William Pannapacker

DuMez Professor of English 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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