A Broader Look at Adjunct Faculty

How adjunct faculty are deployed in the university and how that affects student learning.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSITY, the use of adjunct professors is on the rise—and that’s a trend with many troubling consequences, says Adrianna Kezar, professor for higher education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education. Much of her research centers around how adjunct faculty are deployed in the university and how that affects student learning.

She recently co-authored “The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success,” a report that includes statistics about how the typical breakdown of faculty has changed at American universities in the past four decades. For instance, in 1969, tenured and tenure-track positions made up about 78.3 percent of faculty; in 2009, that number was 33.5 percent.

The rise of adjunct faculty was sparked by many factors, she believes, including a desire to hold down costs by hiring less-expensive faculty for more positions. Adjuncts also provide flexibility, allowing a school to try out a new course without committing the time of tenure-track faculty. In addition, adjuncts shoulder much of the burden of online teaching, which some full-time faculty have been reluctant to undertake.

“But the biggest reason for the increasing popularity of adjuncts is that the mission of the enterprise has shifted from research to teaching over the past 50 years, but tenure-track faculty continue to be socialized and trained in research,” says Kezar. “The enterprise needs teachers.”

Unfortunately, a rise in the number of adjuncts corresponds to a rise in negative outcomes, according to her research. For instance, when students take many courses with non-tenure-track faculty, or attend schools with high numbers of non-tenured faculty, they have lower graduation and retention rates. In addition, students at two-year schools are less likely to transfer to four-year colleges if they’ve had many courses with adjuncts.

These problems generally don’t arise because adjuncts are poor teachers, Kezar says. But many must hold down multiple jobs in order to earn a reasonable salary, which makes it more difficult for them to meet the learning goals of a particular institution; and many are not integrated well into the life of the school, so they remain isolated and unaware of the resources at their disposal.

The good news is that these problems are not nearly as pervasive in business schools, she says, where accreditation standards offer clear guidance on how adjuncts should be used. It’s also common for business schools to seek out adjuncts who are practitioners with real-world experience. “That’s not always the reasoning for other departments, who are often just looking for a cheap form of labor,” she notes.

But even schools that are doing an excellent job of hiring and deploying adjuncts probably could do more to support them, says Kezar, who offers these tips:

Collect data. Deans and administrators need to understand their own hiring patterns, Kezar says, so they’ll know how many adjuncts they typically have, when they were brought on board, how many were last-minute hires, and how many are teaching a course for the first time. “If administrators see that they’re bringing in a lot of people at the last minute, they might try to change that pattern,” she suggests, because last-minute hires will be the least well-prepared to teach a class.

Mentor adjuncts to improve their teaching skills. Many, particularly practitioners, have little classroom experience and could use basic pointers. This is especially true when they’re teaching their first classes, or the first classes in a new subject.

Provide resources. This might mean connecting the practitioner to a faculty member who has previously taught the course and who will answer questions and offer sample syllabi. It might mean creating material that provides detailed answers to questions that students frequently ask, especially in introductory courses. “The school should provide adjuncts with information in areas where early students are likely to need advising and support,” says Kezar.

She adds, “Unlike tenure-track faculty, who benefit from purposeful and ongoing professional development, adjuncts need just-in-time development. Adjuncts don’t know what to ask for, because they don’t know what they need. That means administrators need to be aware of what kind of help to give them.”

One way schools can address many of these issues is to create an adjunct portal, says Kezar. The portal could include links to helpful sites, videos about how to teach a case-based course, and answers to a wide range of FAQs.

“How do you get the best parking on a Friday afternoon? What do you do when the technology doesn’t work in your classroom? Adjuncts don’t have the time or bandwidth to go from person to person trying to find out answers,” says Kezar.

Despite the potential problems, Kezar sees adjuncts as essential. “We’ve always had adjuncts in higher education, and they fill a really important role,” she says. “They’re connected to real-world issues and problems, and they will always be able to enrich the curriculum development discussion by providing cutting-edge examples of current issues and problems. Just as important, they can help students secure jobs and internships. Where we’ve gone wayward is in the recent expansion and unthoughtful deployment of adjuncts at too many departments and schools. I think we’re actually jeopardizing the historic and positive role that adjuncts have always played.”