Happy New Year

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It’s the first Monday of 2017, and time to get back to work.

I’ve had a couple of interesting interviews with colleagues in higher ed, discussing the ways that adjunct faculty are used or not used on their campuses. The early pattern looks like this:

  1. General education courses, especially those that are intended for non-majors (often called “service courses”) are core locations for adjunct faculty. There are a lot of people who can teach freshman composition or intro psychology, and those courses aren’t usually designed to harvest undecided students into majors, so departments and deans don’t feel the need to spend faculty lines on them.  (One community college dean specifically notes that if he has to choose among permanent faculty lines to fill, the ease of finding adjuncts to cover courses works against the more easily populated department.)
  2. Community colleges seem mostly to operate at an 80% and higher adjunct faculty. Three reasons at least. First, the aforementioned focus on general ed is a core mission of two-year schools. Second, community colleges are more fully aimed at career and technical training, all of which turns over a lot faster than advances in scientific principles or literary theory. Finally, students just aren’t there as long, and so building enduring student-faculty relationships isn’t part of the mission.
  3. Within the major, some highly specialized upper-division courses might require personnel that wouldn’t be worth an entire faculty line. Let’s say a music department, which can’t possibly have performance faculty in every single orchestral and popular instrument. Or a business department that wants to offer one course in emerging financial investment products. So the adjunct there fills the role of the relief pitcher, the specialist coming in to face a tightly constrained circumstance.

Now let me say this. The more that a college or department imagines its mission to be providing academic credits to be consumed by others (students of other majors, four-year schools after community college, etc.), the higher its proportion of adjuncts will be. The more that a college or department imagines its mission to be specialized professional preparation, the higher its proportion of adjuncts will be.

The counterpoint is the kind of schools featured in Loren Pope’s book Colleges that Change Lives. In those forty schools, the goal of college is neither professional specialization nor consumer product, but rather an ongoing deliberation between students and faculty across a broad range of ideas. A monastery of sorts, in which the novices are brought to a greater understanding not merely of the scripture but of the way of life it entails. And that goal of ongoing deliberation—both between faculty and students, and within the body of faculty themselves—leads toward those schools having a far higher proportion of permanent faculty. Beloit College, with 110 permanent faculty and 28 part-timers. Earlham College, with 121 full-time and 16 part-time. Reed College, with 151 full-time and FOUR part-time faculty!

Those schools are just in a different business than the rest of us, and thus staff differently as well. They are the Hill Farmstead Brewery in a world of Coors Light (and, not surprisingly, priced accordingly).