Peer Review

The Role of Adjuncts in the Professoriate

The current challenges that face higher education are multifaceted and well-documented. Shrinking operational budgets, shriveling endowments, and increasing amounts of financial aid needed for students to enroll are the looming crises faced by many colleges. What’s more, institutions are challenged to uphold certain technological standards that are costly to install and maintain, and are also confronted by the call for accountability caused by two dimensions—government efforts to extend No Child Left Behind-like policies to higher education, and the rising cost of higher education, which often outpaces the rate of inflation and the increase in the average family income level. Last, for the traditional nonprofit “brick and mortar” institutions, there is growing competitive force coming from the “for-profit” institutions, which offer nontraditional class scheduling and nontraditional modality of instruction.

Despite these challenges, there are positive opportunities ahead for higher education. The importance of a college degree is touted more than ever, especially by the current presidential administration. There is a new appreciation of lifelong learning, which brings hope for increased enrollments and government funding. And there are also new opportunities in the global marketplace with potential collaborations with institutions overseas and partnerships with foreign governments.

When a historical lens is used to align the current challenges and opportunities to previous ones for higher educational institutions, there is one constant force that provides stability and the knowledge base for each institution: the professoriate. In the traditional college or university, full-time faculty members maintain their status through the quest for tenure and promotion. While over the years some have argued against tenure, citing it as detrimental to an institution’s long-term survival, others have maintained that the tenure system ensures the best scholars and the best teachers.

There is no denying the value of a full-time tenured faculty, but when institutions are faced with tough economic times, larger-than-expected enrollments and new programs, do they hire full-time faculty? In most cases, the answer is no. Instead, institutions will turn to adjunct faculty. Adjuncts are an important piece of the professoriate and are heavily used, especially at community colleges and in professional programs. For as long as there have been adjuncts, there have been supporters of, and opponents to, their use. Today, as institutions are faced with the challenges listed above, a new call has been made to reexamine the role of adjuncts in the professoriate. With tough economic times and competition increasing from “for-profit” institutions, many fear that the role of the traditional full-time faculty member is diminishing and the role of adjuncts will increase.

This paper, prepared by five educators from across the United States, addresses the positive and negative issues surrounding the use of adjuncts in community colleges, private undergraduate institutions, and larger public research institutions. We represent the spectrum of higher education: geographically, our institutions are located from the north to the south and the east to the west; we include a large state university, a community college, and various private institutions in between; we are private, religiously affiliated, tuition driven, and public state-supported schools. While we have all been full-time faculty, some of us have been adjuncts, and we currently serve as full-time faculty members, full-time administrators, and part-time administrators and faculty. In fact, we like to think of ourselves as a microcosm of higher education in the United States. While we realize that what you find here are personal views concerning the role of the adjunct in the future of the professoriate, we believe they are representative of the views of many across the country.

Adjuncts and the Community College Professoriate

The increasing use of adjuncts in higher education has implications that bear perhaps most critically on community colleges, where more than 50 percent of the nation’s undergraduate students are enrolled. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2008), data compiled for 2003 showed that “two-thirds of faculty at community colleges were employed part time.” In a study of part-time faculty and community college graduation rates at 953 institutions, Jacoby (2006) found that community colleges with the heaviest reliance on part-time faculty had the lowest graduation rates. For example, community colleges with approximately 80 percent adjunct faculty had graduation rates of only about 20 percent. Given the “comprehensive” mission of most community colleges, which grant degrees for both career employment and transfer to four-year colleges and universities, nothing less than overall institutional effectiveness is on the line when graduation rates are taken as the measure of institutional, not to mention student, success.

Whether full-time or adjunct, the nature of the professoriate at community colleges differs greatly among institutions, depending on the type of programs offered as well as the college’s locale. Further, community colleges in or near large metropolitan areas often can hire both full-time and adjunct faculty with doctorates and other terminal degrees as well as records of scholarship. But, like their full-time colleagues, adjuncts at community colleges are expected to be first and foremost effective teachers.

The question then becomes whether community colleges provide the means to help their adjuncts meet that expectation. What are the qualifications for initial hire? How are adjuncts evaluated? What provisions are made for adjuncts to meet with their students or learn about the institutions in which they teach? Are adjuncts given opportunities for professional development? Are adjuncts part of a faculty union? The answers to each of these questions bear upon the larger assessment of whether a preponderance of adjunct faculty best serves a community college’s mission.

What is true of adjuncts at four-year institutions is true for them at community colleges. On the positive side, they are often the “outside” professionals teaching in the applied and specialized career fields such as nursing, paralegal, and design programs, where they bring the latest expertise to the classroom. In this role, too, they can be effective mentors and models to students. In addition, as members of the larger “community” that the community college serves, adjuncts can and do provide connections to the economic and political entities that fiscally support the community college.

On the negative side, staffing multisection foundations courses and remedial courses with all-adjunct faculties begs the question of whether the institution is thereby best serving the needs of its students. Can a teacher be optimally effective if she has little or no time outside of class for students, or if she is not otherwise connected to the college operations? In virtually all studies of student engagement in higher education, a broad capacity for student-faculty interaction is a key factor in student retention.

Adjuncts and the Small, Private College

Today’s undergraduate population has evolved from the traditional cadre of high school students coming of age through their college experiences. Along with these individuals are adult learners—professional and nonprofessional members—some of whom pursue their studies far from campus through distance education. Faculty must be responsive not only to the institutions they serve but also to the unique needs and expectations of the students who compose that institution. This is particularly the case for small, private schools with teaching, learning, and student development at the heart of their enterprise. The contribution of adjunct faculty in this context should be assessed according to their capacity to enrich and enhance student progression, particularly as it relates to students’ experiences of course delivery and instruction, scholarship, and mentoring beyond classroom interactions.

Perhaps the most compelling feature that shapes the nature of the professoriate for small colleges and universities is institutional mission. Most faith-based and private institutions are heavily mission-driven and promote their mission as a calling card to students who embrace their core values, social causes, and philosophical principles. For many small institutions, the faculty play a prominent role in communicating the university’s mission to students by enlivening those objectives through their professorial roles.

Serving a mission-driven institution is a personal commitment that often entails considerable time and effort apart from courses. This is realized through committee work, advising, interdisciplinary collaboration, administrative responsibilities, and other activities not typically assigned to adjunct faculty. Adjuncts are not expected to have the campus presence that characterizes faculty who have or are pursuing tenure. This is further evidenced by the fact that many adjuncts are employed by several different institutions through balanced schedules and prioritized commitments.

The level of faculty engagement and responsiveness has come to be a facet of institutional quality and effectiveness. Many accrediting agencies require a minimum percentage of full-time faculty and specific targets for faculty with terminal degrees in the disciplines in which they teach. Accreditation can also depend upon the extent to which a college or university can demonstrate faculty responsibility for the curriculum and faculty perspectives in the process of shared governance. At least to the extent of validation from professional organizations and accrediting bodies, there is a clear preference for more full-time PhD’s in the professoriate, regardless of the institution’s size or research efforts. Given the convenience and affordability of adjuncts, however, smaller colleges and universities can leverage the benefits of utilizing adjunct and part-time instructors, but not to the extent that the institutional mission is neglected or students’ needs outside of class time are ignored.

Along with the relationship to the institutional mission, the mandate to produce scholarship and research is among the primary factors that distinguish tenured and tenure-track faculty from adjuncts. Through scholarship in their respective fields, many tenured and full-time tenure-track faculty (most of whom spend half of their professional time pursuing research) are familiar with the latest concepts and trends in their respective disciplines. These faculty members are often able to spark students’ interest in the field and may inspire students to pursue postgraduate work (Kirk and Spector 2009).

While larger, research-intensive institutions rely heavily on faculty to produce and publish scholarship that brings the school recognition and funding, there is a greater challenge for smaller schools to help faculty members effectively balance teaching and research. Small and large institutions equally recognize the value of exposing students to the benefits and rewards of the research process, and student participation in research substantially enhances student learning and often paves the way for graduate and professional studies. Collaborative research projects are simply one of the means by which small colleges and universities rely on faculty to mentor and guide students.

Colleges and universities have gone to great lengths to accommodate all students, from traditional first-year freshmen to adult learners, by extending their business hours, developing online curricula, and relying on technology to foster more scope and flexibility in the options for higher education. Typically, small colleges and universities distinguish themselves through their ability to be responsive to all types of students by offering them personalized service through faculty members and staff who work specifically to ensure their success.

There are many instances where adjuncts successfully function as part of the university’s professoriate. Some accrue many years of service at one institution and are knowledgeable about their field and the university’s mission and values. Others bring a level of professional experience and perspective that transcend traditional academic instruction. Students come to rely on these faculty members and see no difference between the support they receive from a full-time faculty member and the committed adjunct. While universities would hope to cultivate adjuncts along these lines, the very nature of adjunct faculty can undermine significant institutional investment beyond compensation for instruction at small private campuses.

Adjuncts and Professional Programs

While many undergraduate colleges and universities focus on student development and general education, professional schools also focus on disciplines that emphasize practical solutions to real-world problems and situations. In this environment, the corps of adjunct professors plays a unique role. For example, many engineering departments at research universities have historically relied on practicing adjuncts to help meet regulatory and industrial concerns.

While research universities and undergraduate colleges execute their historical mission of teaching engineering fundamentals, and are breaking ground on various new technologies, modern engineering faculty by and large have little to no practical design experience, and an overwhelming majority are not licensed. As a result, many engineering departments rely on licensed professional engineers, who may not have PhD’s, to teach design and specialty courses. Indeed, the culture of engineering education is maintained by a symbiotic relationship with industrial partners, vested in the production of a skilled and “mission-ready” workforce, in which contemporary adjuncts have played a unique and significant role.

This may present an unbalanced relationship, where “magnanimous” adjuncts are paid well below their otherwise billable market rates to teach what is essentially their most valued skill: reliable contemporary design practices. Savvy engineering firms and manufacturers, however, realize clear benefits from releasing practicing engineers to teach in colleges and universities—insider access to upcoming talent and an interface with cutting-edge research. While economic contractions have no doubt squeezed the domestic engineering workforce in recent years, demands for technical education remain high—particularly in the international marketplace.

The value-added role of the adjunct engineering faculty corps in undergraduate engineering education is tremendously respected in both industrial and academic spheres, so the ratio of adjuncts to full time faculty has not historically changed during varying economic conditions. Although engineering departments are experiencing financial challenges in both public and private universities, there is little systemic indication that the ratios of core engineering faculty to their adjunct counterparts will change in the foreseeable future.

Adjuncts and the Future of the Professoriate

There is no doubt that adjuncts will continue to play an important role at the university for a number of very positive reasons. First, they sometimes offer a professional expertise that is outside of the experience of most faculty members. Also, adjuncts offer their students examples from their profession, which helps to build practical connections between the subject matter and their chosen careers. Finally, while some adjuncts make a career of a series of part-time jobs, just as many adjuncts teach only because they like to teach (AFT Higher Education 2010). For the student, the teacher who actually enjoys the work is always a blessing, whether that teacher is a full-time faculty member or an adjunct.

On the other hand, it is not usually expected that adjuncts mentor their students—though many do. This is important at institutions where mentoring is an integral part of fostering student success, and doubly important at institutions that measure how well they have communicated their mission and values to their students. Adjuncts will generally not have the time or often the inclination to make those priorities important to their teaching.

Moreover, it is also helpful to remember that while adjuncts are an important part of professional education because of their expertise, they are not required to commit to scholarly work. In some fields, this can become an important issue when there are major changes in the field and, as a result, changes in the curriculum are needed. Faculty members are responsible for the curriculum, and most would agree that such a responsibility is best carried out by full-time faculty.

Because adjunct faculty will continue as part of the professoriate and will dominate the for-profit universities, the important question for those who teach in a traditional undergraduate program is how to increase the positive attributes of adjunct professors and mitigate against what is less positive. Some—perhaps many—adjuncts would argue that making all faculty full time would end the problem, but one of the attractive aspects of adjunct labor is its very temporariness.

If institutions offering traditional undergraduate coursework will use adjunct faculty, there must be a concomitant effort to supervise their work. Adjuncts need to know what the curricular, performance, and mentoring standards are. Students should expect adjuncts to deliver content that is overseen by full-time faculty, teach the material in an interesting and professional manner, and be available for discussion outside of class. To accomplish these goals, the university must direct resources in support of adjunct faculty.

While most adjunct faculty are not interested in attending university meetings, the offer should be made. As much as possible, adjuncts must be considered part of the faculty, and, when their expertise is useful, asked for their contribution.

These are small suggestions designed to make adjunct faculty a continuing positive presence on campus. Adjuncts are not a threat to the professoriate, but positive contributors to the academic community. Institutions will continue to seek out the service of adjunct professors for the reasons we have discussed. What is important for universities and the professoriate to acknowledge is that the adjunct faculty member, like the full-time faculty member, enriches the educational experience.


AFT Higher Education. 2010. A national survey of part-time/adjunct faculty. American Academic 2: 1–15.

Jacoby, D. 2006. Effects of part-time faculty employment on community college graduation rates. Journal of Higher Education 77 (6): 1081–1103.

Kirk, F., and C. Spector. 2009. A comparison of the achievement of students taught by full-time versus adjunct faculty in business courses. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal13 (2): 73–81.

National Center for Educational Statistics. 2008. Community colleges: Special supplement to the condition of education 2008. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

James Stenerson is the executive director of the Center for Learning and Technology at Pace University; Loren Blanchard is the senior vice president for academic affairs at Xavier University of Louisiana; Michael Fassiotto is the assistant to the provost at Chaminade University of Honolulu; Mark Hernandez is a professor of civil engineering and director of the Colorado Diversity Initiative at the University of Colorado at Boulder; Ann Muth is the dean of the weekend college and faculty development at Nassau Community College.

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