Report: Colleges relying too much on part-time professors


Published: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 3:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 3:16 p.m.

College students are getting a raw deal, a recent New York report asserted. The problem is they're taking too many classes from part-time, or adjunct, professors.

But that same report unwittingly revealed something about how higher education is more culpable than it likes to admit when it comes to creating the problem.

The issue is a huge one in higher education far beyond New York, with about half of the nation's college faculty now on part-time contracts. Adjuncts are cheaper for colleges, but they often lack the time and resources for focused teaching, and research shows students' performance suffers if they are taught by part-timers too often.

In its report last month, a 30-member commission called for New York's state (SUNY) and city (CUNY) systems to alleviate the over reliance on adjuncts by hiring 2,000 more full-time faculty for their 87 campuses.

But just one page away, the report also called for adding at least 4,000 new doctoral students.

There's a connection between those numbers that deserves more attention.

In many fields, there are already too many Ph.Ds awarded for the full-time academic posts available, creating a surplus of likely jobseekers. That pool becomes adjuncts, who command wages and benefits so low that universities find them irresistible hires.

"It's not uncommon to have a disconnect like this in higher education, in which people are both concerned about the difficult career prospects being faced by recent Ph.D. graduates and concerned there aren't enough Ph.D. students," said Michael Teitelbaum, of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The ideas, he said, "often don't get connected. It's puzzling."

Adds Jeff Crane, an adjunct who teaches two art courses at SUNY-New Paltz: "There's this tendency to turn a blind eye to things like that and not make those kinds of equations."

Of course, some adjuncts have other jobs and like working part-time. But many are adjuncts by necessity. Crane, an artist, says he likes working part-time so he can paint, but thinks he should be paid equitably. He earns about $5,200 per semester for teaching two courses.

The national average for full-time assistant professors is about $60,000, and $100,000 once they get tenure. Crane says many of his colleagues work mostly for the health insurance, which, unlike many places, New Paltz offers to adjuncts.

Teitelbaum is quick to point out New York may have good reasons to add doctoral students. They will help improve the state's standing in the research sector, and of course, many may find work in the private sector.

But if they come seeking full-time professorial jobs, some will be disappointed.

It's well known that jobs in, say, philosophy, are rare. Even at the very top doctoral programs, only one in 10 who start will end up teaching at an elite research university, according to Brian Leiter, whose blog "Philosophical Gourmet" tracks the field. In fields like history, recent numbers show the market improving, and there will be more jobs as baby boomers retire. But some fields like American and European history still have such a surplus that even community colleges now commonly look only at candidates with a doctoral degree.

It's not just humanities. Groups such as the Business Roundtable have grabbed headlines with urgent warnings about the need to ramp up production of American scientists. In fact, Teitelbaum testified to Congress last year, there is no evidence of a shortage of scientists and engineers particularly on the Ph.D. track.

In the life sciences, the U.S. is awarding twice as many doctorates as two decades ago, but has no more faculty jobs, according to one recent study that prompted the journal Nature to editorialize that "too many graduate schools may be preparing too many students." A 1998 National Research Council made much the same warning.

Nonetheless, universities keep flooding the academic pipeline.

The latest federal data show about 45,600 Ph.Ds were awarded in 2005-2006, 5.1 percent higher than the year before. It was the fourth straight increase and tied for the highest percentage gain since 1971.

Faculty like having graduate students around. They're good intellectual companions, and they bolster a professor's research efforts.

Particularly in the sciences, they also often come with funding from sources such as the National Institutes of Health, which doubled its budget between 1998 and 2003.

But funding usually leads to more slots for graduate students, not for professors. That's why the percentage of science Ph.D.s moving on to "post-docs" (temporary university posts where they do research while continuing to apply for faculty jobs) is surging from 43 percent to 70 percent in physics, for instance, in just a few years.

Of course, universities could cut back on using adjuncts and pony up for better wages and more full-time jobs. Some, like Rutgers in New Jersey, have agreed to add tenure-track positions, and the American Federation of Teachers is pushing for legislation in 11 states to require more teaching come from full-timers.

But with universities already under fire for skyrocketing prices, it's probably unrealistic to expect most will pay more than the going rate for a captive labor pool.

Saying "no" to students definitely isn't easy. If education is good, it seems to follow more is better. And when qualified students come to a university particularly a public one it can be hard to justify refusing them the education they say they want.

But if public universities (and really that means legislatures and taxpayers) won't pony up for more full-time faculty, higher education will have to take more responsibility for its role in creating the oversupply problem.

"We have flooded the labor market with Ph.Ds who can't get jobs doing what they've been trained to do," said Cat Warren, a North Carolina State English professor and state American Association of University Professors leader, who recently gave a talk to graduate students at nearby Duke warning them to be realistic. "I think we have to think very hard about that."

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