Will Happier Adjuncts Mean More Graduates?

A proposal presented this week at a national gathering of university professors in Washington suggests that providing career paths for adjunct, or contingent, faculty could ultimately improve graduation rates.

The “Contingency Plan,” developed by several professors at Middle Tennessee State University, would create four tiers for adjunct, or non-tenure track, professors ranging from contract instructor to full-time senior lecturer. In addition to higher pay, movement up the tiers would mean teaching more advanced classes, having separate office space and becoming eligible for faculty research support.

Adjuncts have a poorer record of student retention, said Scott McMillan, an associate professor at Volunteer State Community College who presented the proposal at the American Association of University Professors conference. That poorer record is in part due to less institutional support, McMillan said, and the proposal addresses that.

While the plan would increase pay for some faculty, its authors suggest that cost increases, at least at MTSU, would be offset by increased funding from the state because of expected student improvement. Tennessee is one of a number of states that funds its colleges based partly on performance. In Tennessee's outcomes-based formula, college funding takes into account the number of students achieving certain academic benchmarks, such as earning credits, successfully transferring from a community college to a four-year college or graduating.

At MTSU, the number of non-tenure track professors has increased by nearly 75 percent from the fall of 2005 to the fall of 2011, according to the proposal. “It's pretty standard practice that most incoming freshmen don't see a tenure-track faculty member until their second or third year,” says Warren Tormey, an assistant professor in English at MTSU and one of the report's authors.

Tormey, who is considered temporary despite having taught at MTSU for more than 17 years, says that in his department two-thirds of the classes are taught by contingent faculty. “There's a real sense that the job has become more about workload management than engaging with students,” he says.

Research has been mixed on whether adjuncts are associated with worse student performance and retention. There hasn't been much discussion of it so far in Tennessee, according to Russ Deaton, associate executive director of fiscal policy and administration at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “I don't know of any institution here that has examined this in any depth,” he said in an e-mail.

That's reflected in the proposal, which points out that one benefit of the plan is that it would “allow MTSU to position itself as an educational leader, showing a proactive approach to dealing with a nationwide trend in which contingent faculty have become the ‘New Faculty Majority.'”

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