuses:

“What percentage of your courses is taught by tenure-line faculty members?”

I don’t think, for one second, that anyone who is leading a campus tour will have a good answer. Tour guides might not even know what I’m asking about. And if they don’t know that, they surely don’t know what their adjunct faculty members are paid. Or whether they have health benefits.

For the most part, students and parents know very little about the terms of teachers’ employment, and it’s not altogether clear that they would care if they did. Things are bad all over, and tuition costs already are too high.

Based on what I already have seen, I am sure that the tours will include lots of information about the gleaming new fitness centers, the cruise-ship dining commons, and the private dorm rooms that look like hotel suites. Of course, none of those things has anything to do with education, or with students’ employment prospects after college.

Despite all sorts of budgetary sleight-of-hand, I take it as a given that the underpayment of adjunct faculty—now 76 percent of college teachers overall, and rising—subsidizes those noneducational amenities.

And now a recent study claims that adjunct faculty at Northwestern deliver better student-learning outcomes than tenure-track faculty. Actually, I am not surprised. Some of the most brilliant scholars and dedicated teachers I know are adjuncts; in another era, or under different circumstances, they might have been star professors.

The reasons that people become adjuncts are many and varied, but it’s an occupation that selects against anyone who can’t produce strong enrollments and very positive student evaluations. That’s not universally true for tenure-stream faculty members, who are evaluated primarily on the basis of research and grant writing. Northwestern University, where the study was conducted, is hardly an ordinary context for adjuncts, too.

At most institutions, reliance on adjunct labor is a false economy that depends on measuring some things and not others. And students and parents should be concerned about that.

I don’t know any thoughtful person who believes adjuncts hold exploitative positions because they lack the credentials and talents of the tenured faculty. But the circumstances of their employment result in damage to outcomes that are not so easily measured. In particular, reliance on large numbers of short-term adjuncts seems likely to correlate with a low level of high-impact learning practices, such as collaborative research, individual mentoring, and long-term, individualized support for students all through college and in the years after.

When faculty members have to teach at multiple institutions, perhaps without an office, it is difficult to become an effective advisor; it’s hard to be available. Moreover, being excluded from faculty governance means that adjuncts do not have access to a lot of information, and the mission of an academic program is eroded when all teachers are not part of the collegial conversation about the integrity of curricula.

It’s hard for adjuncts to maintain the kind of strong, long-term relationships with students that are important for intellectual development and the pursuit of career opportunities. It’s a problem that students can’t find faculty who know them well enough—or who are simply around long enough—to write recommendations and to share their professional networks.

Although I know adjuncts who take risks in the classroom, the lack of academic freedom surely causes many of them to steer away from controversial material, even when the curriculum calls for it. It is risky to maintain high expectations for students, in terms of workload and grading (and the protection of academic integrity), when one needs strong enrollments, high evaluation scores, and no complaints to the chair. I know there are adjuncts with outstanding publication records, but it also is likely that the need to teach so many classes to survive financially, combined with a lack of travel funding, takes a toll on one’s ability to remain engaged with the cutting edge of one’s field.

Beyond that, one aspect of this that I never hear considered is that the lack of long-term faculty relationships with students reduces the connection that alumni feel to their alma mater. When my undergraduate institution asks me for money—seemingly every month—I don’t think about new buildings or athletics programs: I think about individual faculty members who had a profound influence on my life, when I was a student, and in the years since then. They have helped me in countless ways for more than two decades.

I never had a lasting relationship with any of the adjuncts with whom I took classes. It’s not their fault, but they have been no help to me beyond the courses that I took with them. And my alma mater’s mistreatment of them—in the context of an endless building spree—makes me far less likely to be willing to donate to them.

Students benefit from secure, long-term faculty who are fully invested in their institution, not harried, transient adjuncts who are generally not able to provide the same kind of support, much as they might like to. The value of that support is hard to quantify, but I believe it counts for more than the measurable outcomes of any given course.

But I don’t think it makes any difference whether a way can be found—measuring some things and not others—to say that adjuncts are advantageous in terms of cost, flexibility, and outcomes. The use of adjuncts always has been defensible as a way of bringing in outside, professional expertise, and surely they are needed to address short-term staffing needs. But we all know that it has become a system of exploitation in many—if not most—cases.

Recently, the tragic story of Mary Margaret Vojtko, an adjunct at Duquesne University, has humanized the situation faced by thousands of others. Maybe we are reaching a moment when a consensus is emerging that this system must change.

For higher education, humane working conditions should be a categorical imperative, even if it means fewer climbing walls and sushi bars. We can’t talk about how much we care about one group of people—our students, especially—while exploiting another group of people, who are, in fact, our former students. To act otherwise undermines the moral standing of our institutions, and without that kind of capital, it’s unclear to me why anyone should continue to support them.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.

Image: Pavel Ševela/Wikimedia Commons

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  • I have read with interest Dr. Pannapacker's postings for many years. However, in this one, I think he misses the mark. This is a broad indictment of the use of adjuncts in higher education, and while it might be true at the R1 level, the same conditions and rationale for adjunct instruction do not cover all institutions. I think this may begin with his understanding of higher education finance, which seems to suggest a belief that all tuition dollars are in a pot from which capital projects and personnel costs must draw. In private institutions such as his own, as well as the ones in which i have worked, construction projects are almost always entirely separate from the instructional budget. It is true that tuition funds operations--keeping the lights on, heat, etc., and maintenance. A bigger challenge (perhaps not at Hope, but where I have worked) is financial aid. The increase in the need for financial aid in the current economic climate has nearly doubled the per-year support my institution has extended to students. This has meant a discount rate rising from about 25+ percent to nearly 40. As a result, any margin for additional faculty tenure-line hires--and indeed, much support for faculty and staff pay increases--has been gobbled up in just bringing in the students.

    A second issue from this story is Dr. Pannapacker's claim that "adjuncts account for 76 percent of college teachers overall." While this may be true at some institutions, it is not universally so, and it conflates headcount with FTE. If a professional musician is hired to teach private lessons to 3 percussion students, does that count as "1" adjunct instructor? Even though the instructor may be paid by the students for the lessons? If the teaching load at a master's level university is eight courses per year, and an adjunct teaches 3 courses in that year, does she count as one adjunct, or 3/8 FTE faculty? Is it clear that _most instruction_ is done by full-time faculty, or by adjuncts? That is an important distinction. From that ambiguous claim about 76%, Dr. Pannapacker then builds claims about weaknesses in or inadequacy of advising, mentoring relationships, collaborative research, etc. Now, all of these things (including the claim that research and grant-writing are the tasks that get rewarded for R1 tenured faculty) may be true, but they are not likely true at Hope or the schools where I have worked.

    The statistics on adjuncts are made more complicated by by institutional type: community colleges and adult degree completion programs at four-year institutions are heavily staffed by "practitioner faculty." In fact, some programs require them--nursing, for example, which has requirements for clinical faculty who are nurses operating in the healthcare system. In other cases, students prefer them--business programs, for example.

    The situation of adjuncts is indeed a matter where issues of justice come to the foreground. But ambiguous evidence and sweeping claims that overlook some of these issues make it possible to discount the merit of the adjunct case.
    Richard Sherry

    Richard Sherry
  • The shift at universities and colleges to low-cost labor that provides for the job-holder reduced benefits and little commitment from the institutions goes far beyond instruction. Over the course of my career, I have seen institutions "outsource" jobs in more and more areas. Custodial, landscaping, food-services, and traffic & parking jobs have been contracted out. Jobs that, as university positions, once came with decent pay, good benefits, and some job security are now minimum wage positions with no job security and poor (or no) benefits. The institutions, under financial pressures caused by a variety of factors (declining state support, the now fevered competition to attract students with baubles like climbing walls, and the desire for high standing in very flawed rankings) have been complicitous in this transition. The increasing reliance on adjunct teaching is part of a larger trend.

    Donald Hubin
  • This an excellent essay that summarizes many of the trial and tribulations adjuncts must go through in their teaching journey. As adjunct I always felt under-appreciated by the college. Always calling at the last minute and it is a a take-it-or-leave it situation as if they are doing you a favor. Despite all the so called adjunct support the fact is that it is non-existent. There is nothing more perverse than going to teach your class just to come back home to look at your mail. The meager paycheck is there but so are the unpaid bills and rude collector calls demanding payment. Sadly many colleges today proudly claim that, except for faculty chairs, most of their faculty are adjuncts; therefore they say their education is "affordable". There is another fact that adjuncts are taken for granted and when a position is opened they are mostly ignored. Have seen some being mislead and had to quit after being ignored by the selection committee. Sorry you are good enough to be teaching for 8 years or more but not to be tenured faculty. No matter how disguised this problem is the fact remains it is a highly skilled job that is being underpaid and as such it has a negative impact on the individual well-being and likely on students as this constant struggle limits the full potential performance of the adjunct.
    Finally I think Mr. Pannapacker should send this essay to the e-forum by Representative Miller on adjunct faculty.

    fermin ornelas
  • What's with this meme about climbing walls? What is wrong with climbing walls? They are pretty inexpensive to install, require little maintenance, can be used 24/7. Compare that with baseball, football and soccer fields: high maintenance, labor intensive, real estate demanding. Or university golf courses? How about those at Stanford, Duke, Maryland, Purdue, Yale, Texas Tech, Ohio State?

    I'll guess that Professor Pannapacker has never tried a climbing wall. I haven't, but I've sure seen a lot of students eagerly using one. Good for them! Don't we want our students to be physically fit?

    I'll also guess that he doesn't eat sushi. (Can you even get good sushi in Holland Michigan?) That's fine with me, not one of my favorites. But out here on the West Coast, at least, sushi is completely ordinary. My two nearby big chain store supermarkets have sushi, as do about half of the convenience stores I use in town. And, it seems like a fairly healthy and reasonably priced food choice for students: probably better than fries, chicken wings, mac and cheese, and ice cream.

    Chuck Kleinhans
  • This is an excellent essay and cannot be criticized for any fundamental flaw. In particular, any reference to "the current economic climate," is entirely misplaced: the adjunctification of the faculty has proceeded at a steady pace for more than forty years, and therefore, unless "current" means anything that's happened in the past four decades, through good times and bad, it's not very useful. And, of course, if "current" does mean that, it's not very useful either. People are beginning to realize that there is no decent or rational defense for the current mess, that its continuance will destroy higher education, and that it must be confronted and corrected and the damage reversed. Dr. Alan Trevithick, adjunct professor of sociology and anthropology, Westchester Community College, Laguardia Community College, and Fordham University.

    Alan Trevithick
  • I wholeheartedly concur with many of Pannapacker's points. But as an associate professor, he has tenure, and unless he was toiling as an under-appreciated adjunct for many years previously, I must discount his implied firsthand knowledge about adjuncts. No one knows the indignities, frustrations, and penury suffered by most adjuncts until they become one.

    Also, why hasn't anyone pointed out the stark irony of most tenured and full-time faculty's barely disguised scorn for adjuncts over the decades with most tenured and full-time faculty's open scorn for MOOCs currently? In the minds of most tenured and full-time faculty, both adjuncts and MOOCs represent an economic threat to them. The difference is that adjuncts are regarded as the hapless eunuchs of academe, easily abused or neglected, while MOOCs are deemed a formidable, eminently potent opponent more than a match for castration knife-wielding tenured and full-time faculty. Whether MOOCs succeed or fail, adjuncts will still lose. Call it not an occasional dip in morality but a systemic program of incessant immorality.

    Ray James
  • Academia is among the last of the guild professions (along with medical doctors). What is occurring to instructors in Higher Education is the same economic trend that began with textile workers in England in the 18th century and has slowly and steadily worked its way through the other guilds. A medieval "craft" is being reduced to an "industrialized", lower skilled position via automation and the division of labor. Adjuncts, MOOC's, Online/Distance education, larger classroom sizes, less 1 on 1 instruction and advising, are all part of the same trend. Reduce production costs and increase the output. Is quality being sacrificed? Yes, but the market is willing to accept a temporary decline in quality for reduced pricing, trusting that quality will improve over time as technocrats make the system more efficient. Where does this process end? Perhaps it ends with the division of degrees into 2 separate classes; ivy covered, full tenure instructed "First Class" degrees, and the online, adjunct led, "Economy" degrees. But only if the market begins to place a higher value on the former, and stop recognizing the latter as being its equal. Until then the trend continues unabated.

    Thomas Gahr
  • "Perhaps it ends with the division of degrees into 2 separate classes; ivy covered, full tenure instructed 'First Class' degrees, and the online, adjunct led, 'Economy' degrees. But only if the market begins to place a higher value on the former, and stop recognizing the latter as being its equal": Thomas Gahr's wished-for bifurcation of tenured/full-time faculty and adjuncts reminds me of this famous line: "All men are created equal, but some are more equal than others." Can you guess what classic literary work this quote comes from? The correct answer will tell you something about the disturbing subtext of Gahr's remark.

    Ray James
  • The observation that "the lack of long-term faculty relationships with students reduces the connection that alumni feel to their alma mater" is absolutely crucial. The increasing dependence on adjunct labor is an expression of short-term thinking. It may save money for now, but what is going to happen to the institution in the long run? The situation is analogous to that of a starving person whose body, in a desperate attempt to stay alive, begins to consume its own organs. Yeah, that will keep you going for a while, but in the end, it will kill you.

    Marilyn Foley
  • Ray James, I take issue with your comment "Thomas Gahr's wished-for bifurcation of tenured/full-time faculty and adjuncts". I am not advocating, or wishing for the day. I am merely making an observation based upon the facts in front of us. Something that academics did once upon a time.

    Thomas Gahr