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Optimizing adjuncts in higher ed

Five best practices for managing pay, performance and compliance
University Business, December 2014
The size of part-time faculty in higher ed has increased more than full-time faculty over the last two decades.
The size of part-time faculty in higher ed has increased more than full-time faculty over the last two decades. (Click to enlarge)

Higher ed’s reliance on adjunct faculty, hardly a secret anymore, has gotten much scrutiny in the past few years.

Institutions of all types benefit from the fact that adjuncts—provided they don’t become eligible for health benefits by working more than 30 hours a week—can be employed for a fraction of the investment needed for full-time faculty. In fact, many schools now include a large contingent of part-time faculty as routine business practice.

The number of adjuncts employed nationwide has increased by more than 160 percent over the past two decades, according to the U.S. Department of Education. At the same time, colleges face growing concerns that the needs of adjuncts, as well as their potential to contribute more fully to student success, are being overlooked.

“Pay and working conditions for adjunct faculty are surprisingly inadequate,” says David Kociemba, a member of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Committee on Contingency and the Profession who teaches part-time at Emerson College and Boston University.

“Higher ed holds itself as an inspiration to others when it comes to best practices, but in this area it doesn’t live up to those ideals. The majority of part-timers are working full-time somewhere else, running their own businesses or teaching at several colleges just to make ends meet.”

At the same time that such issues seem to be gaining more public attention, schools are taking steps to manage this vital human resource more effectively.

“There has come a realization that the quality of instruction and student engagement expected of adjunct faculty needs to be in line with what’s expected of full-time faculty,” says Don Kelly, vice president of human resources at Post University, a Connecticut-based for-profit institution. “As such, colleges and universities have begun taking additional measures to manage, train and support adjuncts.” In an era of greater accountability and limited funds, effective management of part-timers is evolving from a should-do to a must-do. Here are five best practices for managing adjunct faculty.

1. Provide targeted support services.

Supporting the specific needs of adjuncts not only fosters employee satisfaction, but also helps them perform more effectively.

Streamlining the adjunct hiring process

For institutions that hire large numbers of adjunct faculty and other personnel, software can be implemented to streamline time-consuming hiring processes.

Utilizing Equifax’s Compliance Center automated onboarding solution, for example the University of Florida, Northern Arizona University and other institutions have replaced paper forms with automated processes for completing the documentation needed for employing new adjunct or full-time faculty or staff.

Results have included saving as much as 1.5 hours in processing time per hire, significantly decreasing overall error rates, and increasing efficiency in entering new hires into the payroll system.

Other options for institutions include SelectSuite from PeopleAdmin, OnBase by Hyland and onboarding programs from Chronus Corporation.

Richland College in Dallas has dedicated an entire department to supporting adjuncts. The Adjunct Faculty College Center and Evening Weekend Support Services (ACCESS) is headed by a dean, has three full-time staffers and is open six days a week.

Services include orientation, copier services, mail distribution, computer support, phone messaging and collecting student assignments. The center also provides referrals to other campus resources, such as HR.

“Providing these services creates community among adjunct faculty and with other employees,” says Zarina Blankenbaker, vice president of instruction at Richland. “This helps them understand and deploy the college’s vision and mission—and also demonstrate behavioral values expected of all employees.”

In “ThunderPals,” a pilot program launched this year, full-time faculty mentor part-timers in professorial development activities and offer guidance on topics such as classroom management, discipline, student engagement and dealing with diversity. While too early to assess results, organizers are optimistic the initiative will enhance the ACCESS program.

2. Evaluate systematically.

Adjuncts are getting better feedback from course evaluations as schools more closely monitor part-timers’ performance.

At the University of New Haven, for example, a move to online student course evaluations has been especially effective with adjuncts, says Stuart Sidle, associate provost for faculty development.

“Back in the days of paper-and-pencil student course evaluations, an occasional course—often taught by an adjunct—would fall through the cracks and not be evaluated,” he says. “Now that we have one centralized system, we know every student in every course gets the opportunity to provide feedback.”

Organizing adjuncts: Part-time faculty form union at Tufts

After nine months of negotiations, administrators at Tufts University in Massachusetts and representatives of a part-time faculty union tentatively agreed to a three-year contract in October.

The deal is partly the result of a national campaign to organize adjunct faculty who seek improved compensation and working conditions, says Andy Klatt, a part-time Spanish instructor who has served on both the organizing and bargaining committees for the union.

The Tufts group, which is affiliated with Service Employees International Union, focused on wages, benefits and improving job security. Despite the lengthy nature of the negotiations, they were conducted with professionalism, Klatt says.

“University officials initially opposed our campaign,” he says. “But we all carried on our negotiations in an atmosphere of mutual respect and a congenial atmosphere, focused on the best interest of both the members and the university as a whole.”

“Realize that the core mission of any college is instruction,” Klatt says, “and keep in mind that adjuncts are really part of one faculty and need to be treated with respect.”

James Glaser, interim dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and a professor of political science at Tufts, agrees with the need to show such respect. He says negotiations with the union focused on that element.

“We resolved important issues involving course assignments, compensation and security. The agreement also strengthened the avenues for evaluation and accountability of their performance. Most of all, it created an opportunity to acknowledge the value of our part-time colleagues to the educational mission of the university.”

In addition, every part-timer now receives feedback from students. Once grades are submitted, faculty may access the results of their evaluations online.

At Post, where adjuncts are called “associate faculty,” evaluation processes mirror those conducted for full-time faculty.

“We provide regular feedback to our associate faculty concerning their interactions in the classroom and with students, whether online or on-ground,” Kelly says. When an evaluation indicates an instructor is not, for example, actively engaging students, administrators can provide immediate feedback.

“And we regularly share positive feedback regarding the engagement of our associate faculty in their courses as it comes from student evaluations, in addition to comments given to our advising staff and other faculty members,” Kelly says.

3. Focus on inclusion.

Effective management isn’t just about accountability; promoting employee satisfaction is equally as important.

“From a business perspective, adjuncts are critical to us in meeting our academic mission,” says Timothy Downs, provost and chief academic officer at Niagara University in New York. “We try to manage them as colleagues who just happen to be part-time.”

Niagara adjuncts are invited to faculty development workshops and other activities, for example. Downs says giving adjuncts places to work also leads to a greater sense of inclusion. “We’ve recently created half a dozen spaces on campus where adjuncts can hang their hats and meet students,” he says. The spaces must be shared, but the fact that not all part-timers are on Niagara’s campus at the same time makes the arrangement workable.

Similarly, Richland College has provided rooms where adjuncts can do work, meet with students and make phone calls.

At the University of New Haven, the adjunct teaching experience is being upgraded, Sidle says. A program launched in 2012 includes a one-stop “on-ramp” session in which new adjuncts undergo technology training, learn about the university’s mission, meet colleagues and receive IDs.

Post part-timers, meanwhile, attend professional development programs, informational sessions and departmental meetings. They are included routinely in campus communications, and there’s an associate faculty handbook.

“We’ve made a strategic decision to integrate our part-time associate faculty into our university’s culture,” Kelly says. “We have found that the more opportunities for involving and engaging our associate faculty members, the more they contribute to our university family.”

4. Reward appropriately.

Adequate pay and other rewards can be a motivating factor for both new and experienced adjuncts. Institutions should take an analytical approach when determining pay for adjunct faculty, says Darren Hoff, HR director and chief of staff for the College of Pharmacy at the University of Minnesota. Position level, as well as the adjunct’s academic degrees, work experience and scholarly writing should be taken into account.

Then the person’s background is compared with others within the College of Pharmacy, and to American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy and CUPA-HR salary data, to determine an appropriate placement on payroll, he says.

At Post, academic degrees are a primary factor in determining salary. Faculty holding doctorates are compensated at a higher level than those with master’s degrees. In addition, adjuncts who are subject-matter experts can earn extra pay developing or revising courses. In this role, adjuncts are valued for the current, real-world knowledge they often bring to the curriculum.

At the same time, adjunct pay rates tend to remain low in most places. The national average is around $3,000 per course, according to AAUP’s Kociemba. “That’s incredibly low compared to full-time faculty,” he says. “It’s actually a living-wage issue.”

University of New Haven’s Sidle points out that even with the best of intentions, moving the needle presents ongoing challenges. “Changing adjunct salaries often requires fighting the bureaucracy with rules around pay rates and raises, and with budget priorities that take tremendous effort to transform,” he says. “Even though many chairs and deans want to raise adjunct salaries, they realize making substantial change to the system is never easy.”

Other measures involve recognition other than pay. To recognize excellence in instruction, UNH offers adjuncts an award for outstanding teaching. Historically, only a few candidates were nominated, until officials realized that many adjuncts were put off by having to write personal statements and submit letters of recommendation.

“For a busy adjunct, this is too much work and it no longer feels like a prize,” Sidle says. “Now we have made it a little easier on an adjunct by eliminating the personal statement and reaching out ourselves to students or colleagues for recommendation letters.”

5. Collaborate across campus.

As institutions strive for efficiencies, collaborating with adjuncts and among campus administrators becomes more important than ever, says Lisa Conza, Long Island University’s director of human resources administration and special projects.

“From a strategic planning process, there has recently been more effort to include faculty, including adjuncts, to plan together. There is more recognition that for overall effectiveness, we need to partner more with adjunct faculty to see that we’re on the same wavelength.”

An unexpected result of the Affordable Care Act has been an increased focus on workloads, since employers must now provide healthcare coverage for those working above levels that would make them de facto full-timers. This in turn has led to increased communication between academic administrators and HR leaders, Conza says. In fact, she sees it as movement toward an improved business model.

“HR is now playing a bigger role in the academic side,” she says. “The end result is that deans and chairs are empowered with helpful management tools.”

Increased collaboration helps break down barriers to engagement, which in turn fosters more, regularly effective communication between adjuncts and those who manage them, says Hoff at the University of Minnesota.

“Human resources, financial services and senior academic leaders must all be on the same page. It’s important that we increase our collaborative efforts to minimize barriers, maximize efficiencies and increase employee engagement.”

Mark Rowh is a Virginia-based writer who frequently covers HR topics.

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