10/31/2012 10:07 am ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

A Reality Check on Academe's Adjuncts


Teaching part-time for America's universities must be something akin to blogging for the Huffington Post. More a privilege than a career. You cannot feed a family doing either, yet many crave the opportunity.

Especially at America's most renowned urban research universities, there are as many adjuncts as mainstream faculty. One group has grown to reflect the realities of the other. As expectations of America's faculty increasingly focused on scholarship, they needed to be freed from teaching to generate research articles. In the ensuing bidding war for those most renowned in their fields, faculty saw their salaries escalate as their teaching loads declined. The university needed to subsidize this growing cost -- and did so with a far cheaper labor force. And often found these replacements were equally effective and beloved in the classroom.

Unions have targeted these adjuncts for collective bargaining. This perhaps assumes this population is monolithic. In fact, the availability of so many to teach part-time is not simply a sign of PhD oversupply. Not all adjuncts are faculty wannabes who crave any opportunity to enter the inner sanctum of academe.

It is true that the faculty job market in many disciplines far favors the buyer over the seller. Schools can cherry pick their full-timers from the most prestigious doctoral programs. They admittedly choose their candidates by pedigree, and shun those who have toiled at lesser schools for their education or entry level teaching. Given that it can easily take a decade to complete a doctorate, and that only about half who start do so, it is remarkable how small and elusive the pot of gold is at the end.

Some adjuncts, who otherwise long to be full-time in academe, cobble together a teaching load in major metropolitan areas, such as Boston, by teaching many courses at many institutions. Their combined teaching loads could be two or three times that of someone with a full-time salary and benefits. Their teaching invariably confronts the possibility of diminishing returns: the more taught, the less attention potentially paid to each class. They also suffer the indignity of appearing anonymously as "staff" rather than with their actual name in the college's published schedule -- and are often recruited a week or two before the semester begins to teach a course.

Even though this scenario makes for good media stories, these de facto full-time faculty are perhaps just a minority of the adjunct troops that teach America's students. Others have day jobs, careers and professions, or at-home responsibilities that make occasional teaching appealing. Some are between jobs and use part-time teaching as a means to stay engaged. Others see this as a stimulating counterweight to the drudgery of otherwise un-stimulating salaried jobs.

Their primary allegiance, aspirations, and identity might be elsewhere - but they enjoy teaching as an extracurricular activity (so to speak) in and around other commitments. Practicing lawyers who always wanted to teach young students on the realities of legal system. IT professionals who challenge smart computer science students with the latest technologies. Stay-at-home parents who need to get out of the house both personally and professionally. Writers and artists who wish to devote their majority time to their craft. Retirees who yearn to stay engaged in their fields. Advanced doctoral students who see teaching as opportunities to build experience and a resume for their future career.

These moonlighters expand the pool of potential adjuncts and drive down their salary -- since these are not necessarily in it for the money. They are more likely to find the stipend frosting on the cake, and a rather ironic way that universities recognize the hundreds of hours they invest in their teaching. Campuses magnetically now draw students and faculty of all ages and backgrounds. It is a tribute to their appeal that so many wish to spend part of their precious leisure time in the classroom.

Paying part-time faculty more is not only fair but leverage to raise expectations -- to make sure that they are providing a rigorous and relevant education, with high standards and expectations for their students. I hold regular Faculty Roundtables for informal conversation with those who teach at my college -- and I am always in awe of those their teaching so seriously and devote so much of themselves to their students. I often wonder if deans and department chairs truly invest enough time to selecting and nurturing their part-time faculty -- who, after all, are as much the stewards of the institution's reputation and value as the full-time faculty. I am amazed how few presentations or discussions there are at academic conferences on selecting and motivating part-time faculty. Even though the part-time teaching market may be a buyers' market, the reality is that this is the new faculty majority of fellow travelers honored to be part of the university's mission. And their institutions' quality and public image might rest on their contribution.

Jay A. Halfond is Dean of Metropolitan College at Boston University.