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Common Grace And The Use of Adjunct Faculty in Academia

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kimberley Garth-James
December 7, 2019

There’s considerable criticism for the growing use of the adjunct faculty model in higher education. The model offers education professionals some measure of economic privilege and status, but has clear flaws regarding the treatment of adjunct faculty. However, norms, values and standards in higher education are evolving, a recent example being a proposal in California that adjuncts be made time-card employees. (The proposal was not adopted—As Adrianna Kezar noted in a 2015 article, activities such as teaching and advising students are not easily captured with a time-card system.) One ongoing sea-change in modern academia is the growth in the number of students pursuing a college degree through distance education and taking some or all classes online—many of which are taught by adjuncts. Already in 2010, Marthann Schulte observed that distance education was fundamentally altering the faculty-student relationship, even as the professional status of teaching faculty has been shifting.

The term adjunct in this context refers to a non-tenured, full-or part-time temporary faculty member at a post-secondary institution. In 2016, the Association of University Professors report on the erosion of the traditional tenure system put the portion of faculty positions held by adjuncts at 50-65%. Adjuncts serve as temporary or part-time teachers and mentors. At the same time, there are concerns about a lack of skills among traditional faculty when it comes to new education technologies such as eLearning, as Panda and Mishra noted in a pair of studies in 2007 and 2010. There are also fundamental issues regarding the distribution of power within faculties and the low pay, lack of job security and, as just mentioned and discussed further below, the classification of adjuncts as time-card employees. Critics have also called into question the zero-sum game of academia in which traditional faculty monopolize the resources while adjuncts are left with the bulk of the teaching.

There is, accordingly, need to reconsider decisionmaking about the teaching model used in academia. There is no disputing the fact, no matter how controversial, that a shift toward greater reliance on adjunct faculty is continuing at most public, private and nonprofit colleges and universities, as AAUP reports published in 2009 and 2016 showed. Useful in this context is the concept of administration efficiency, which goes back to the 1940s (e.g. The Proverbs of Administration, Herbert Simon), but today accounts for decisions to hire adjuncts as driven by bottom-line considerations above all else. The economic imperatives that institutions of higher learning face are considerable and result in rising tuition, increasing teaching loads and reduced offerings for students. Not surprisingly, faculty members, students and their families, education experts and politicians are all calling for reforms of one sort or another.

The example alluded to above, the 2019 bill passed by the California legislation but vetoed by the governor (AB 1466), would have required private colleges and universities to document adjuncts’ work hours and provide greater pay equity by accounting for tasks such as attending mandatory meetings, class preparation time and fulfilling roles like advising previously filled by traditional faculty. This recognized adjuncts as skilled specialists whose employment reduces the costs of post-secondary education. As using adjuncts will continue, it is time to step back and reconsider a model that was devised for one purpose but has come to serve another. For a while provosts, deans, chairs and program directors initially looked to adjuncts decades ago to solve financial problems related to temporary downturns in enrollments. The portion of non-tenured faculty in college classrooms has continued to grow irrespective of fluctuations in enrollment. As part of the push to give some power to adjuncts, there have been sporadic efforts to unionize them at various institutions, but to little effect. Support for collective bargaining in such cases is linked to the tension between the drive for administrative efficiency and educators’ job satisfaction.

In 2016, Dave Jaimeson authored an article identifying the frustration associated with the adjunct faculty model as a key factor in the support for unionization. Occasionally, even tenured faculties unionize, for instance the California State University campuses and the Jesuit University of San Francisco and Mills College, also in California. However, because it is questionable whether broad support for unionization exists among adjuncts, some other path seems called for to improve adjuncts’ pay and working conditions and to provide all faculty with at least some measure of employment certainty.

A useful perspective on these issues is provided by the notion of common grace introduced by Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), a statesman, politician, and founder of the Free University of Amsterdam. Especially in a work republished in 2015 (Common Grace, Volume I), Kuyper spoke of common grace—which involves tenderness and compassion—when discussing ways of valuing individuals’ skills and making the work of all faculty members meaningful and fulfilling. Naturally, academic leaders such as deans, directors and chairs play crucial roles in defining meaningful, formative and normative tasks for adjuncts and providing them with opportunities for personal and professional development that can, in turn, improve their performance in the classroom.


Author: Dr. Kimberley Garth-James, Fulbright Specialist & Associate Professor Director MPA Program and Center for Public Affairs, Azusa Pacific University. E-mail: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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