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The Rise of the Adjuncts

The NYT had a good piece not too long ago describing the increased role of adjunct (non-tenured, non-tenure track) professors at institutions of higher learning.

In 1960, 75 percent of college instructors were full-time tenured or tenure-track professors; today only 27 percent are. The rest are graduate students or adjunct and contingent faculty — instructors employed on a per-course or yearly contract basis, usually without benefits and earning a third or less of what their tenured colleagues make. The recession means their numbers are growing.

The Times article points readers to several sites where information can be had about the statistical breakdown of a school’s faculty, but later the article wisely advises that prospective students and parents ask what percentage of a school’s courses are taught by professors in each category. A good idea.

Let’s look at these two issues as they relate to Dartmouth. According to the Dartmouth Factbook, at the end of 2008, the College’s faculty broke down as follows:

Tenured Faculty: 283
Tenure-track Faculty: 98
Adjunct Faculty (full-time): 79
Adjunct Faculty (part-time): 100

A friend who is a data cruncher extraordinaire adduced the following figure for me: one third of the College’s courses in the fall term of 2009 were taught by non-tenured/non-tenure-track faculty. However, a few years ago, a senior administrator told me that over 40% of all classes were taught by adjunct faculty.

The reason for the disparity between the number of faculty members and the courses taught by the two groups has to do with the teaching load carried by professors in the different categories. The College’s tenured/tenure-track professors in the Humanities and Social Science divisions teach four courses/year and those in the Sciences teach three courses; however, adjunct faculty members can teach two courses per quarter, so their annual teaching load can surpass that of tenured/tenure-track profs.

As in all things, the issue here is balance. Any institution needs a certain percentage of adjunct professors — people to whom it does not make a long term commitment. For example, these flexible relationships allow the administration to shift resources from departments less favored by students over time to more popular ones. And often adjunct faculty are the highly qualified spouses of tenured professors, for whom there is no available tenured position. Their teaching and research can be first-rate.

That said, adjuncts can also be department orphans, excluded from departmental meetings and subject to little or no oversight. As the saying goes, quality may vary.

Overall, the College is doing far better than the national averages cited by the Times in this area. Let’s hope that economic pressures don’t push us away from a balanced commitment to undergraduates.

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