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.
"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.
Randy Arroyave, a junior majoring in biology, had an introductory English class with a part-time professor who also teaches elsewhere and was not always present for his office hours. "It made a difference not having him here at school," says Mr. Arroyave. "If you know that they're not there during their office hours, then you feel kind of iffy about the rest of the class."
Jessica Perez, a senior in psychology at Hunter, wonders about having so many classes taught by graduate students rather than more experienced professors.
"The graduate students, especially if you're a senior, they're not that far away from you," she says. "They're sort of confused and trying things out."
CUNY reports that in fall 2002, at all of its campuses, 52 percent of its classes were taught by part-timers, some of whom were graduate-student teachers.
At the University of Texas at Dallas, 34 percent of the faculty worked part time in the fall of 2003, as opposed to 20 percent in 1986-7. It's all about economic necessity, says Lawrence Redlinger, executive director of strategic planning at the school.
"Since the mid-'80s the amount of state assistance and the amount of federal government assistance have slowly been declining," he says. "So as the higher-education index rises and the amount of state assistance in real terms declines, there are cost pressures, and the easiest way to relieve those cost pressures is to go to part-time faculty members whom you ... pay less, on average."
Students are not the only ones affected by the trend. For career academics, it means less job security and fewer opportunities to advance. Part-timers are often not included in conferences and other aspects of university life.
"In some cases they're not even able to use the libraries at the universities or colleges where they teach unless they can do it as a member of the public, and that's sort of the ultimate indignity," says Curtis of the AAUP.
They also lack job security and can be hired or fired at the last minute, according to levels of enrollment. In an environment where fewer and fewer tenure-track jobs are available, an adjunct position can mean endless academic limbo instead of a path toward a career.
At the same time, the graduate students who sometimes teach in place of full-time faculty are often unhappy as well. Many complain of low wages and few benefits.
"It seems to be that it's more and more common that graduate students will be teaching courses on their own," says Curtis. "The model used to be that they would serve as teaching assistants to a regular faculty member."
Many graduate students begin teaching with no experience and a plate full of other responsibilities.
Jennifer Kong, a third-year doctoral student in Education Psychology at CUNY's Graduate Center, taught an introductory class on child development last semester. She found it difficult to balance her first teaching experience with four classes, a two-day-a-week externship, and two other part-time jobs.
"They don't really have a course that teaches you how to go about teaching," she says. "I sort of had to do it as a trial-and-error type of thing."
As colleges cut back on full-timers, some observers worry, they whittle away at the essential academic experience.
Some schools are now acting to correct the situation. CUNY, for example, hired 500 new full-timers this year, and its chancellor is working toward a goal of having 70 percent of instruction done by full-time professors.
But few believe most universities will return to past levels of full-time staffing.
"What's interesting is that [use of part-time faculty] has leveled off," says Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Washington, D.C.
But as for the likelihood of a return to full-time staffing levels of the past, he says, "I doubt [it], given the finances of colleges and universities."