There are numerous concerns with the rising tuition and ancillary fees here at the University of Nevada, Reno and elsewhere, and a question that often gets asked is “Does the additional money raise the quality of our education?”
I would like to pose a related question. If the money we pay to UNR represents an institutional bounty, do our instructors see a substantial part of it?
The argument is that if the faculty is experiencing the boon of tuition increases through raises, or if the best potential hires are swayed to come here because of salary, then perhaps students are reaping those benefits in the classroom.
However, more and more often, the answer is that, no, our instructors are struggling and we, as students, are shortchanged as a result. On February 6, PBS Newshour published a video that asked whether higher education in America was suffering from what it referred to as “adjunctivitis,” or the widespread use of low-pay, temporary employees.
It is a practice anyone that has taken a common core class taught by a graduate student has experienced, but it doesn’t only apply to our grad colleagues. Wide swathes of classes at universities are being taught by instructors that earn a pittance as low as $1,800 a class, according to the American Association of University Professors Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2012-13.
I admit I’m biased. I have friends who are staring down hardships due to the fact that they can only find temporary teaching work despite having terminal degrees; furthermore, I have skin in this game. My current educational trajectory has me looking toward the exact same hardships. It would be fair to say that if my chest were a mortar, I would burst my hot heart’s shell upon this subject.
In analyzing data from across the nation, the AAUP report concluded that “more than three of every four instructional staff positions (76 percent) are filled on a contingent basis. By far the largest category of employment is the part-time faculty.”
The report goes on to state that while part-time or adjunct faculty may have workloads comparable to those of full-time faculty, and that the work they do is principal instead of supplemental, these employees are viewed by their institutions as temporary. As such, they are given no benefits and no job security.
Instead of independent and financially secure instructors, the use of part-time faculty can leave students with professors that are overworked, underpaid, without the time to engage with students during office hours. Sometimes even without a location in which to hold office hours! The AAUP report suggests that “the failure to provide full support to instructors employed on a contingent basis deprives students of the highest-quality academic experience, and the predominance of contingent appointments weakens the academic enterprise.”
I’m sold; however, the debate is not so decided as the AAUP report might lead us to believe. That widespread part-time faculty use represents a threat to higher education is particularly controversial. In an article for the Reno Gazette-Journal, Stacy Burton, vice provost of faculty affairs at UNR, argued that the quality of education is consistent between part-time and full-time faculty and that part-time faculty often offer specific expertise or experience that a tenured professor might not have.
According to Burton, UNR tries to hire tenured or tenure-track faculty to fill in gaps made by retiring tenured faculty. Beyond this practice, she contends that part-time faculty offer flexible options for unexpected changes in enrollment and budgetary concerns.
While filling full-time positions with new full-time hires is a worthwhile goal, according to the same article, 58 percent of upper division courses and 32 percent of lower division courses were not taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty. Regardless of the policy, UNR relies on tons of part-time instruction.
Still, Burton illustrates important considerations. Having the flexibility to hire additional contract faculty as needed for a semester or two provides for more students getting into the classes they need, and instructors with professional expertise and experience are important resources for the Reynolds School of Journalism, the Orvis School of Nursing, etc. Besides, who hasn’t had one or two fantastic part-time instructors? Indeed, institutional designations are not indicators of instructional acumen.
My first fantastic part-time instructor was in the English department. His name is Nick Plunkey and nowadays he teaches at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. I was fortunate enough to take three classes from him in three semesters as a freshman and sophomore, and in that time I accrued a considerable debt to him. Because of him, I decided to pursue a degree in English. Before taking that first class, I never would have considered it. I have often wondered how different my college career would have been if I had the opportunity to build relationships like that with other instructors. Maybe I wouldn’t have left for so long.
Fortunately, since my return, I’ve been able to foster a short list of faculty that have similarly impacted me. In each case, it is the rapport I’ve established that is the most beneficial. Never mind grades, these relationships have helped me determine where I want to go with my degree.
Where I find Burton’s argument uncompelling is that it doesn’t seem to account for this rapport. For me, the relationships students build with faculty are crucial in determining whether or not institutions do students a disservice by increasing the percentage of classes taught by part-time instructors. An instructor cannot offer students time to address their worries and fears when he or she has little emotional availability because he or she is fearful of making ends meet. An instructor cannot offer the time to meet with students, if his or her schedule doesn’t allow for time to meet with them. An instructor cannot build lasting relationships with students if his contract won’t be renewed the following semester. Not every part-time instructor is suffering on the brink of poverty, and many that are, succeed despite the hardships. But even if, as students, our education isn’t suffering, we owe these part-time instructors more for what they’ve given and given up for us.
Logan Miller studies English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.