Non-Tenure-Track Faculty On What It's Like in the Field

The word “adjunct” can be used to describe very different types of faculty members, from those who teach a handful of classes at multiple schools to those who have long-term appointments at single schools to those who teach one or two classes a year.
WE TALKED TO FOUR SUCH FACULTY to get their perspectives on what it means to be an adjunct, what value they bring to the school, and what they might like to see changed.

Sean Stein Smith has been an adjunct on a part-time basis at two New Jersey schools, Fairleigh Dickinson in Teaneck and Montclair State. This fall he joins the full-time faculty at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey.

Wasim Azhar is currently a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, as well as the director of the Excellence Exchange at the Center for Teaching Excellence. He’s held a variety of positions in academia over the decades, including being a ladder faculty member at both Stanford University and Berkeley, and a dean at the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan.

Frank Schultz is a continuing lecturer at the Haas School. Once he earned his doctorate, he planned to become a tenure-track research professor, but found he enjoyed teaching far more than research; he is now in his 12th year at Haas.

Ellen François is an affiliated guest faculty member at Grenoble Ecole de Management with specializations in virtual learning and instructional design. Together, these four teachers offer five key observations about the place of adjunct professors in today’s business schools.

BUSINESS SCHOOLS IN GENERAL DO A GOOD JOB OF DEFINING THE ROLES THAT ADJUNCTS AND PROFESSIONAL FACULTY PLAY—BUT THEY COULD DO BETTER.

For instance, François notes that, even though her school provides a handbook, it’s not always clear what her responsibilities are and what responsibilities fall to other personnel. In addition, she says, the documentation doesn’t cover certain situations, such as how to discipline students.

On the other hand, Smith says, “I have received all the support I needed to make best use of university resources, and whenever I have had questions, they’ve been answered in a timely manner. Participating in university events and other programs is encouraged, and I have been kept informed of possible opportunities for involvement via email and other web-based tools.”

While Azhar finds the administrative staff at Berkeley very helpful to the professional faculty, he does note that the amount of helpfulness depends on the individual. “The chairs vary in the amount of contact they have with faculty and how open they are,” he says. “They vary from being excellent to just OK.”

ADJUNCTS ADD VALUE TO THE SCHOOL IN MANY WAYS.

Three benefits are especially important, says Azhar: They bring in real-world experience; they help fill academic gaps; and they represent more economical hires than full-time, tenure-track faculty.

Their deep connections to industry also enhance the educational environment, says Smith. “From writing articles in practitioner publications, speaking at conferences, and being active in local and state associations, I can bring current news and up-to-date information to the classroom.”

Schultz views his role as one that works at the nexus of research and practice. For that reason, he keeps up with the latest research and finds ways to make it accessible. “I spend maybe one-fifth of every class looking at what’s going on in the business world,” he says. “I want to challenge my students with questions like, ‘So, how can you apply this theory to what’s going on as Microsoft acquires LinkedIn?’”

However, industry connections are more crucial in some disciplines than others. Says Azhar, “For example, entrepreneurship is an area where schools can get tremendous help from professional faculty. That might not be true in the field of economics.”

ADJUNCTS HAVE A VARIETY OF REASONS FOR TAKING THE JOB.

Some, like Azhar, have had long careers in academia and are looking for slower-paced positions that keep them in the field. But there are many other reasons, he adds: Some want the extra income. And some are practitioners who want to be on campus to keep up with developments in the field.

Some, like Schultz, love to teach, but don’t enjoy doing research. “When I realized I could stay at a top-quality research institution based on my teaching, not my research, that was very liberating for me,” he says.

For his part, Smith embraces the job because it offers “an opportunity to develop as a professional, share my passion for the field, and help empower the next generation of business professionals.”

THERE ARE DRAWBACKS TO BEING AN ADJUNCT.

Some relate to having abbreviated time with students. For instance, Smith notes that his part-time position affords him little chance to create continuity with students, so he misses out on the connections that are “a great intangible benefit of teaching.”

Some relate to the institution. François finds it frustrating to be left off relevant communication and having to discover information through informal channels. Schultz would appreciate greater decision-making authority and having “more of a say” in issues important to the faculty and the school.

Some relate to colleagues. Azhar notes that professional faculty often have difficulty gaining credibility with some of the ladder faculty, not all of whom appreciate the role that adjuncts play. He suggests that one way for schools to make sure adjuncts are viewed favorably is to give them “respectable” titles.

RELATIONS DEFINITELY COULD BE IMPROVED.

The best way to make adjuncts feel closer connections to their schools, say these faculty, is to facilitate interactions between all faculty, in formal and informal settings.

Says Smith, “The best suggestion I would give to both tenure-track and adjunct faculty is to always keep an open mind and listen to new ideas. Fresh perspectives and different points of view are what create a dynamic and engaging student experience. They also create a workplace that is attractive to staff, faculty, and administration.”

François believes schools could benefit if they capitalize on whatever additional expertise their adjuncts possess. “For example, I have a strong background in adult learning, instructional design, facilitation, and virtual learning, and that knowledge could be put to use to benefit faculty members who are not strong in classroom teaching.”

Schultz thinks that any school attempting to create a better relationship with its adjuncts could take two steps: Abandon the mindset that adjuncts are cost-saving hires, and try to create long-term relationships.

However, administrators who followed that advice would have to relinquish some of the control they keep over course design and content, says Schultz. “I understand why administrators want control, but it’s a reinforcing loop,” he says. “They’ve had great turnover from semester to semester, so they want to standardize across a plethora of faculty. Whereas if they give up a bit of control and develop longer-term relationships with faculty, they won’t have as much turnover.”

Schultz adds, “I feel pretty lucky to have discovered this career path that I didn’t know existed, and I’d love to see others have similar opportunities. I think there is a need for people who enjoy teaching and connect well with students to be able to do it at a top level.”