Keeping Their Promises?

Kali Jerrard

CounterCurrent: Week of 4/3/23

Are colleges and universities promising more from their faculty than they’re delivering? Most, if not all, higher education institutions have changed their faculty composition in recent years, but they haven’t been forthright about it. In a recent article on Minding the Campus, James E. Moore, II shines light on the increase of contingent faculty, and what it means for higher education.  

Over the years, the percentage of part-time and full-time contingent professors has been on the rise. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, from 1995–2011, instructional positions filled by contingent faculty increased from 57.6% to 71.6% across all post-secondary institutions. By 2019, the share of contingent faculty did stabilize, and the percentage of “full- and part-time contingent faculty accounted for 62.9% of all instructors across all post-secondary institutions nationwide.”

Colleges and universities have a problem with truth in advertising. They often showcase their core curricula or major classes as if they are taught by elite, tenure-track faculty when interacting with prospective students and parents. Those courses are then actually taught by part- or full-time contingent faculty, making this an issue of institutional integrity. Moore explains this bait-and-switch tactic,

At research universities, the tenure-stream faculty are the faces front and center on the casino floor, attracting tuition-paying patrons and their parents to the campus, and then on to the non-tenure-track slot machines in back. This casino model may be the best short-run means of harvesting tuition at research universities and, perhaps, of paying for the burgeoning administrative class surveilling the casino floor, but it comes at the expense of the research enterprise—and, ultimately, the very mission of research universities.

Substituting tenure-track faculty with contingent faculty is a ploy that merely conserves resources and funding to hire more administrators. A problem that exacerbates skyrocketing tuition and administrative bloat, as we note in our report, Priced Out.

At institutions with a greater share of contingent faculty than tenured faculty, faculty governance and leadership may become an issue, especially since contingent faculty tend to have a more progressive view of how the institution should be run. For example, the University of Southern California (USC), Moore’s university, has a larger share of contingent faculty than the national average. Of 4,822 faculty members (including part-time faculty working more than half-time) working across the 21 schools, only 1,480 (31%) are tenure-track. Also, we can’t forget the additional 2,435 part-time and adjunct faculty who work less than half time. In 2012, the school’s constitution was amended to include full-time contingent faculty in the Faculty Assembly—the decision-making body in school administration. And again in 2016, the super-majority of full-time contingent faculty voted to allow part-time faculty into the Assembly, increasing the share of contingent faculty yet again.

The uneven split between tenured and contingent faculty is felt most keenly when institutional policies are up for debate. Schools like USC have, sadly, sold out their decision-making power to contingent faculty. It’s clear that the USC administration “prefers a representative governance body in which the regular faculty is systematically outvoted by a much larger group whom the administration can influence with relative ease.” If this trend continues its march through American academia, don’t be surprised if it is much easier for diversity, equity, and inclusion policies to make their way into our colleges and universities—especially if school administrators have a super-majority of acquiescent and/or progressive-leaning faculty in school governance.

So, what should be done? On the one hand, part- and full-time contingent faculty who are accomplished scholars shouldn’t be dismissed, but they also shouldn’t be the most powerful body in school governance, nor the final arbiter of policy. 

To deliver the best quality education and fulfill promises made to tuition-paying students and their parents, colleges and universities must spend more to hire full-time, quality professors, not more administrators.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by beysim on Adobe Stock

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