Major Problems Result from the Growing Use of Part-Time and Adjunct Faculty
Maxine Lurie, March 2003
From the Noteworthy column of the March 2003 Perspectives
Editor's Note: This article by the former chair of the Joint AHA-OAH Committee on Part-Time and Adjunct Employment, which appeared in the February 2003 issue of the OAH Newsletter (and in its online version, available at http://www.oah.org/pubs/nl/2003feb/lurie.html), is being reprinted here by courtesy of the OAH, which holds the copyright.
Concern about the increasing number of historians teaching as part-time/adjunct faculty led to the creation of a permanent Joint AHA-OAH Committee on Part-Time and Adjunct Employment in January 2002. This was preceded by a series of temporary AHA committees. My involvement started early in 2000 when AHA President Eric Foner asked if, as an elected member of the AHA Teaching Division, I would serve on an ad hoc committee dealing with part-time/adjunct faculty issues. For two years I was cochair of that committee with him, and then for a year the chair of the now permanent joint committee. As a result, for the past three years I have participated in numerous conversations about part-time/adjunct employment as an assortment of committee members have wrestled with what is for the profession a serious and growing problem.
I confess that when I was first asked I hesitated before saying yes. Now that my term is over I think that this has been one of the most important and most difficult things I have done. The issues are serious, feelings on them run high, and solutions are not easy. Because I was part-time/adjunct faculty for more than 20 years (a result of gender, the job market, and family commitments), and because I am now a department chair hiring part-time/adjunct faculty, my perspective runs in several directions at the same time. The anger and pain of those caught in the often unfair and demeaning gristmill of such employment resonates, as does the frustration that comes from trying to be fair while being circumscribed by institutional policies. I agreed to participate in the committee's work because I knew the problems from personal experience. After doing so, I am more than ever convinced that both the AHA and the OAH must take a role in finding solutions. The implications, as the committee has concluded, are enormous for everyone concerned-part-time/adjunct faculty, full-time faculty, students, and institutions of higher learning.
The Part-Time Committee over the last three years has consisted primarily of those who are, or who have in the past, taught part-time. This has been important because the committee has heard, sometimes in very angry tones, from those who have struggled with the problems. Officers, staff, and members of both the OAH and the AHA need to hear this alternative view rather than that of those who are at the top of the profession. The litany of problems include abysmally low pay, often total lack of benefits (medical coverage is frequently the most pressing need, but the lack of pension funds has serious long range implications), ineligibility for grants or travel money (to help with research that just might make escape possible), poor or no office space or assistance, lack of computers (as technology becomes ever more important), and sometimes no library access. Teaching is not easy under these circumstances, scholarly research nearly impossible, self-esteem low, and financial survival difficult.
Wrestling with these problems is complicated by the fact that there are those who prefer to teach part-time; proposed solutions need to leave this possibility open. This includes retired faculty still engaged with the discipline, those with other full-time employment or family responsibilities, as well as graduate students working to complete their degrees. There are also small departments that can only offer a specialized course with a part-time/adjunct employee. The other side of the picture is the numerous institutions dealing with financial cuts by hiring a large number of teachers at very low wages, who then try to survive by piecing together jobs at several institutions. These sweatshop workers are gambling on their futures, and paying with their labor so that others get an education-at their expense. No wonder many become angry and alienated.
The Part-Time Committee, naturally enough (given its membership), has concentrated on how unfair this system is to those caught up in it. However, in a report submitted to the OAH and AHA last spring, the committee emphasized the wider impact. Increased reliance on part-time faculty means that graduate students increasingly face an unpleasant future (and as they realize it there will be fewer graduate students), that the smaller number of full-time faculty become increasingly responsible for more institutional tasks. Consider what the difference would be if you were in a department with 25 full-time faculty covering 100 classes in a semester, as contrasted with one of 10 full-time and 30 part-time members (or 11 full-time and 77 part-time, currently the case at two New Jersey institutions). How many can advise, serve on committees, recruit, fund raise, and deal with accreditation? Students, if they are lucky, get an underpaid PhD teacher, if not an appallingly low-paid person teaching out of field. They are more likely to have someone who spends time traveling from one campus to another, has less time for teaching tasks, gives few or no papers, submits inflated grades (to insure they have a job the next semester), and is not there in two or three years to write a letter of recommendation. Institutions, whose reputations depend on the scholarship of their faculty, have less to brag about. I could continue, but the point is that this does have an impact on all of us in the profession whether we realize it or not.
Solutions need to go in two directions. One is to halt and reverse the bleeding of full-time positions. The second is to make life better and fairer for those who do teach part-time. The committee's recommendations to the OAH and AHA include provisions for a limit on the percentage of part-time faculty in a department, for increased salaries (as a percentage of what is paid full-time faculty), benefits, office space, and so on. Having the recommendations accepted is just the first step. The harder task ahead will be to convince those in control of the purse strings that this is necessary—not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because education in this country will seriously suffer in the long run if it is not done.
—Maxine N. Lurie is associate professor of history at Seton Hall University and was until recently chair of the Joint AHA-OAH Committee on Part-Time and Adjunct Employment.