Adjuncts and Accrediting Commissions: Unlikely Allies?
Rusty Monhollon, January 2006
In 2003, the AHA's Council endorsed standards regarding the employment of part-time and contingent faculty. The standards, prepared by the joint AHA-OAH Committee on Part-time and Adjunct Employment (CPAE), included guidelines for universities to determine the appropriate proportion of courses taught by contingent faculty, to secure fair treatment in pay, and to provide proper administrative support—office space; library privileges; and access to computer, telephone, and copier facilities—to these instructors.1
The CPAE's report emerged from the alarming trend, in history and other academic fields, of replacing tenure-track faculty with nontenured and part-time instructors. This practice has resulted in significantly fewer lines of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty, which means that a larger percentage of college-level courses are being taught by contingent faculty. Data from the 2001–02 AHA Survey of History Departments indicates, for instance, that full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty taught less than 50 percent of all introductory history courses and less than 60 percent of all history courses. At PhD-granting institutions full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty taught 36.1 percent of the introductory courses and 53 percent of all history courses, with contingent faculty teaching nearly two-thirds of the intro courses and 47 percent of all courses. The CPAE standards recommend that research institutions have contingent faculty (including graduate students) teach about 20 percent, and not more than 30 percent, of their history courses. At four-year institutions, the standards recommend contingent faculty teach about 10 percent, and not more than 20 percent, of the history courses. According to the AHA survey, these types of institutions came closer to meeting these recommendations but still fell short, as full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty taught 65.1 percent of introductory classes and 73 percent of all history courses. The figures for community colleges were similarly skewed. The AHA standards recommend 30 percent as ideal, and 40 percent as the maximum, yet tenured or tenure-track faculty taught only 50.2 percent of the introductory courses and 48 percent of all history courses.2
Convincing universities and colleges to adopt and adhere to these standards will not be easy, even though it is in their best long-term interests to do so. While many administrators are aware of the problem, they often face great pressure—from governing boards and state legislatures, for example—to cut costs by using part-time and contingent faculty. We must find allies and make them aware of the danger this issue poses to institutions of higher education. Students and their parents are potential allies, and that is one area in which we should direct our efforts. Other potential allies are the higher education accrediting commissions, whose influence on the institutions themselves could be a powerful tool in addressing the problem.
Every 10 years, institutions of higher education undergo a rigorous process of accreditation by accrediting commissions in their region. The purpose of accreditation is to assure the public that colleges and universities meet certain standards of quality and integrity, in areas such as institutional resources, leadership and governance, educational offerings, admissions, student support services, and faculty. At the end of a successful accreditation process, current and future students, parents, faculty, and alumni are assured that their school has met those standards, the same ones by which other schools are also measured. The process of accreditation closely examines and evaluates an institution's finances, governance, faculty, and resources, among others, but the goal is to assess the institution as a whole.
Pared to its core, accreditation assesses an institution's commitment to maintain the quality and integrity of higher education. The practice of replacing tenure-track faculty with contingent faculty speaks directly to the quality and integrity of higher education. As colleges rely more heavily on part-time instructors, they face the prospect of creating what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has called "a permanent underclass of contingent faculty."3 The costs, Hall warns, are great. Departments become more fragmented as the smaller pool of tenure-track faculty shoulder greater responsibility for departmental and university governance, curriculum development, and student advising, to name a few. These trends, Hall notes, threaten not only "the already diminished power of the faculty and the viability of tenure" but also, and perhaps most importantly, the sense of community and collegiality, which is vital to the academic mission.
This is not a criticism of part-time instructors, who, overwhelmingly, are dedicated and highly skilled, nor is it a criticism of the quality of teaching they deliver. But the fact is that contingent faculty typically are not only paid too little but are also not integrated fully into the campus community. They usually are not paid to advise students or even to hold office hours, and they are not asked to serve on committees or to be involved in department or division issues such as curriculum development and hiring. As they often teach at more than one institution, they are hampered in their efforts to conduct research or to stay abreast of new scholarship in their fields. An institution that relies excessively on contingent faculty, no matter the dedication and expertise of those instructors, is diluting the quality of the education it provides.
Although they have not gone far enough, accrediting agencies have at least acknowledged the increased use of adjunct faculty in their accreditation standards. For example, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education's (MSCHE) standards for Faculty notes that in "some institutions, functions previously assumed to be a part of traditional faculty roles are now the responsibility of other qualified professionals," by which it means part-time and adjunct instructors. It asserts that "[in] institutions relying on part-time, adjunct, temporary and other faculty on time-limited contracts, employment policies and practices should be as carefully developed and communicated as those for full-time faculty. The greater the dependence on such employees, the greater is the institutional responsibility to provide orientation, oversight, evaluation, professional development, and opportunities for integration into the life of the institution." Similarly, Standard 4 (Faculty) of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NCCU) Accreditation requires schools that employ part-time and adjunct faculty to ensure that they are appropriately qualified. Moreover, it mandates that institutions regularly periodically assess their policies regarding the use of part-time and adjunct faculty in fulfilling institutional goals. 4
Interestingly, while these standards acknowledge that part-time faculty should be treated equitably they do not address what effect the widespread use of contingent faculty has on the institution as a whole. Both MSCHE and NCCU, for example, make similar assertions about the role and responsibility of the faculty. Both contend that the faculty is central to the mission of higher education, as it has primary responsibility for the quality of educational programs, academic planning, and curriculum development. Both commissions hold that the faculty's workload should allow for time and support for professional development, salaries and benefits should be sufficient to attract and sustain competent faculty, and institutions should have well-defined processes in place to recruit and appoint full-time faculty. Perhaps most important, institutions must foster and defend academic freedom for faculty.
It seems contradictory for accrediting agencies to ascribe so much responsibility for the institution's academic well-being to the faculty while ignoring the fact that on many campuses that responsibility is falling into the hands of fewer faculty members. Accrediting commissions must create stronger standards regarding the employment of part-time and adjunct faculty, and penalize those institutions that exploit such faculty. They cannot, of course, dictate that every institution fit a specific model. They can, however, amend their accreditation standards regarding the use of contingent faculty, and punish institutions that do not meet those standards. By itself, this may not bring significant change. However, by having colleges and universities examine closely their use of contingent faculty, through the process of adhering to accreditation standards, would force them, at the very least, to pay closer attention to the impact of contingent faculty on their institution's mission and goals, as well as the integrity of the institution itself.
—Rusty Monhollon is assistant professor of history at Hood College. He has published widely on various aspects of American life in the post-World War II era, including the civil rights and Black Power movements, anticommunist activism, and the politics of the 1960s. His first book "This is America?" The Sixties in Lawrence, Kansas (Palgrave, 2002), explores how the residents of one American community responded to and tried to resolve political and social conflict during the 1960s. It received the Edward H. Tihen Publication Award for 2003 from the Kansas State Historical Association.
1. The standards can be found at http://www.historians.org/press/2003_05_05_Council_Parttime.htm.
2. Robert B. Townsend, "The State of the History Department: The 2001–02 AHA Department Survey, available on-line at http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/Issues/2004/0404/rbtfaculty0404.cfm, retrieved 17 August 2005.
4. Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education (Philadelphia: Middle States Commission on Higher Education, 2002), iv; Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, Accreditation Standard 4, available at http://www.nwccu.org/Standards%20and%20Policies/Standard%204/Standard%20Four.htm, retrieved 17 June 2005.