Looking the Other Way? Accreditation Standards and Part-Time Faculty

Published March 2008.

This report was approved for publication by the Committee on Contingent Faculty and the Profession.

With purview from Maine to Guam, the six different regional accrediting organizations provide their member institutions with guidelines for managing issues of educational integrity and long-term financial viability, and also study sensitive issues in higher education. Most of the regional accrediting organizations contain separate commissions that deal with different types of educational institutions (for example, K–12 schools, technical schools, and colleges and universities). This report treats the following entities: the Middle States Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (hereafter Middle States commission), the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (New England commission), the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (North Central commission), the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (Northwest commission), the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (Southern commission), and two divisions of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges: the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (Western junior commission) and the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities (Western senior commission).1 The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has a separate commission, not included in this discussion, that accredits technical and career institutions.

According to their mission statements, accrediting organizations serve “the common good by assuring and advancing the quality of higher learning” (North Central) and by mustering an authority that “defines, maintains, and promotes educational excellence” (Middle States). As the Western senior commission phrases it, the goal of accreditation is to foster “institutional engagement with issues of educational effectiveness and student learning.” The influence of accrediting organizations is enhanced by the fact that accreditation is required for access to federal funds such as student aid.

There is no shortage of verbiage in the documents written by accrediting organizations to direct institutions of higher learning in their efforts to “assure educational quality, enhance institutional effectiveness, and foster continuous improvement” (Northwest). All of the organizations publish handbooks that explain and amplify their standards, requirements, and procedures. These documents range from twenty-eight pages (New England) to nearly two hundred pages (North Central). While repetition is legion, the seven handbooks studied, together with their supplementary publications, comprise nearly one thousand pages.

Since their founding, the regional accrediting organizations have confronted and established positions on many contentious issues in American higher education. To one extent or another, for example, agencies have issued guidelines to address faculty evaluation, academic freedom, diversity, distance learning, and intellectual property rights. With commissioners and evaluators trained and experienced in higher education, one might expect them to be in the vanguard of the debate over parttime faculty. They are not. While the AAUP, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers, among others, have documented the growth of non-tenure-track appointments and detailed the ensuing deterioration of the profession, accrediting agencies have been largely silent. Most accreditors take no position on faculty who, whether full or part time, are off the tenure track—and the term “contingent faculty” appears nowhere in any of the standards documents.

Because accreditors do not address the whole spectrum of contingent faculty, the present study is a survey of accreditation handbooks and selected statements relating to part-time faculty (“part time” and “adjunct” are used synonymously in this document). Many of the guidelines and principles in accreditation handbooks are drafted in such general terms that, given an effective spin, virtually any topic or issue could be said to have been addressed. Often, handbooks refer to requirements for “the faculty” in ways that make it unclear whether full-time faculty or all faculty are meant.
The statements explored in the following pages are those that touch directly on faculty employment status: definitions; qualifications, training, and evaluation; guidelines for faculty sufficiency; and academic freedom.


While the existence of contingent employment in the academy is well documented, accreditors differ substantially in their recognition of full- and part-time faculty status (table 1). Only two accreditors, the Northwest and Western senior commissions, provide true definitions of the term “part-time faculty.” The two statements are nearly identical, and both appear in the respective glossaries (and not in guidelines themselves). A part-time faculty employee, according to the Northwest commission, is one “whose major responsibility is not related to the institution in question.”2

The New England commission takes a different tack, leaving the matter of definition to individual institutions. “Faculty categories (e.g., full-time, part-time, adjunct),” writes the New England commission in its 2005 Standards for Accreditation, “are clearly defined by the institution as is the role of each category in fulfilling the institution’s mission and purposes.” The Middle States commission regards the term “faculty” as inclusive: “the term ‘faculty’ shall be broadly construed to encompass qualified professionals such as third parties contracted by the institution, part-time or adjunct faculty, and those assigned responsibilities in academic development and delivery.”3
Even when accreditors avoid the issue of contingent faculty in their standards guidelines, they may still require that statistics on faculty be separated into fulland part-time categories. The North Central commission, for example, fails to define categories of faculty anywhere in its 192-page Handbook of Accreditation, but mandates in an appendix that a “list of all full-time and part-time faculty [should be] available to the review team.” While likewise avoiding any distinction between full- and part-time faculty, the Western junior commission requires that listings of the two groups be separate in catalogs. And the Northwest commission asks that for the use of evaluation teams, “statistics [should be] available concerning faculty and administration characteristics, such as numbers of males and females, minorities, full-time and part-time faculty.”4

As used by some college and university administrations today, the term “part-time faculty” is a misnomer. A large percentage of those designated part-time are actually full-time faculty with part-time pay and few or no benefits. In its glossary definitions of “faculty,” however, the Western senior commission adds an instructive caveat: “Part-time or adjunct faculty [are those] whose major responsibility is not related to the institution in question. These faculty are customarily assigned one or two classes with class-related responsibilities only.” The definition used by the Northwest commission is nearly as limiting and also includes the phrase “one or two classes.”5 While we have no evidence that accreditors tally the number of courses taught by individual adjuncts, institutions that regularly employ part-time faculty to teach three or more courses clearly practice outside accepted standards for the Western senior and Northwest commissions.

Qualifications, Training, and Evaluation

Although accrediting commissions are reluctant to recognize differences between full- and part-time faculty, they are in general agreement that the latter group must be supported and integrated into the college or university community (table 2). In assessing “Organizational Structures to Ensure Sustainability,” the Western senior commission asks for information and policy documents that address ways in which “part-time faculty are oriented, supported, and integrated appropriately into the academic life of the institution.” The Northwest commission takes the most comprehensive position, suggesting that part-time faculty should be well informed not only about the institution, but also about their individual rights: “Employment practices for part-time and adjunct faculty include dissemination of information regarding the institution, the work assignment, rights and responsibilities, and conditions of employment.” The Middle States commission specifies that institutions relying on part-time, adjunct, temporary, or other faculty on time-limited contracts should write employment policies and practices that are as carefully developed and communicated as those for full-time faculty. The North Central commission simply asks institutions to describe how they “use” part-time faculty.6

As the numbers of part-time faculty have risen steadily over the past two decades, questions have inevitably arisen about the qualifications of individuals who work amid constant turnover and who are often appointed at the last minute. That part-time faculty should be qualified is self-evident; the Northwest commission, however, weighs in with a dedicated statement: “Part-time and adjunct faculty are qualified by academic background, degree(s), and/or professional experience to carry out their teaching assignment and/or other prescribed duties and responsibilities in accord with the mission and goals of the institution.” Other accreditors are less energetic in separating the criteria for full- and parttime faculty qualifications (table 3). The New England commission sums up the majority view by recommending simply that “all faculty pursue scholarship designed to ensure they are current in the theory, knowledge, skills, and pedagogy of their discipline or profession.”7

At many institutions, tenure-track faculty build a record of interaction with peers and students, undergo rigorous evaluations by department and school committees, and conduct research or creative projects that are open to public scrutiny. Part-time faculty, on the other hand, may be evaluated solely on the basis of unsigned student course evaluations.8 Both the North Central and Northwest commissions acknowledge that part-time faculty should be evaluated. In an appendix, the North Central commission states that “policies related to the employment, orientation, supervision, and evaluation of full-time faculty, part-time faculty, and graduate teaching assistants” should be available to the evaluation team; a Middle States option for “Analysis and Evidence” is nearly identical.9

As AAUP general secretary Ernst Benjamin has written, however, the institution is the body that ensures that only qualified and effective adjuncts are hired and retained, and there is ample evidence that where parttime faculty are evaluated at all, methods are divergent and unreliable.10 None of the accrediting groups acknowledges that the evaluation of a tenure-track colleague is rather different from the professional assessment of a part-time colleague (who may be on campus only two or three hours a week). The Middle States commission asks for evidence that “criteria for the appointment, supervision, and review of teaching effectiveness for part-time, adjunct, and other faculty [are] consistent with those for full-time faculty.” Without mentioning faculty specifically, the North Central commission supposes that “the organization’s mission, vision, values, goals, and priorities should help it choose the self-study and evaluation processes that afford the greatest value.”11

Dependence on Part-Time Faculty

With 68 percent of college faculty holding non-tenuretrack positions, an institutional dependence on contingent faculty might be expected to set off warning signals for accreditors.12  As noted, accreditors generally do not distinguish between tenure-track and non-tenure-track full-time faculty. With regard to part-time faculty, only one agency offers direct guidelines (table 4). The New England commission requires that “the institution avoids undue dependence on part-time faculty, adjuncts, and graduate assistants to conduct classroom instruction.” While the inclusion of the guideline is distinctive, exactly what constitutes “undue dependence” is left to the institution to determine. The Southern commission instructs that the use of part-time faculty should be “judicious.” In a rare reference to part-time faculty, the North Central commission holds “the organization” responsible for program integrity regardless of faculty status: “General education must be valued and owned by the organization whether its courses are created, purchased, or shared; whether faculty are full-time, parttime, or employed by a partner organization.”13

For other accreditors, instructional priorities are “valued and owned” by the faculty—whether their employment is full or part time. The Western junior commission states this position with clarity: the institution “relies on faculty expertise for quality of programs.” The Southern commission allocates responsibility in a similar way, saying that “the institution places primary responsibility for the content, quality, and effectiveness of its curriculum with its faculty.” At least one accreditor holds institutions directly responsible if they choose to build programs largely on the backs of adjuncts. “The greater the dependence on [part-time] employees,” writes the Middle States commission, “the greater is the institutional responsibility to provide orientation, oversight, evaluation, professional development, and opportunities for integration into the life of the institution.” The Northwest commission advises a candidate institution to demonstrate “that it periodically assesses institutional policies concerning the use of part-time and adjunct faculty in light of the mission and goals of the institution.”14

While only the New England commission cautions specifically about a dependence on adjuncts, most accreditors recommend that institutions employ “sufficient” numbers of full-time faculty. The Western senior commission statement is typical of these relatively weaker guidelines. While avoiding a reference to adjuncts, it acknowledges the possibility of limits on part-time appointments: “The institution demonstrates that it employs a faculty with substantial and continuing commitment to the institution sufficient in number, professional qualifications, and diversity to achieve its educational objectives, to establish and oversee academic policies, and to ensure the integrity and continuity of its academic programs wherever and however delivered.”15

A reference to “out-of-class” responsibilities in the New England commission handbook acknowledges that faculty do more than transfer knowledge in the classroom. Institutions using adjuncts who are hired only to appear for class and disappear thereafter may not fulfill New England’s requirement that there should be “an adequate number of faculty whose time commitment to the institution is sufficient to assure the accomplishment of class and out-of class responsibilities essential to the fulfillment of institutional mission and purposes.” The Western senior commission insists that institutions should employ “at least one full-time faculty member for each graduate degree program offered.” Both the Western junior and Middle States commissions want a “core” of full-time faculty that is responsible to the institution. For the Northwest commission, the faculty must be “adequate for the educational levels offered, including full-time faculty representing each field in which it offers major work.” Likewise, the Southern commission requires an “adequate” number of full-time faculty “to support the mission of the institution and to ensure the quality and integrity of its academic programs.”16

The North Central commission’s handbook includes neither a discussion of faculty status nor a statement on institutional commitment. There are no written guidelines, in fact, precluding a faculty that is 100 percent part time. Indeed, having accredited a for-profit institution (the University of Phoenix) as early as 1978, the North Central commission seems more comfortable than other accrediting agencies with a redefinition of higher education itself. Its commissioners, for example, see little need for old-fashioned, one-on-one faculty-student interaction: “Mentoring and advising, once thought to be primarily a faculty task, may now be found throughout an organization, particularly in the student services area.” Throughout its handbook, the North Central commission presents itself as receptive to a corporate model of higher education. In the introduction to one of four major accreditation criteria (“Acquisition, Discovery, and Application of Knowledge”), the commission employs a term popularized in the late 1950s by corporate management strategist Peter Drucker: “Computers may have introduced the Information Age, but in a short time our definitional language for this new era began to include the term knowledge worker. The shift is as important as it is misunderstood.” While admitting that “knowledge worker” is a “jarring” term for some in the professoriate, the North Central commission feels confident that “the juxtaposition of these two words says something important to the academy and to students.” Those of us in the academy may rightly be jarred by the substitution of the term “knowledge worker” (an employee whose ideas are managed) for “professor” (one whose freedom to pursue individual research is protected by tenure).17

Academic Freedom

Rooted in the nineteenth-century Humboldtian model, academic freedom is a sacred principle of American higher education that guarantees research and publication rights for individual professors. Each of the accreditors addresses these rights and protections in some way, although the focus and details of their statements vary (table 5).18 Likewise, statements on the rights of parttime faculty range from unequivocal guarantees to casual inference. The New England commission statement is one of the more helpful for adjuncts in mandating that academic freedom be extended to all faculty “regardless of rank or term of appointment.” Although the Middle States commission lumps principles of academic freedom in with those related to “intellectual freedom” and “freedom of expression,” it also specifies that these principles should apply to adjuncts as well as full-time faculty, staff, and students. In a reference to academic freedom as affecting all members of the institutional community, the Western senior commission appears willing to afford rights to part-time as well as full-time faculty.19

While the Northwest commission provides a lengthy and detailed section on academic freedom, there is no mention of specific faculty categories. Other accreditors include generic statements and guidelines—some without reference to faculty in any category. While allowing individual institutions to define “academic freedom” for themselves, the Southern commission suggests that information on related campus issues along with their eventual resolution might be included in a self-study document.

The North Central commission talks about “freedom of inquiry,” asking member institutions to create a climate that “celebrates intellectual freedom.” The commission is alone, however, in excluding from its handbook any reference to the term “academic freedom.”

Recent Actions

Accrediting commissions provide at least one useful tool for measuring their diligence in enforcing standards. Agency websites or newsletters include sections disclosing “Recent Actions” (petitions for candidacy, initial accreditation, continuing accreditation, and the like). The content of these public disclosures runs the gamut from a list of actions presented without commentary to detailed report summaries that refer to specific criteria in published documents (table 6). The last three reports of the Western senior commission are available online; for June 2007, the site reports the denial of a candidacy petition, several warnings, and a probation, although no details are given. Also without comment, the North Central commission publishes a list of institutions accredited, renewed, and referred. For the most recent commission meeting (October 2007), one “on notice” listing is documented. Although the New England commission lists dozens of accredited and renewed institutions, no negative decisions are reported for April 2007.

Other accreditor websites and published reports contain more specific and detailed information. Through November 2007, the Middle States commission lists several negative actions with a detailed history available. Reasons given for these warnings or probations range from leadership and financial concerns to questions of “shared governance” and “academic rigor.” During the same period, three institutions were removed from warning status and dozens were granted initial or renewed accreditation. By far the most complete and useful summary of commission decisions is published online by the Southern commission. For June 2007, the commission specifies over thirty initial or continued accreditations and four removal of warning actions. A review of actions in earlier periods (also conveniently available online) shows numerous warnings and probations issued.


Despite a collective sidestep on the issue of part-time faculty, statements on student learning and support, faculty development, and the necessity of maintaining a faculty of involved and knowledgeable individuals exist in all accreditation handbooks. The problem with these lofty statements, however, is that their vagueness allows institutions to spin their compliance evidence. A standard requiring that institutions comment on their use of parttime faculty, for example, is much weaker than one stating that part-time faculty should generally teach “one or two courses.” Likewise, when agencies mandate that part-time faculty must be evaluated without specifying which institutional constituencies are involved in the evaluation process, the requirement means little. If an instructor is evaluated by students, using an instrument that may or may not have statistical validity, then a type of “evaluation” has taken place. On the other hand, requiring that part-time faculty have evaluations “consistent” with those for full-time faculty (as Middle States does) would seem to discourage the wholesale use of adjuncts. After all, in addition to budgetary incentives, avoidance of the due process associated with tenuretrack evaluations is an incentive for administrators to create part-time positions. If evaluations for part-time faculty are required to be equally rigorous and comprehensive, as some accreditors stipulate, then enforcing institutional compliance would remove one of the incentives for hiring adjuncts.

In 1997, Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Courtney Leatherman asked, “Do Accreditors Look the Other Way When Colleges Rely on Part-Timers?”20 Leatherman noted that many accreditors’ guidelines pertaining to part-time faculty were vague and that the accreditors had been criticized for not enforcing the guidelines that were on the books. At about the same time, activist Keith Hoeller filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the Northwest commission for failure to enforce its own policies regarding faculty. In deflecting Hoeller’s complaint, the commission argued that its standards were never meant to be applied to part-time faculty. The commission has since revised the handbook to better separate these categories of faculty responsibility.

Unfortunately, more than a decade after Leatherman’s article, little has changed. Little, that is, except the proportion of college faculty now off the tenure track. Today, this figure has reached 68 percent. While a few accreditors have added statements dealing with the evaluation and support of part-time faculty, there is little evidence that noncompliance with these statements has been a consistent factor in institutional evaluation. Because of the relatively scant information released by some accreditors, the public often has no way of discerning the specific problems leading to actions taken by accreditors or the details of how an institution achieved a subsequent reinstatement to good standing.

Despite generally dismal news for the academy, there are also occasional rays of hope. While the North Central commission avoids well-defined terms such as “professor,” “tenure,” and “academic freedom,” and does not prohibit institutions from employing no tenured faculty at all, the Southern commission has taken a different position, at least in some cases. In the most recent commission report ( June 2007), one denial of candidacy and one probation were based at least in part on core requirement 2.8: “The number of full-time faculty members is adequate to support the mission of the institution and to ensure the quality and integrity of its academic programs.” 21 While other problem areas were listed in both cases, a failure to provide a core of full-time faculty did, in fact, affect accreditation decisions by the Southern commission. Based on information available to the general public, the same cannot be said without qualification for any other accrediting agency.

EARL HENRY (Music), Webster University


1. The sidebar on page 90 lists the websites of these regional accreditors as well as other accreditation resources. Back to text

2. Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, Accreditation Handbook, 2003 (updated 2008), www.nwccu.org/Pubs%20Forms%20and%20Updates/Publications/Accreditation%20..., 168. Back to text

3. Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Standards for Accreditation, 2005, www.neasc.org/cihe/standards_for_accreditation_2005.pdf, 14; Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education, 2006, www.msche.org/publications/CHX06060320124919.pdf, 37. Back to text

4. The Higher Learning Commission, A Commission of the North Central Association, Handbook of Accreditation, 3rd ed., 2003, www.ncahlc.org/download/Handbook03.pdf, 9.4-2; Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accreditation Reference Handbook, 2007, www.accjc.org/standards.htm, 77; Northwest commission, Accreditation Handbook, 67. Back to text

5. Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Handbook of Accreditation, 2001, www.wascsenior.org/wasc/Doc_Lib/2001%20Handbook.pdf, 122; Northwest commission, Accreditation Handbook, 168. Back to text

6. Western senior commission, Handbook of Accreditation, 26; Northwest commission, Accreditation Handbook, 63; Middle States commission, Characteristics of Excellence, 38; North Central commission, Handbook of Accreditation, 6.4-6. Back to text

7. Northwest commission, Accreditation Handbook, 63; New England commission, Standards for Accreditation, 16.  Back to text

8. AAUP, AAUP Contingent Faculty Index 2006 (Washington, D.C.: AAUP, 2006), 9. Back to text

9. North Central commission, Handbook of Accreditation, 9.4-2; Middle States commission, Characteristics of Excellence, 39. Back to text

10. Ernst Benjamin, “How Over-Reliance on Contingent Appointments Diminishes Faculty Involvement in Student Learning,” Peer Review (Fall 2002): 7. Back to text

11. Middle States commission, Characteristics of Excellence, 38; North Central commission, Handbook of Accreditation, 5.3-2. Back to text

12. AAUP, “Trends in Faculty Status, 1975–2005,” Academe (January–February 2008): 6. Back to text

13. New England commission, Standards for Accreditation, 15; Southern Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Colleges, Resource Manual for Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement, 2005, www.sacscoc.org/pdf/handbooks/Exhibit%2031.Resource%20Manual.pdf, 16; North Central commission, Handbook of Accreditation, 3.4-3. Back to text

14. Western junior commission, Accreditation Reference Handbook, 18; Southern commission, Resource Manual, 46; Middle States commission, Characteristics of Excellence, 38; Northwest commission, Accreditation Handbook, 63. Back to text

15. Western senior commission, Handbook of Accreditation, 25. Back to text

16. New England commission, Standards for Accreditation, 14; Western senior commission, Handbook of Accreditation, 21; Western junior commission, Accreditation Reference Handbook, 9; Middle States commission, Characteristics of Excellence, 37; Northwest commission, Accreditation Handbook, 31; Southern commission, Resource Manual, 16. Back to text

17. North Central commission, Handbook of Accreditation, 3.2-11, 3.2-12, 3.2-14. Back to text

18. See, in addition to table 5, the compilation of regional accrediting standards concerning academic freedom that precedes this report. Back to text

19. New England commission, Standards for Accreditation, 15; Middle States commission, Characteristics of Excellence, 21; Western senior commission, Handbook of Accreditation, 18. Back to text

20. Courtney Leatherman, “Do Accreditors Look the Other Way When Colleges Rely on Part-Timers?” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 7, 1997. Back to text

21. Southern commission, Resource Manual, 16.  Back to text