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Academic Hiring Trends Toward Part-time Faculty

Institutions have grown increasingly dependent on adjunct faculty over the last few decades, and scholars of color are ever present among this group.

Dr. Ansley Abraham and Dr. Anthony DePass started their academic careers as part-time adjunct instructors, as many young scholars find they must.

Abraham was an adjunct for a little more than a year. “I got out of it because teaching wasn’t where I wanted to go. I was more interested in research and policy,” explains the sociologist, who has directed a program for minority doctoral scholars at the Southern Regional Education Board since 1993.

DePass started teaching at Long Island University-Brooklyn as an adjunct before completing his Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology and moving to the tenure track. Since 2002, he has been assistant vice president for faculty research development at LIU-Brooklyn, while retaining his tenured appointment as an associate professor.

Unlike Abraham and DePass, many aspiring scholars get stuck in part-time jobs as faculty adjuncts, whose numbers have been proliferating as colleges and universities of every description cope with financial constraints. Other young scholars wind up in professional support positions, without responsibilities for instruction or research.

Several recent studies examining campus employment patterns over the last 10, 20 or 30 years show an increasing dependence on adjuncts and a large expansion of support staff, the latter driven by the need to comply with government regulations, provide information technology services and meet student demand for creature comforts on campus. Among the part-time instructors, the presence of scholars of color has been growing the fastest.

The growth of professional support personnel has siphoned off some minority scholars frustrated in their pursuit of tenuretrack positions, particularly in the life sciences, says DePass, who chairs the minority affairs committee at his institution. A large number of minorities, particularly women, wind up in science-related support positions that do not involve teaching or conducting research and rarely lead to regular faculty positions, he explains.

Dr. James T. Minor, an assistant professor of higher education at Michigan State University, says the trends toward employing more adjuncts and support staff are less pronounced at historically Black colleges, where tenured faculty members typically are more focused on teaching than research. Historically Black colleges and universities have significantly higher percentages of Black faculty and offer more ethnically diverse compilations of faculty.

“The trends are similar and disturbing,” says Minor, an expert on HBCUs. “I think they’re very similar, but I don’t think they’re as pronounced, as a matter of scale.”

Limited Opportunities

 Analysts say other factors limiting opportunities for minority scholars to secure prized tenure-track positions include a large supply of doctorates in some fields, increased hiring standards and residual racial biases at major research institutions favoring candidates from similar schools — where minorities are underrepresented in doctoral programs.

The long-anticipated retirement of tenured members of the baby boom generation could loosen up teaching opportunities for scholars of color. But some observers harbor justifiable worries that those coveted positions could get subdivided into adjunct slots.

The number of part-time faculty more than tripled over a 30-year period ending in 2005, according to a study by the American Association of University Professors. Another study, released in April by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), found that the number of adjuncts more than doubled in the 20 years between 1987 and 2007. By that year, the cumulative increases resulted in nearly 60 percent of faculty being part-time adjuncts or graduate assistants, according to a separate report last month by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

“What does it mean to all of us if we are filling what had been full-time tenure-track positions with adjunct positions?” Abraham says. “I think you’re going to lose some of the expertise. These are the faculty doing research, the base research.”

Over the last few decades, the overall presence of minorities on faculties has increased, reaching about 15 percent in 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics has reported. The long-term gains, though, are not impressive.

Blacks, for instance, went from 4.3 percent of full-time faculty in 1980 to 5.5 percent in 2003. “That’s almost a 25-year period there, and we’ve seen that tick up by about 1 percent,” Abraham says.

For all minorities, the larger part of the hiring has come in the growing ranks of adjuncts. “An inordinate number are minorities,” he notes.

From 1992 to 2003, the total number of part-time instructors rose by 41 percent, according to the NCES. For minorities, the increases were larger: 73 percent for Hispanics, 67 percent for Blacks and Asians, and a whopping 400 percent for American Indians.

Dr. Omar Cook is one of the African- Americans stuck on the adjunct track — for the last two years, in his case. Since receiving his doctorate from Claremont Graduate School in 2007, he has taught counseling and psychology courses as an adjunct at Azusa Pacific University and El Camino Community College in the Los Angeles area. This summer he adds a third adjunct position at California State University, Los Angeles.

In addition, he works full-time as a special education coordinator and counselor for the Los Angeles school district, while conducting a frustrating search for a full-time teaching job on the college level. He says he has applied for more than 70 teaching or administrative positions on campuses.

“The faculty positions are scarce. The budget issues here in ‘Cali’ have limited the opportunities,” Cook says. “I had applied for two positions in the Cal State system last year. Immediately after I applied, they were cancelled.”

To prevail in his job search in the Cal State or community college system, he estimates, “You have to be an adjunct for so many years, and then you have to be the chosen adjunct among the adjuncts.”

On campuses around the country, the number of professional support staff, primarily in full-time jobs, has also grown rapidly, almost doubling in the two decades ending in 2007, according to the CCAP. The AFT put the increase at 54 percent in the last 10 years of that period. Neither study broke down the staff hiring by minority group.

Professional Derailment

The studies provide some evidence that both trends — toward hiring more adjuncts and support staffers — may be moderating. The annual rate of growth in adjuncts, for instance, slipped from 7 percent over 30 years to 6 percent in the last 20 years. For support staff, the yearly rate fell by almost half, from 9 percent in the 30- year period to 5 percent in the last five years.

Although critics have paid more attention to the rising number of adjuncts, DePass contends the growth in support staff positions has also derailed young scholars of color who once aimed to become regular faculty members.

Some frustrated applicants who cannot land a tenure-track position take staff jobs, such as directing undergraduate research or summer research programs.

“A lot of them are individuals of color, and quite a few of them are women,” De- Pass says. “This kind of service-oriented position is not as respected within the academy. After you’ve been in one of these positions for a few years, your research career is dead.”

The doubling of the budget of the National Institutes of Health in the 1990s expanded higher education’s capacity to train life scientists, but faculties have not grown as much to employ them, resulting in what DePass describes as a “bleak job market.”

Caught in the crunch are young minority scholars who — in the science, technology, engineering and math fields — are concentrated in the life sciences. Job openings for faculty positions can attract 200 to 300 applicants, DePass says, leaving many postdoctoral researchers in a “holding pattern” for four years or more “before they’re even considered competitive for a position at a major research institution.”

So pessimistic is DePass that he doubts that the predicted mass retirement of academic baby boomers will happen or make much difference in the job outlook for minority scholars.

“We haven’t seen it,” he says. “Old-style, tenured academic tracks have actually become less accessible.”

Abraham is more optimistic. He believes the baby boomer retirements are already beginning. “We’ve got a window of opportunity here,” he says.

But asked if he worries the tenured baby boomers will be replaced with generation X adjuncts, Abraham replies: “Do I worry about that? Yes.”

In his assessment of the outlook, Minor comes down in the middle. “For individuals well trained at the doctoral level, the prospects are pretty good of landing a position at a reputable institution,” he says.

Minor cautions that young scholars of color, once hired, may encounter more obstacles moving up the academic ranks in the form of cultural and political challenges on campus.

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