Contingency Plan: Outsourcing Education

More than half of all college instructors are now part-time adjuncts, with low pay and no job security. Is the two-tier faculty system harming students, too?

It's that precariousness, say adjunct activists, that threatens to degrade the college experience even for students who have no plans for a career in academia. "A lot of adjuncts give their full attention, their time, and enjoy teaching, and the courses are taught well," Gregory readily acknowledges. What's missing, she says, is the institutional support. "You're not part of the college. I don't have an office." Adjuncts can't build ongoing connections to their students, engage them in research projects, or write effective recommendation letters. Gregory says her students ask, "Wait, you might not be here next semester? Why not? I like you."

"It's really the students who are getting fucked by all of this," says Alyson Spurgas, a CUNY Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate in sociology who serves as one of the coordinators of the CUNY Adjunct Project. "We're not actually paid to do any work outside of the classroom. We're certainly not paid to write them recommendation letters." And even if she were to write recommendations on her own time, she warns her students, "it's not going to do you any good, because I'm not a tenured full professor."

Given that a college degree itself is little guarantee of a good job these days—something driven home by recent reports of companies demanding a B.A. from applicants for positions as receptionists and file clerks—these networking connections can make the difference between a leg up on a career and an expensive piece of paper. And at cash-strapped public universities like CUNY, a financially secure professor who's invested enough to put time and effort into a promising student can mean the difference between success and falling through the cracks. As Maisto puts it: "The most vulnerable students tend to get taught by the least supported faculty. And if that doesn't bother people, it should."

Queens College instructor Karen Gregory asked her students not to call her "professor."
Caleb Ferguson
Queens College instructor Karen Gregory asked her students not to call her "professor."
Cameron K. Lewis

University administrators, naturally, beg to differ. Asked about soaring adjunct rates by State Assembly Member Deborah Glick at a February hearing, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein blamed a flood of new students for creating a bottomless maw for new faculty that can't be met without either more money or more part-timers: "When you have a big increase in population of students, you need a massive infusion of dollars to keep the teaching balance in terms of full-time faculty."

At private schools with less dramatic cost pressures, the rise of contingent faculty is explained as a natural progression to more flexible kinds of teaching. NYU Vice Chancellor for Strategic Planning Dick Foley says that his school's surge in full-time contract faculty—which has swamped a smaller increase in the adjunct population—is due to a combination of factors, from the growth of lower-level classes like science labs and "great books" courses that don't require full professors, to an influx of civilians, such as practicing artists or musicians, moonlighting as professors at NYU's professional schools. A Columbia spokesperson likewise cites an increased reliance on professionals who "have not followed a traditional academic career path" as one reason for its surge in contract faculty.

Foley agrees that leaving students in the hands of part-time instructors isn't ideal: "Part-time adjuncts weren't around all day—they were part-time. So for there to be that rich student experience, for students to have plenty of access to faculty outside of class as well as inside of class, we felt we needed to increase the relative contributions of contract faculty versus part-timers."

So far, the student backlash that adjunct advocates have been waiting for hasn't quite arrived—perhaps because, like the proverbial frog in the boiling water, it's been so gradual that the average college student has never known anything different. Outside the student center at Brooklyn College (58.1 percent adjuncts, 35.1 percent tenure-track faculty), for example, nearly every student seems aware of the effects of adjunctification. Some say almost their entire college career has been spent with part-time instructors. So long as the quality of the teaching is good, though—and virtually all say that their courses taught by adjuncts have been high quality—they're inclined to take it in stride, with only a few grumbles. Lauren Durante, a senior speech pathology student, notes that her department has so few experienced professors available that upper-level courses have been forced to establish waiting lists, where students are only admitted based on seniority and GPA: "There are very limited seats."

In hopes of sparking more student revolt (or at least awareness), adjunct advocates have turned their attention to raising the contingent-faculty profile among college students and applicants. Since most college guides ignore adjunct–to–full-time ratios—or use figures provided by the schools themselves rather than official National Center for Education Statistics data—AFT has launched a Just Ask guide on its website (soon to be a phone app as well), and sent out printed guides to high school counselors across the nation.

"Everyone is focused on the cost of college," says the New Faculty Majority's Maisto. "We're trying to help them see that it's also about the value of what they're getting for whatever they pay. And the fact that in many cases, one could argue that there's a little bit of fraud going on, when students pay the same tuition for very well-supported faculty and other faculty who are being presented with these sorts of institutional obstacles, from lack of pay to lack of offices."

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