Addressing the Silent Majority: Part-time faculty issues Through the Lens of Equity, Engagement and Empowerment

Foothill College, The ASCCC Part-time Faculty Task Force
West LA College, The ASCCC Part-time Faculty Task Force
Mt. San Jacinto College, The ASCCC Part-time Faculty Task Force

According to the numbers, part-timers make up a majority of the instructional faculty at our colleges.  Both part- and full-time non-tenure-track appointments are increasing. Non-tenure-track positions of all types now account for 76% of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education. [1]

Part-time faculty challenges are reflected in the news.  The following headlines have been seen in major publications:

“Someone Calculated How Many Adjunct Professors Are On Public Assistance, And The Number Is Startling” (Huffington Post);

“When a College Contracts ‘Adjunctivitis,’ It’s the Students Who Lose” (PBS NEWSHOUR);

“Are Adjunct Professors the Fast-food Workers of the Academic World?” (The Guardian).

While a small percentage of part-time faculty are specialists or practitioners of a profession such as law or architecture, where teaching is ancillary to their primary occupation, this situation is the exception rather than the norm.[2]  Often referred to as freeway flyers, part-time instructors are forced to travel between campuses to make ends meet.  Essentially flying without nets, they are earning less with no health insurance, retirement benefits. The excessive use of and inadequate compensation and professional support for contingent faculty exploits these colleagues.[3] Reporter Gary Rhoades declared, “Adjunct professors are the new working poor.”  Rhoades continues on to say,

The dirty little secret is that higher education is staffed with an insufficiently resourced, egregiously exploited, contingent “new faculty majority.” In addition to the 49.3% of faculty in part-time positions (70% in community colleges), another 19% are full-time, nontenure-track. (These numbers do not include graduate assistants or postdocs.) [4]

Collective bargaining issues focus on pay parity, equal pay for equal work.  However, with respect to academic and professional matters, the issues do not appear to be as clear-cut.  According to the Delphi Project on The Changing Faculty and Student Success, the current policies and practices for non-tenure-track faculty are obstacles to providing effective instruction and student support that promotes positive student learning outcomes.[5]  In order to build awareness and improve conditions among the faculty, tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty (NTTF) should be recognized as part of the same community – as one faculty. [6]  These current policies and practices often exclude NTTF from governance and planning, although faculty are most committed when they can be engaged.[7]  How one defines academic and professional matters as it relates to part-time faculty is key.  Part-timers are encouraged to join committees, attend workshops, college-wide events, and be active participants in their departments.  They are often told that having a college “presence” will reflect their commitment to the institution, make them more valuable and marketable, and increase their chances of being hired full-time.  But these suggestions carry little weight, especially where activities are continuously scheduled during the day when part-timers are busy working and flying between colleges. Over time, these practices leave part-time faculty feeling disconnected, irrelevant, and disrespected. The part-time faculty may also disengage.

In an effort to address these issues, the Academic Senate Part-Time Task Force has been created, in part, to explore ways to engage “the new majority” outside of the classroom.  As we know with students, one of the easiest ways to get people engaged is to help them understand why they should care, essentially “what’s in it for them.” As individuals involved with academic senate or other college communities know, participatory governance is an essential part of being a faculty member. 

We can learn from models for inclusion that already exist. Santa Monica College created an adjunct survey in 2014 which resulted in an Adjunct Committee that “provides the Academic Senate with input on both campus issues relevant to adjunct faculty; fosters respect and inclusion, collegiality, and professionalism among all faculty, full and part-time; and interacts with adjunct faculty statewide on both faculty and adjunct-specific issues.” [8]

This notion of fostering “respect and inclusion, collegiality, and professionalism among all faculty, full and part-time” is important and, if carried out, can help to narrow the divide between full- and part-time faculty.  Currently, education is being viewed through the lens of equity and social justice.  A holistic approach to education is taking place. Practices are being implemented that provide access to learning and support services, promote engagement, and strengthen student success. Growth mindset[9] is being used as a tool to facilitate learning and increase achievement.  Growth mindset popularity has no doubt sprung as a result of scientific research in the area, as well as Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset.  Dweck says, “Mindsets are beliefs—beliefs about yourself and your most basic qualities.”  Two basic mindsets exist, the fixed and the growth mindset.  People who tend toward a fixed mindset harbor the notion that their abilities and intelligence level is unchanging and fixed, a sort of “you have it or you don’t” take on personal talents.  In contrast, those who tend toward a growth mindset see practice and effort as an integral part of achieving and developing their skills and believe that qualities they may not have now can be developed over time through dedicated effort. If we make a collective shift towards a growth mindset, which encompasses professional matters as it relates to treatment of part-time faculty and support, significant gains can be made for both faculty and student empowerment. 

Studies have shown a connection between part-time faculty and student learning, such as private offices or shared workspaces at colleges, access to resources to support instruction, proper orientation for new hires, funding and programming to support professional development, and mentoring opportunities for non-tenure-track faculty to work.[10]

Studies also suggest the importance of participation in college governance, including meaningful and representative levels of inclusion in governance and decision making processes, in committees and working groups to address non-tenure-track faculty concerns, and in building awareness for issues.[11]

Part-timers are working diligently to shift the culture, but they need full-time faculty to help champion the cause. Good leaders and instructors create a resonant, authentic relationship with others they are in sync with rather than employing a top down alignment strategy. Through this relationship, one is able to excite, encourage, and challenge each other as colleagues, which allows the part-time faculty to find meaning in the subject and to be engaged, involved and empowered to move forward.  Faculty, staff, and administrators that are connected, that model equity towards each other, will help students see that they chose the right college and that it is one that values people.  Just like students, part-time faculty need to know that they made the right choice in teaching for the college. We are all more likely to stay somewhere where we feel valued. The common misconception that part-time faculty are always on the run and are not invested in any one college stems from the fact that they often drive from one college to another just to survive. If we are truly student-centered institutions, we need to develop the programs and dedicate the resources to train, value and retain high quality part-time faculty.

Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of The Equal Justice Initiative, discusses his career as a criminal attorney fighting for the poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised in his memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.[12] In his Harvard John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum talk, Stevenson offers four ways to fix our broken justice system.[13]  These suggestions are applicable in any situation where inequality exists.

1. Get proximate to the thing that matters.  Proximity is essential and will change you.

2. Change the narrative that sustains the problem. You must stop allowing the narrative to be crafted by fear and anger.

3. Protect our hope. Use hope to respond to negativity.

4. Do things that make you uncomfortable. Choose to move beyond the comfortable and convenient in your fight for justice.

Shifting the culture will require full-time faculty to get proximate to the issues that matter to part-timers in order to facilitate changing the narrative to inclusiveness.  We must collectively commit to doing what is uncomfortable and inconvenient and protect our hope in the process while we seek to eliminate the practices that marginalize part-time faculty and negatively effect student outcomes and the quality our workplace.  We must work together as one faculty towards a common goal of creating and maintaining institutions of higher learning that promote student success and social justice for everyone.

[1] Background Facts on Contingent Faculty, American Association of University Professors,

[2] Background Facts on Contingent Faculty, American Association of University Professors,

[3] Background Facts on Contingent Faculty, American Association of University Professors,

[4] Adjunct Professors Are The New Working Poor, Gary Rhoades,

[5] The Delphi Project on The Changing Faculty and Student Success, p. 12.…

[6] The Delphi Project,14.

[7] The Delphi Project,14.

[9] Dweck, Carol. Mindset.

[10] The Delphi Project, p. 39.

[11] The Delphi Project, p. 38.

[12] Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. (Spiegel & Grau, 2014)

[13] Stevenson, Bryan. John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.