An investigative committee created by the Tennessee Board of Regents reported back to the TBR in October with four key areas needing review regarding the system’s use of adjunct faculty.
Earlier in the year, the TBR established a committee—made up of representatives from TBR schools—to investigate the status of adjunct faculty use throughout the 19 TBR universities and community colleges in the state.
The purpose of this investigation was to “identify attributes of an optimal adjunct faculty experience and develop a rich inventory of best practices, current issues and future practices,” according to a release from Paula Short, vice-chancellor for academic affairs with the TBR.
The committee’s report focused on four key areas that most urgently need to be reviewed. The four areas are the definition of “adjunct;” training practices of adjunct faculty; the communication, working environments and sharing of best practices in and among institutions; and the compensation practices of adjunct faculty throughout TBR institutions.
Each area will be reviewed by action teams, which are currently being formed.
The first area— the definition of “adjunct”— is complicated because each institution currently has its own definition. The purpose of the action team dedicated to this area is to create a definition that will be applied across all TBR institutions.
Training practices also vary among institutions and even within individual departments and programs.
At Tech, adjuncts are most heavily used within the College of Arts and Sciences, particularly in areas such as math and English composition. Currently, each department takes on the responsibility for training and evaluating adjuncts within its program.
For example, adjuncts in English composition attend a mandatory one-day pre-fall training session and are offered the opportunity to attend additional training sessions throughout the year.
“I think our adjuncts do very well because they go through our training programs and sessions,” Linda Null, professor of English and communications and member of the TBR faculty sub-council, said. “However, the purpose of this review is to ask, ‘How can we ensure the best experience in working with adjunct faculty among the different schools?'”
The final two areas— evaluation of adjuncts’ teaching quality and the compensation these teachers receive— often clash.
A positive argument for using adjunct faculty is that they are often experienced and even active members in their respective fields, bringing to students practical knowledge in the classroom that can be useful after students enter the workforce.
“For most students, I would hope that it would be a good experience because an adjunct would be able to add to their learning by bringing real-world experience to the classroom,” Tracey Hackett, adjunct instructor of journalism, said. “I love being able to take my experiences and share them with others and hopefully make their learning easier and more applicable.”
Other departments have also had positive experiences with the educational quality of their adjunct faculty.
“In our department of sociology and political science, local judges and attorneys teach as valuable adjunct faculty in the pre-law program, and we are very grateful for their help,” Lori Maxwell, professor of political science, said.
Though, this real-world teaching approach can have its drawbacks, as many adjuncts are actively working in their fields in addition to their teaching responsibilities.
“The disadvantage of being an adjunct is that most of us are doing other things, too,” Hackett said. “Our focus is not just teaching. I think that also makes it hard for students who are used to being able to approach their professors on campus on a regular basis.”
The review of compensation practices present different challenges for TBR institutions.
“Compensation, I think, is the most urgent of any concerns that deal with adjunct faculty,” Tony Baker, director of composition and faculty member of TBR faculty sub-committee, said. “However, I think that to sequence compensation and evaluation is a mistake.”
Baker also said that he was concerned that adjunct faculty members at Tech have not received an increase in compensation in almost 15 years and they are not offered benefits such as health care or retirement.
Though, changing such a long-standing compensation rate will require considerable long-term budget planning from the University.
“The thing that concerns me is that there’s never any attention paid to budgeting policies regarding adjunct compensation,” Kurt Eisen, interim associate dean of Arts and Sciences, said.
In this era of budget cuts and an overall tightening of purse strings, especially at colleges and universities, many institutions worry about the financial impact if the expense of adjunct faculty use increases.
“If this task force has any effect, it should result in an increase in adjunct support and pay,” Eisen said. “The problem is that most of these institutions feel they can’t afford it.”
However, Eisen said that adjunct compensation is often invisible in the budget process and it’s sometimes not realized how much money the use of adjuncts actually saves universities. This is because adjuncts are paid less than tenured faculty and institutions are not required to provide benefits for the part-time employees.
“It’s doable but budget planning requires setting out priorities,” Eisen said. “It’s easy to afford things that you plan for but unexpected expenses seem more difficult to cover. Because that expense has been invisible for so long, raising adjunct compensation rates would initially present a shock to the budget.”
One goal that the compensation task force hopes to accomplish is to find out what the going compensation rates are for adjuncts in other states, particularly in surrounding states. Tech recently investigated market rates for other University employment areas, but the TBR looks to focus on adjunct compensation at this time.
Eisen said that, as would be the case in any profession, if the TBR rates are lagging behind, prospective adjunct faculty members may seek those better opportunities elsewhere.