Colleges’ overdependence on adjunct professors is bad for students, instructors, and academic freedom

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, center, and California Federation of Teachers president Jeff Freitas celebrate at UCLA on Nov. 17 after a labor agreement was reached with the University of California. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The era of college courses taught primarily by full professors, who devote time to research and academic activities in addition to teaching, is rapidly fading. Increasingly, the job of educating students now relies on professors or assistants – non-tenured professors, almost always working part-time for less money and with almost no job security.

In California, they are often referred to as “freeway flyers” because they drive from campus to campus in order to patch up a mediocre full-time salary by teaching one or two courses at several colleges and / or universities, usually without benefits.

On an hourly basis, they could earn anywhere from $ 70 to $ 120. But that is only for the hours when they are in front of a classroom. Responsibilities outside of the classroom easily triple their workload. They must plan lessons, record assignments and tests, write letters of recommendation, attend to other student needs, and maintain office hours – in any space they can find as they are rarely assigned. at a desk. They can usually be fired for a semester or forever, even if they’ve worked at the facility for a decade or more, for whatever or no reason. Almost a quarter of them depend on some form of public assistance, usually unemployment insurance between semesters and college years, according to one. report 2020 by the American Federation of Teachers.

It is not good for the instructor or the student. Corn the recent agreement in principle between the University of California and union faculty – who teach nearly a third of the classes – points to the inherent irony that could change what has been an exploitative situation for too long. As higher education hires more assistants, it also relies more on them. Colleges and universities cannot fulfill their teaching mission without them, giving part-time workers more power if they choose to use it.

An overabundance of doctoral graduates and a decline in tenure-track faculty recruitment as colleges cut costs have created a buyer’s market for adjunct professors, who often have the same doctoral degrees as full-time professors. . Fifty years ago, 80% of instructors were full professors; now almost that percentage are supplements. Parents who spend a lot of money on their children’s education usually have a little idea of ​​the change. These instructors even became a big part of the landscape at small liberal arts colleges that prided themselves on courses taught almost exclusively by tenure-track professors, according to Helena Worthen and Joe Berry, authors of a new article. delivered on the subject.

Right now, Berry said, casual part-time workers make up 75% of college instructors in the United States and teach more than half of college courses. This is especially true in community colleges in California, where the number of assistant professors is nearly 4 to 1 higher than full professors, according to John Martin, president of the California Faculty Part-time Assn. If these assistants concoct a full-time load of three courses, they could earn between $ 50,000 and $ 70,000 per school year, less than most K-12 teachers in California.

It is not good for the students either. While some adjunct professors dedicate a huge number of unpaid hours for the sake of their work, others find this kind of workload unrealistic.

They’re making up shortcuts, Worthen said, including cutting back on homework so they have fewer notes to do, or arranging “office visits” over the phone. They might limit the number of letters of recommendation they write. And if a student disputes a final grade, it can take 20 hours to research each assignment and justify each grade. Some assistants prefer to simply change grades rather than “donating” much of their unpaid time. Often they do not have the freedom to develop their own programs.

No wonder so many adjunct professors at the University of California leave every year. Some are kicked out, but others leave of their own accord, according to a report by CalMatters which found that about a quarter of UC adjunct professors renew each year. Worthen says this type of churn is common among casual part-time instructors and results in a faculty that may lack institutional knowledge and teaching experience.

Perhaps even more problematic in over-reliance on part-time instructors is the shrinking academic freedom. Most assistants know they can be fired for any reason and can avoid saying something vaguely controversial to students. Even their personal social media accounts could become a source of complaints for students.

Auxiliaries need the “freedom to teach without self-censorship,” Worthen said, as well as the “freedom to give the grades students really deserve.” Or, as Martin put it, “The students have been emboldened and they will arm anything to make sure an instructor will comply with their wishes.”

Colleges these days can always find a new face to replace the one they have driven out, although assistants are generally as educated as full professors, or have long experience in certain careers that immediately benefit students.

UC’s interim deal – which offers new benefits to teachers such as family leave as well as a new measure of job security based on performance reviews – has awakened a sense of the possible in the body adjunct professor nationwide, Worthen said, and should be seen by a higher level. education as a wake-up call. Only about 20% of non-tenured faculty are unionized, a number that is likely to increase now. Whether or not this is the case, colleges and universities have been warned: they cannot function without auxiliaries, so for the sake of their students, academic freedom, and educational stability, they should pay and treat these instructors fairly.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.