Red Flag: Public Colleges Hiring Too Many Part-Time Faculty

A recent red-flag letter to Miami Dade College from its accreditors, which warned that administrators have relied too heavily on part-time faculty, isn’t so much an indictment of the college as it is of the state’s right-wing governor and state legislators.

This year, even while handing away billions of dollars in tax breaks to out-of-state companies, Florida legislators weighed 15 percent cuts to its higher-education budget. They cut, and they cut, and they cut – and then looked to students and colleges to make up the difference. This fall, students will pay 15 percent more in tuition – a hike that brings the cumulative increase in tuition to 52 percent since 2009.

So it’s no surprise that colleges and universities – not just in Florida, but all over the country – are turning to contingent or adjunct faculty, who almost always earn less money than their full-time peers, to fill their ranks. (At Miami Dade, for example, the average salary of a lecturer is about $30,000 less than that of a full-time professor.)

“The real issue is that we’re being sabotaged by funding,” said Mark Richard, president of the United Faculty of Miami Dade, a joint affiliate of NEA and the American Federation of Teachers. Increasing numbers of adjuncts is simply a “symptom of a much larger problem.”

At Miami Dade, the largest public college in the country, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools alleges that full-time faculty number merely 658, while part-time faculty have grown to 3,129. The college has argued that those numbers are inaccurate – and Richard believes that the accreditation truly is not in jeopardy.

“We’ve had an incredibly productive relationship with the administration on agreeing on the importance of increasing the number of core, full-time staff. They’re working on hiring,” he said.

Of course, Florida isn’t the only state that has cut its higher-education budget and, at the same time, forced its institutions of higher education to rely increasingly on adjunct faculty. At least 36 states have announced cuts to higher education this fall, totaling $5 billion or more.

Most troubling, a recent report from the non-profit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that many of these cuts weren’t even necessary. “To be sure, with tax collections in most states still well below pre-recession levels and lagging far behind the growing cost of maintaining services, additional cuts at some level were inevitable for 2012. But the cutbacks in services that many states are now imposing are larger than necessary,” they wrote.

What happens when colleges and universities rely on adjuncts? Certainly colleges do save money: many so-called part-timers teach a full load, but without the benefits or salary of a full-time, tenured professor. To make ends meet, many also have to work second or third jobs, spending more time in their cars than on campus interacting with students.  How can a student get extra help if their teacher doesn’t have an office? How can they be fully accessible if they’re working three jobs?

NEA strongly believes that part-time faculty members should be treated as professionals, and no different than full-time, tenured or permanent faculty. They should be able to bargain collectively and be involved in campus governance. Also, when it’s clear that adjunct positions are anything but temporary, they should be converted to full-time, tenure-track jobs.

The NEA also strongly believes that state legislators need to recognize that higher education is a path to economic prosperity – for individuals, their states, and this nation. “NEA members know the best comprehensive, pro-growth economic strategy is to invest in our students and middle class,” wrote NEA’s director of government relations, Kim Anderson, to U.S. House of Representatives members recently.

In Florida, NEA members and leaders are saying the same. “If you keep cutting and cutting higher ed, you’re actually cutting the economy of the state,” said Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida. “It’s the one state agency that doesn’t just take money and spend it, it actually returns an investment.”