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Fewer professors spend a full day on campus

By Kimberly ChaseContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 24, 2004

The full-time tenured professor is becoming an endangered species. The reason: money. As universities drift away from the traditional model of the full-time professor, a cheaper alternative is taking their place - part-timers who often teach at several institutions.

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"It's definitely been a trend, probably for the last 30 years, and we're hoping that we can begin to make it even more clear that we're at the point of endangering the quality of higher education," says John Curtis, director of research at the American Association of University Professors in Washington.

But some say the shift is already taking its toll.

Some students complain they receive less of the mentoring and personal interaction they had hoped would help them deal with future graduate studies or the competitive business world. Newer academics see a compromised job market in which many who would prefer to work full time end up traveling from campus to campus to put together a decent salary.

The percentage of postsecondary professors working full time has decreased over the past 16 years, according to studies from the US Department of Education. In 1987, 67 percent of faculty were full time, and 58 percent of those professors had tenure. Another study shows that by 2001-2, only 55 percent were full time, with 45 percent of those tenured.

Nationwide, part-timers account for a large share of overall teaching hours. In 1998, according to the Department of Education, part-time faculty spent 89 percent of their time on teaching, versus 65 percent for full-time faculty, who had more time for research.

For students, with nearly half their professors working part time, the chances of getting to know them are slim. Particularly in introductory classes, it is increasingly common for students to be taught by nonpermanent faculty.

"In many cases, part-time faculty are teaching the basic introductory classes, so they really are the gateway instructors into the various disciplines," says Mr. Curtis.

Samantha Yoon, a first-year student at Columbia University in New York, had graduate-student teachers for two of her five classes in her first semester. In a third class, Principles of Economics, she had contact mainly with teaching assistants.

Columbia University's percentage of full-time faculty exceeds the national average, but since the 1980s the school has followed the trend toward more part-timers. Between October 1987 and October 2003, full-time faculty dropped from roughly 72 to 62 percent, as the percentage of tenured professors fell from 51 to 48 percent.

Some argue, however, that the system of large lectures with teaching assistants allows professors to concentrate on doing what they are best at.

"It would be very inefficient to have 10 professors teaching the same introductory class material to several hundred students in aggregate," says David Weinstein, a tenured professor of economics at Columbia.

At the University of Iowa, part-time faculty make up about 46 percent of the total, sometimes supplementing regular faculty in ways that the school says strengthen curriculum.

"We use our part-time faculty to fill particular niches," says Kathryn Wynes, faculty human resources specialist at the school. "We may use them for overflow in a very popular course area. We may have part-time faculty that have a very distinct expertise in an area that we like to make use of."

But for some students, gains in efficiency and even expertise don't make up for lack of access.

At New York University, Michelle Haase, a junior majoring in communications, estimates that 20 percent of her professors are part time.

"They have another job and they teach maybe one or two classes [here]," she says.

At Hunter College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), students report that most of their professors are full time, but note occasional problems with part-time faculty.