Phi Beta Cons

Colleges Improving Their Use of Non-tenured Faculty

Colleges and universities have come in for severe criticism for the way they have taken advantage of the glutted academic labor market — hiring large numbers of adjunct faculty members to teach courses, paying them little and offering them no hope of a long-term relationship with the school. That has often been denounced as evidence that higher education is being “corporatized.” Actually, it shows that non-profit managers respond to the same incentives as do managers in for-profit entities. They want to maximize revenues and minimize costs. (The late Henry Manne repeatedly made the point that it’s a mistake to believe that for-profit and non-profit management are different species.)

There is evidence now that higher ed leaders are coming to realize that they’ll be in a better competitive position by changing the way adjuncts have traditionally been treated. In today’s Pope Center piece, Jesse Saffron looks at way schools are adjusting. In particular, he writes about the task force that was established at Western Carolina, which will “examine raising salaries, providing clearer paths to promotion and long-term careers, and even giving non-tenure track (NTT) faculty more professional-sounding job titles.”

A good illustration of the changing attitude toward adjunct professors is Laura Sremaniak of NC State. She started back in State’s chemistry department 1996 and experienced what she delicately calls “less-than-desirable conditions” but demonstrated her value to State and stuck with the department. Over the years, she took advantage of opportunities to collaborate on curriculum development, to help write two chemistry texts and to do some research. By 2009, she had become associate chair of the department.

Duke also has improved conditions for NTT faculty members. Jennifer Carbrey has become a full-time member of the medical school faculty and focuses on teaching rather than research. That’s good for her and for tenured faculty colleagues, who have more time to work on their research.

Ah — the division of labor! Higher education is belatedly finding out how to make it work.

Faculty contracts are also changing. Formerly, adjuncts just worked on semester contracts and could be jettisoned whenever the budget got tight. We are now moving towards a system under which NTT faculty would have single-year contracts for the first five years and if they have performed well, they will be offered multi-year contracts. The mean old “corporate” world has long understood that people perform better if they have the right incentives. Higher ed is finally catching up.

Saffron concludes, “In order to create more efficient faculty hiring systems that account for academic quality, bold university leaders will have to challenge the academy’s longstanding orthodoxy and administrative practices.” That’s right, and what is making them do it is the fact that the higher ed world is changing quickly. Schools that don’t improve their value propositions for increasingly cost-conscious students will fail.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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