The following is a guest post by Donald Rogers. Rogers is the chair of the Organization of American Historians Committee on Part-Time, Adjunct and Contingent Faculty, and serves as the OAH liaison to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce. He is currently serving as an Assistant Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University.
Recently, the Delphi Project brought an important report on “The Changing Faculty and Student Success” that demands our careful attention and discussion. Here’s what I personally think about it from my vantage point as a long-time contingent faculty member and as chair of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Committee on Part-Time, Adjunct and Contingent Faculty.
The Delphi Project is funded by various foundations and is spearheaded by Adrianna Kezar in conjunction with the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. As I understand it, Delphi’s report aims to think in big terms about the future shape of American higher education, given the radical changes in the composition of the faculty workforce that have taken place in the past fifty years. The report is thus premised on figures that we are all familiar with: tenure-track faculty nowadays constitute just 33.5 percent of faculty, as compared to 18.8 percent non-tenure-track full-timers and 47.7 percent adjuncts.
Based on this change, the report asks what I think is exactly the right question for those of us in higher education to ponder: what connection is there between poor working conditions of the 66.5 percent proportion of contingent faculty and student learning outcomes? The report is thus not about documenting contingent instructors’ difficult working conditions or about making them more equitable—we already know those details—but about addressing their impact is on the quality of education rendered.
On this crucial point, I am disappointed to say, the report is little more than suggestive. In my judgment, the report’s real strength is to propose processes to ferret out more reliable data about contingent faculty working conditions, to raise the consciousness of higher education leaders, to coordinate the activities of “stake holding” professional groups, and, most importantly, to re-envision not only the future role of the faculty, but also the future shape of higher education institutions themselves. The array of action steps suggested is very rich. Some of the more intriguing steps include rethinking the “three-tier” tenured/non-tenured permanent/adjunct structure of the modern faculty and adopting a multilayered approach to institutional change ranging from the campus level to university systems to accrediting agencies.
Having said all of this—and I am just speaking for myself here—three interrelated aspects of the report trouble me, and so I urge a very cautious reading of this report.
First, I am troubled by the report’s top-down methodology. The report talks about relying on the resources of “stakeholders,” defining stakeholders as “academic leaders and system heads, leaders from higher education professional associations and academic unions, disciplinary associations, and accrediting agencies, as well as education researchers, economists, and organizations representing non-tenure-track faculty.” (pp. 3-4) While the report does put unions and groups representing non-tenure track faculty at the table, the “stakeholders” are dominated by administrators and experts, while the voices of the real stakeholders, the work-a-day faculty and especially contingent full-timers and adjuncts, are largely ignored. Were faculty committees in various professional societies like the OAH or Modern Language Association to be included? What about students and their parents, the end users of the higher education system? The report shows a strong lack of perspective from operational level of higher education, which I think ought to remedied.
Second, I am concerned with the report’s “one-size-fits-all” approach to envisioning the problems of and solutions to the modern faculty workforce composition. Those of us at the OAH are very sensitive to vast diversity of higher education institutions, some of which employ few contingent faculty and some of which hire many, and all of which use them in different ways from place to place. When I presented the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) issue brief to the OAH executive board several years ago, the esteemed faculty on the board confronted me with very pertinent worries that the brief did not adequately consider different kinds of institutions. Their well-taken point ought to be applied to the Delphi Project report. More attention, in my judgment, needs to be given to tremendous diversity and complexity of modern American higher education, especially the very uneven way in which faculty workforce restructuring has affected different institutions and different kinds of institutions.
Third and finally, I was especially disappointed at the report’s sparse treatment of the big question—the impact of a contingent workforce on student learning outcomes. Surprisingly, given this question’s centrality, the report has just a little to say. At one point, the report asserts that measuring student learning outcomes is elusive and that relating it to the contingent labor force difficult (p. 17), and at another point it just hints at ways that contingent hiring affects teaching quality, such as late scheduling of courses (obviating preparation time), lack of professional development support, lack of contingent faculty accessibility outside of class, or lack of contingent faculty role in curricular decision making (p. 3).
These suggestions are good, but they just barely expose the tip of the iceberg. Other considerations ought to include the way in which underpaid contingents’ struggle to make a living hinders their teaching efforts, the manner in which spotty office space and administrative support affects their instructional duties, or the fact that most contingents teach survey classes over and over among beginning students, putting contingent faculty out of touch with advanced work in their disciplines. There is a real need, in my judgment, for the investigators of the Delphi Project to take a much closer look at the operational level of higher education. They need to look at changing student capabilities, the size of classes, the day-to-day interactions between students and contingents, and the effect of contingent faculty members’ concrete working conditions on instruction. Most important is student learning. Is there really a difference between learning outcomes in contingents’ classes and full-time tenure track faculty’s classes? Data on this is scarce and vague.
In sum—again, just speaking for myself—I found the Delphi Project report to be very stimulating, and a good starting point for discussion, but not by any means the final answer to the problems that we face with the contingent workforce. In my view, CAW and professional societies need to steer the attention of projects like this one much more toward the day-to-day work of contingent faculty and their students, and to look much more persistently at the nitty-gritty employment conditions that contingent faculty endure day-by-day to do their teaching jobs well.