Colleges hiring more part-time faculty
Published: Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 11, 2012 11:04
ST. LOUIS - When college administrators explain why they hire part-time faculty, instead of pricier full-timers, they often conjure images of instructors such as Kim Rensing, who teaches criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
A lawyer who spent a decade in the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office, Rensing has a wealth of real-world experiences not typically found among academics who spend their entire lives in and around classrooms.
“It gives me an advantage over someone who’s never practiced,” said Rensing, who’s been an adjunct instructor at UMSL since 2007.
For a university without its own law school, Rensing represents an inexpensive way to add expertise to the faculty roster. She needs no office. No phone. Only a mailbox and a university email account. And best of all, she’s paid just a small portion of what a full tenured professor would cost.
Part-timers such as Rensing have long been fixtures on college campuses. But cash-strapped schools are increasingly turning to such adjuncts - generally defined as instructors paid on a class-by-class basis - while looking for ways to educate record numbers of students.
And while most agree that adjuncts make fine teachers, some critics say the trend is hurting students by depriving them of the mentoring and stability provided by professional faculty. It doesn’t help, they say, that the rise in adjuncts coincides with ever-rising higher education costs.
“Students are paying more and getting less,” said Howard Bunsis, secretary treasurer of the American Association of University Professors.
A look at nine of the St. Louis region’s top institutions shows that adjunct hiring soared from 2002 to 2011, with the ranks of these part-timers increasing by 10 percent to 50 percent at most of the schools. The University of Missouri-Columbia, for example, saw a 48.4 percent increase, while the University of Missouri-St. Louis recorded a 55.8 percent jump.
Administrators can point out several advantages offered by adjuncts, but it seems that much of the increase can be attributed - in one way or another - to nationwide cost-cutting efforts by schools coping with financial hardship.
“The shift away from full-time faculty is just something - except at the richest institutions - that is going to continue to occur,” said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell University Higher Education Research Institute. “That’s a cost savings thing. It’s as simple as that.”
The world of higher education teaching contains many layers and titles, including professors, assistant professors, associate professors, instructors and lecturers. Details can differ from school to school, but at the upper end of the faculty spectrum is the tenured professor - someone with a great deal of job security who divides her time between teaching, research and service activities such as student advising. Pay varies widely by school, but at the larger institutions, can easily exceed $100,000 for full professors.
At the lower end of the spectrum are adjuncts, who gets paid a few thousand dollars each semester to teach a class. Even if the adjuncts teach a full load of four classes a semester, they are unlikely to get even half of the tenured professor’s paycheck. And they generally work on one-semester or one-year contracts, giving them virtually no job security and, often, no benefits.
Their ranks include UMSL’s Susan Crowe, who teaches a couple of courses on western art. She recently finished her master’s degree in art history, plans to pursue a doctorate next year and hopes to one day teach full time.
But with such jobs becoming harder to find, she knows it won’t be easy. Already, she is preparing for the possibility that she’ll have to pick up classes at other area schools in the fall.
For now, teaching two classes is workable, because her husband provides a second, stronger income.
“But this is not a model we’ll be sustaining,” Crowe said. “We don’t get paid a lot of money, but I do enjoy what I do.”
Administrators generally prefer not to dwell on the saving.
“I don’t know that we have anybody hiring adjuncts just to save money,” said Glen Hahn Cope, UMSL’s provost. “It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that some departments would do it to save money. I’m just not aware of it.”
Instead, they like to talk about the advantages of adjuncts at a time of unprecedented college enrollment.
At Mizzou, for example, enrollment has risen nearly 30 percent since 2002. That’s created the demand for the sort of short-term flexibility offered by adjuncts, said Michael O’Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science.
“When we get flooded with new students, it’s a blessing,” O’Brien said. “You certainly don’t want to hire people and have to lay them off later.”
Others say adjuncts are an important element of higher education, allowing instructors such as UMSL’s Rensing to give students real-world insights.
That’s a key component of the educational mission at Webster University, where adjuncts outnumber full-time instructors 700 to 200, said Julian Schuster, the school’s provost.