To some they inject a welcome dose of reality into the ivory towers of higher education. Others see them as low-rent "temp" workers masquerading as scholars.
As students return to campuses across the country, the debate over the role of rising numbers of part-time professors is being taken up anew.
"All colleges are struggling between using the full-time people who hold the department together and using adjuncts who may not have much teaching experience," says Nancy Later, director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Columbia University Teachers College in New York. Ms. Later predicts that the trend will continue, but says it holds pitfalls. "Using adjuncts saves money, but there is a critical balance where using too many part-time faculty weakens the department."
Adjunct professors are often professionals who have another full-time job or shuttle between several campuses in a region. They are hired on semester-long contracts and paid by the course or the hour to teach in their area of expertise. While students benefit from their professional experience and cash-strapped schools benefit from their flexible and inexpensive labor, some critics worry that their growing presence is eroding the quality of America's higher education.
The savings from using adjuncts are significant, especially at community colleges, which lack the ready supplemental teaching staff that universities have in their graduate students. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found that it costs a community college $15,000 to hire a group of adjuncts to teach a full course load. One full-time professor typically costs $40,000. In light of those figures, it's not surprising that a recent AAUP survey found the percentage of part-time faculty employed in American universities and colleges rose from 38 percent to 43 percent from 1987 to 1993.
As colleges and universities nationwide deal with tightening purse strings, the lure of cutting staffing costs will only grow, especially at market-driven private universities. Fort Lauderdale, Fla-based Nova Southeastern University uses adjuncts more extensively than most state-funded or denominational schools and has no plans to change. "Adjuncts offer the university a great deal of administrative flexibility," says Elizabeth McDaniel, executive provost and vice president for academic affairs. "Having adjuncts on our faculty gives students a real world perspective. I think the use of adjuncts will become more legitimate because rigid accrediting standards are beginning to loosen up.
The administrative benefits also appeal to Manuel Reyes, interim associate chancellor for academics at Houston Community College, which uses adjuncts extensively for academic and technical courses. "They are every bit as qualified as our full-time instructors," he says "and are useful because they can be hired on an as-needed basis."
But some critics charge that the convenience has its costs. Ernst Benjamin, the AAUP's research director, says that adjuncts might lower expenses, but he wonders if students pay the price for those savings.
"When an instructor must travel from campus to campus, it interferes with his or her ability to teach effectively," he argues, pointing out that full-time faculty see students outside of class, but part-time adjuncts are only paid to teach and may not be able to put as much effort and time into preparing for classes. "This is where it really hurts. There is a lack of commitment to the school and its students," Benjamin says. "Students are getting shortchanged. Eventually bright people who might have sought careers in higher education will see the employment situation and choose another career."
In California, the issue of adjuncts has gone to the courts. Community colleges must maintain a 3 to 1 ratio of full-time instructors to adjuncts, according to a state law designed to protect teaching positions in the community colleges.
Jeff Cooper, dean of academics at Los Angeles City College, said the use of adjuncts will continue. "Adjuncts are an essential part of the community college mission," Cooper says. "We have adjuncts who spend their days in the real world and can make a substantial contribution to the education of our students because of their experiences in business and industry. Adjuncts are not a negative force in education."