Sharp rise in adjunct professors has obvious downsides


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The make-up of the nation’s higher-education faculty is in flux.

In 1960, 75 percent of college teachers were full-time tenured or tenure-track professors, according to the New York Times. At present, only 27 percent fit that description.

Who’s taking their place? Adjuncts, part-time professors hired to teach on a per-course or yearly basis. At the University of Iowa, the number of adjuncts has increased 19 percent in the last five years, compared with a 6 percent spike among permanent faculty.

Adjuncts may provide some of the same advantages as professors, but they are treated differently when it comes to pay and benefits. The UI and institutions across the country should do what they can to halt the increase in adjuncts and focus on promoting full-time professors.

Professor Christopher Morphew, the chairman of the educational policy and leadership studies department, didn’t label the shift toward adjunct professors as a decidedly negative.

“I would hesitate to put it in either the good or bad category,” he told the Editorial Board. “My perspective is that many adjuncts are very good teachers. In fact, I know some adjuncts that are as good, if not better, than full-tenured professors.”

Indeed, adjunct professors can be just as qualified and effective as full-time professors. And in many cases, adjunct professors bring a wealth of real-world experience that benefits students. It is in areas that are more tangible, however, that we see a lack of fairness.

A recent survey commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers, polled 500 adjunct faculty members across the nation, and the results were alarming. A full 57 percent of those surveyed said their salaries fall short, and only 28 percent say they receive health-insurance benefits. In addition, 41 percent of those surveyed said job safety falls short of expectations. Therein lies the problem. While adjuncts may provide excellent instruction, it’s troubling universities are turning to them — and their relatively paltry salaries and benefits — with little regard for the negative implications.

“I think the problem comes from broader questions, such as, is it fair or equitable to pay people salaries that are low and not provide benefits in many cases?” Morphew said. “It’s tough to ask people to act like professionals, when in many ways, you don’t treat them like professionals.”

The continued lack of support for higher education across this country — and in this state as well — has undoubtedly played a significant role in the slow growth in the number of full-time professors.

In a time of perpetually tight budgets, universities rightly recognize that hiring adjunct instructors saves money. And, with little indication that legislators have had it with continued higher education divestment, future students may continue to find themselves in classrooms headed by adjunct professors.

But make no mistake about it — this insidious trend should be halted.

The individuals seeking and occupying adjunct-professor positions are not to blame for the current situation. Their commitment to education — despite receiving fewer benefits and lower pay than regular professors — should be applauded.

But the current situation is unfair both to the individuals holding these positions and the students they educate. Universities should make more of an effort to either produce more tenure-track professionals, or provide current adjunct professors the opportunities for advancement in position, pay, and benefits.

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