A Primer on Improving Contingent Faculty Conditions

Collaborating takes time and care, but it can work wonders.
By Heidi McGrew and Joe Untener

 

Challenges associated with the increasing use of contingent faculty appointments in American higher education are mounting. The AAUP and other professional groups have identified several major problems: unacceptable conditions and compensation for contingent faculty members, poor learning outcomes for students, and the potential erosion of academic freedom. These issues have also appeared in the popular press, adding public scrutiny to what was previously an internal concern.

At the University of Dayton, our experience of these challenges led us to initiate a collaboration among the part-time faculty, the university administration, and the tenure-line faculty in 2008. Mindful of the guidelines in the AAUP’s 2003 statement Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession, we set a goal of concretely improving conditions for those teaching part time at UD. While we think our approach is innovative, we also recognize that it is not a panacea, given the complexity of the issues involved.

Background

The University of Dayton is a doctoral-level, nonunionized, private university in Ohio with a mission grounded in the Catholic, Marianist tradition. It employs approximately 500 full-time (410 tenure-track) and 350 part-time faculty members to serve more than 9,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Undergraduates currently receive about one-fourth of their instruction from parttime instructors. The part-time faculty at UD is heterogeneous: it includes local experts teaching single courses in specialized areas, instructors teaching multiple sections of general education courses, teachers at satellite campuses, providers of online courses, and qualified staff members and administrators.

Part-time faculty surveys conducted by the university in the mid-1990s and in 2003 revealed significant inequities and problems in the way part-time instructors were treated at UD. Consistent with the Marianist focus on community building, the university immediately took steps to address some of these issues. For example, the 1990s survey identified unacceptably low pay for some part-time instructors, prompting the administration to phase in a new base-pay policy that almost tripled the per-course remuneration in some cases. In response to the 2003 survey, an elected part-time faculty representative with full voting rights was added to the thirty-nine-member academic senate. While the single seat is not proportionate to their representation in the faculty, it has given the part-time instructors a campus voice and an identified liaison with the administration.

These surveys also yielded significant demographic information about part-time faculty members at UD, revealing that they usually have a long-term employment relationship (8.5 years on average) with the university and that most are active in professional societies, campus activities, or university service. In other words, the survey results clearly indicated that most part-time instructors at UD are not “highway fliers” but rather are an integral part of the UD faculty. It is imperative that they be treated equitably and included fully in the university community.

Over the years, the university has taken steps to improve working conditions for its part-time faculty members. For example, since the mid-1990s UD has offered educational workshops specifically for part-time instructors, has included them in faculty development activities, and has instituted formal orientations and a designated handbook for them. A recent salary survey showed that the lowest salary for part-time faculty members at UD is approximately 25 percent higher than average lowest part-time faculty salaries at nine other local institutions.

Despite these advances, problems continued to exist for part-time faculty members. The 2003 survey indicated that the university’s efforts had not eliminated dissatisfaction and a sense of disenfranchisement among parttime instructors. Furthermore, treatment of part-time faculty members varied widely across campus, ranging from examples that could be considered “best practice” to some that were simply unacceptable. It became apparent that the university needed to establish explicit norms for how it treats part-time instructors and ensure that these standards were being applied consistently in every unit on campus.

Partnership for Progress

With the support and encouragement of UD’s president, Daniel Curran, and the provost, Joseph Saliba, the authors of this article (respectively the current part-time faculty representative to the academic senate and the associate provost for faculty and administrative affairs) developed a university-wide “statement of practice” to articulate standards and guidelines related to part-time faculty members.

We decided to make student learning the central focus of our work. Recent studies (such as those reported in 2008 by Paul Umbach and Audrey Jaeger) conclude that student learning decreases in an environment with unsupported, disconnected, and disenfranchised part-time faculty members. Therefore, broad improvement in the integration of these instructors as valued members of the university community should enhance the environment for students, the faculty, and the university in general.

We began by compiling a comprehensive inventory of issues and concerns based on the results of previous surveys, analysis of administrative data on part-time faculty members, input from a range of campus constituents, and review of the published literature. In particular, we looked at UD’s practices in light of the AAUP’s recommendations for contingent faculty members. Our initial list included such items as salary, benefits, job support and security, faculty evaluation, titles, and general status on campus. When our perspectives on issues diverged, we focused on areas where the two of us could agree and achieve consensus with others at the university.

Indeed, a wide range of issues emerged, some easily resolved (such as informing part-time instructors of the level of administrative support they should receive), some more intractable (such as the fact that, per credit hour, part-time faculty members are paid less than half of what full-time professors receive at UD). Many of the problems were errors of omission rather than of commission. Typically, busy department chairs did not intentionally withhold support but merely did not recognize the full range of support that was needed. Similarly, we discovered that many part-time instructors were not aware of all the benefits to which they were already entitled, such as library privileges, free parking passes, free wellness classes, faculty development workshops, and discounts on campus recreational facilities and events.

With our comprehensive review complete, we grouped the key issues into four categories: (1) those that could be solved immediately by adopting best practices already in place in some units; (2) those that could be solved within the academic year; (3) those that could be solved in the near future; and (4) those that could not be resolved in the immediate future.

Using items in the first two categories, we created an outline of university-wide standards that might improve not just the working conditions for part-time faculty members but also their performance and level of commitment. The outline became the focus for a series of forums and meetings with a wide range of campus representatives. At each meeting, we presented the issues and our proposed solutions and encouraged discussion and suggestions from attendees. We were pleased with the almost universal, campuswide support for this effort.

Issues Addressed and Outcomes

Based on our dialogues, we compiled a document called “The Role of Part-Time Faculty: A Statement of Practice.” This statement sets explicit expectations for the treatment and performance of part-time faculty members at UD, addressing issues such as recruitment, hiring, departmental support of part-time instructors, and the number of courses that a part-time instructor can teach each semester. The university also raised the part-time faculty salary floor by 10 percent, committed to increasing this base salary at a rate equivalent to the full-time faculty raises, and arranged to regularize part-time faculty pay periods to better match those of the full-time professors.

We presented a list of practices by both university units and part-time faculty members that would be considered unacceptable. For example, the document clearly states that it is unacceptable for a department to delay filing the appointment papers for part-time faculty employees—a practice that thereby not only delays pay but also precludes access to needed campus services and facilities. Additionally, our research and discussions revealed some particular practices of part-time faculty members that might negatively affect student learning, such as telling students that they were “just” part time, as if to imply that the students should expect less from them. We state that the learning outcomes of a course should not, in any way, be compromised by the instructor’s employment status.

The statement of practice also clarified some points that are not always well understood, such as the contingent nature of the commitments and the fact that part-time faculty positions do not typically lead to full-time faculty employment. While acknowledging that part-time instructors are not eligible for most benefits (for example, health and life insurance), we compiled a list of lesser-known benefits for which they were eligible; for example, part-time faculty members at UD can contribute to a 403(b) retirement plan that the university will administer but not match.

Some issues were administrative in nature and easily resolved, such as eliminating the delay in filing appointment papers. Other problems were more challenging. For example, every semester, part-time faculty paychecks were delayed one full pay period relative to those of full-time faculty members. This two-week delay was a hardship for some; and for many part-time instructors, it also reinforced their perception of second-tier status. Changing this ingrained administrative procedure took effort, but the delay has now been eliminated.

Surprisingly, the question of what titles contingent faculty members should hold proved one of the most difficult to resolve. The simplest part was to establish the right of all faculty members o be addressed by students as “professor.” Beyond that, the issue proved much more complicated. The titles bestowed on part-time faculty members vary widely among units and often do not match the definitions in the faculty handbook. Formal faculty title definitions are under the jurisdiction of the academic senate, and part-time faculty preferences vary. Thus, the dialogue about formal university titles continues.

The most intractable issue was, predictably and understandably, part-time faculty salaries. The reality at UD and elsewhere is that part-time faculty members are paid substantially less than their full-time counterparts, do not receive a full benefits package, and are hired on a term-by-term basis. While UD has made progress in converting some part-time faculty positions into fulltime non-tenure-track lecturer positions with benefits, this conversion has been limited, and the economic reality—that using part-time instructors saves the university money—will not change in the foreseeable future. Instead of being discouraged by these challenges, we chose to direct UD toward feasible steps: the establishment of a higher salary floor, a commitment to raise part-time salaries annually, and the administration’s assurance that increases in the budget for the part-time faculty are actually spent on the part-time faculty.

Future Work

The work at UD is unfinished and will continue into the indefinite future. During the second and third years of this process (2009–11), we plan to address part-time faculty titles, include part-time faculty issues in a revision of the UD faculty handbook, and identify low-cost benefits that could be offered in the near term. A major focus, of course, is to work with university units to ensure that the statement of practice is fully implemented. Some issues will require long-term work, such as addressing the compensation disparity, establishing multiple-term contracts, and increasing the part-time faculty representation on the academic senate. UD has committed to yearly discussion and to projects that will improve the status of part-time instructors. In all cases, we believe that the students are the ultimate beneficiaries of these efforts.

The issues surrounding part-time faculty members are substantial and almost universal across American higher education. The collaborative process we used at UD does not offer one-size-fits-all solutions for every institution (or even our own!). However, our work has yielded encouraging results, and we believe that it is transferable to other institutions.

Those considering embarking on this type of discussion will need to be mindful of the unique mission and culture of their own institutions as they collect pertinent data, embrace dialogue between divergent views, and focus on progress rather than perfection. All sides must prepare for change and debate. Finally, enhanced student learning should be maintained as the central goal, recognizing that appropriate support for all faculty members is directly linked to learning results.

Heidi McGrew has been a part-time faculty member in the Department of Geology at the University of Dayton for fourteen years. She is currently serving her third term as the part-time faculty representative to the academic senate. Her e-mail address is heidi.mcgrew@notes .udayton.edu. Joe Untener is associate provost for faculty and administrative affairs and professor of engineering technology at the University of Dayton. His e-mail address is untener@udayton.edu.


A Laundry List for Improving Contingent Faculty Conditions

  • Survey the contingent faculty to identify key issues and monitor problems.
  • Provide contingent faculty members with elected, voting representation on the faculty governing organization.
  • Expect debate but remember that cooperation gets you farther than adversarial relationships.
  • Keep focused through an explicit common goal, such as the benefit to students.
  • Seek support from administrators (president and provost).
  • Engage tenure-line faculty members in the discussion.
  • Solicit suggestions, advice, and support from a broad range of campus constituents, including the provost, deans, department chairs, human resources staff members, and part-time faculty members themselves.
  • Set priorities for what is most easily accomplished in the short term, but do not lose sight of the long-term goals.

 

Comments:

McGrew and Untener, in “A Primer on Improving Contingent Faculty Conditions” in considering workplace improvements for part-time faculty at the University of Dayton , assert that “The most intractable issue was, predictably and understandably, part-time faculty salaries.”

While salary improvement would seem difficult to achieve in the short term, it is a discrete and understandable and unambiguous goal.  Perhaps equally intractable are the less easily defined issues, such as attitudes that surround the distinction of tenured and part-time faculty.  Telling is the statement: “… telling students that they were “just” part time, as if to imply that the students should expect less from them.”

Since the grades and credits awarded by part-time faculty are valued the same, and the tuition charged for their classes is the same, part-time should be equal in every way, though that is far from the reality in U.S. post-secondary education. Overcoming the discriminatory attitudes related to the status of being “just” part time may be hard to overcome.

J.L.

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