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The Costs and Benefits of Temporary Faculty

by Roberta Spalter-Roth and William Erskine, Research and Development Department

Between 1993 and 1998, 40 percent of institutions of higher education decreased the number of full-time faculty, with 22 percent of them replacing full-time with part-time faculty, according to a new research brief from ASA’s Research and Development Department in collaboration with the ASA Task Force on Part-time and Contingent Work in the Academic Workforce.

Sociology departments were not immune to this trend, according to the brief, which examines the use of “supplementary” or adjunct faculty in sociology departments. Drawing on data from the ASA 2002 Survey of Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Sociology, the report also summarizes comments from 167 chairs of ASA-affiliated departments collected from a recent open-ended online survey. The findings point to a number of conflicting costs and benefits for both sociology programs and part-time faculty. The complete version of the report, including analysis of faculty composition, courses, salaries, and cost savings, is available as a PDF file (483KB) at www.asanet.org/research/Contingent_Faculty_Brief.pdf.

Sociology Departments

As in other academic disciplines, supplementary sociology faculty is used to fill the gap between rising numbers of students and stable numbers of full-time faculty. Chairs report that 38 percent of faculty is hired to fill contingent or supplementary positions. (The ASA survey defined “supplementary” faculty as graduate student or non-graduate student instructors who teach their own courses, are paid on a per course basis, and working without a contract.)

Overall, about three-quarters of sociology department chairs surveyed report using supplementary faculty during the 2000/01 academic year. Departments at research institutions are most likely to employ supplementary faculty. The share of all sociology courses taught by supplementary faculty is 22 percent, but there is also significant variation between baccalaureate and smaller doctoral institutions.

Budget constraints and the promise of cost savings are cited as reasons for the growth in supplemental faculty from the point of view of administrators. The research brief reports that sociology departments do save money when they use part-time faculty. Although savings varied by type of school, departments saved about 20 percent (i.e., about $98,771 per department) over what their salary expenditures would have been if full-time faculty taught all courses. According to chairs, however, saving money is not the primary reason for hiring supplementary faculty (see Figure 1).

Chairs generally did not regard cost savings as a benefit for their departments, because any money saved typically accrues to administration budgets.

Benefits and Costs

The most widely reported benefit of hiring supplementary faculty is “flexibility.” That is, these hires provide department chairs with the ability to respond quickly to shifting demands for numbers or types of courses. In addition, the use of supplementary faculty allows departments to maintain or enhance their programs when there is no money for a full-time replacement or a new hire. According to the chairs surveyed, the most valuable supplementary faculty are sociology specialists employed outside the university. For example, one chair noted, “a small cadre of three criminal justice professionals … enable us to offer specialized … courses to our criminal justice majors.”

Although one-quarter of all responding chairs indicated that supplementary faculty increased the quality of undergraduate education (especially when experienced practitioners teach specialty courses), about 40 percent said that the quality of undergraduate education suffered under part-time faculty. The latter observed that supplementary faculty are less available to assist students, as a result of limited office space and office hours, and their course materials were sometimes out-of-date. Some chairs also believed that supplementary faculty lowered the quality of undergraduate education by “inflating grades” in order to cover their “shortcomings in teaching.”

About one-quarter of responding chairs listed other types of costs at the individual, departmental, and professional levels. Chairs voiced deep unease about the exploitation of adjunct faculty who could teach as many as six courses per year and still make substantially less than $20,000. For example, one chair wrote:

Adjuncts are generally well-trained professionals …. [T]hey have to piece together a substandard existence at low pay and no benefits by teaching in several institutions…. As a result, these nomad-professionals are treated as outcasts with no office (often), no job security and no opportunity to do research ….

The second set of costs, according to some chairs, is related to the department curriculum and its mission. They commented that as departments increasingly become dependent on supplementary faculty for teaching basic or specialty courses, the quality of the sociology program declines. Lack of continuity and high turnover makes it difficult for a department to familiarize with and integrate part-time faculty into long-term curriculum plans and institutional initiatives.

A third set of costs reported by some chairs relates to increases in the workload of permanent faculty including the chairs themselves. Because adjuncts cannot be held accountable for advising, mentoring, or service, a disproportionate share of these tasks falls to permanent faculty. Chairs characterize their own increased workload as composed of “endless paperwork” and the “major headaches of constant recruitment, hiring, supervising, and evaluating.”

A final disadvantage raised is the possible de-professionalization of sociology. One-quarter of responding chairs were concerned that increases in the use of supplementary faculty would reduce the professionalism of the field by creating a two-tier caste system, limiting collegiality, lowering standards, and decreasing the pool of active scholars.

The Discipline Responds

A number of professional associations are working to raise public consciousness about the consequences, measured and perceived, resulting from the growing adjunct faculty base. While a clear resolution, which balances departmental needs and the interests of supplemental faculty, has to be addressed by departments, several recommendations by the ASA task force have been supported by ASA’s Council (see recommendations). These include partnering with other disciplinary societies to improve working conditions and compensation, and further discussion with department chairs and graduate students.