The Role of Adjunct Faculty in Higher Education

William G. Wickun

Rock E. Stanley
Texas A&M University

Critical budget shortages and an overworked full-time faculty have created opportunities in higher education for private citizens to function as part-time professors. Many members of the professional community, business and government alike, have taken advantage of this chance to serve their community. They take on the responsibility of teaching for different reasons.

During the mid-1980s, when the budget crunch began to materialize, astute administrators and department chairs had to devise a method for continuing to meet instructional requirements while financial support declined. In fact, they were often faced with increased instructional needs because of increased enrollment. The movement to employ part-time instructors began in the 1960s on community college campuses. There was such a demand for evening instruction that administrators had no choice but to seek help from the professional community. Fortunately, the community answered the call to become the first generation of adjunct faculty. As the budget crunch intensified, four-year institutions began to implement a regular policy of filling the gaps with adjunct faculty. Initially, there was a need for additional instructors, but presently, the distinct perception is that there is a need for additional instructors who are willing to work for a lower salary.

Currently, in the United States, adjunct faculty members are providing approximately 40% of the instruction in institutions of higher education. While some teach on an academic year basis, the majority of these adjuncts are employed on a semester/course basis. Their salaries range from a low of about $400 per course to as high as $4000 in some of the more prestigious institutions. They tend to be found most often in the departments of English, mathematics, and modern language where they typically teach entry-level courses (Avakian, 1995). Although many adjunct faculty bring important real-world professional experience to their departments, they seldom have the time or opportunity to share that knowledge with full-time members. Conversely, experienced, full-time faculty rarely mentor adjunct faculty. As the number of adjunct faculty continues to increase, administrators will begin to feel greater pressure to respond to calls for accountability.

Personnel policies governing adjunct faculty are as diverse as the institutions employing them. In some cases, adjunct assignments are made as an afterthought to the distribution of class loads for permanent faculty. At other institutions, adjuncts carry the load of permanent faculty who have retired or resigned unexpectedly. Research-oriented institutions regularly hire adjuncts in order to provide release time for senior faculty. Most commonly, adjuncts teach courses that must be offered even though the department does not have the staffing to do so. Also, most departments will limit the number of courses an adjunct can teach for practical reasons. If an instructor is also employed full-time in business or government during the day, for example, it is generally not feasible for that instructor to teach more than one or two evening courses.

Administrators in higher education have come to realize that the employment of adjunct faculty rather than tenure-track faculty is a tremendous bargain which, concurrently, offers them greater flexibility in budget issues. Adjuncts are carrying the load for almost half of the instructional requirements, yet they are remunerated at a level that, on average, just compensates for their living expenses. Ironically, many adjunct faculty enjoy this arrangement, if not the salary, and desire to continue their association with the institution. Nationally, many adjuncts have stable full-time positions from which they have no desire to leave. Professionals such as doctors, attorneys, bankers, judges, psychologists, ministers, and engineers comprise a large sector of the adjunct faculty pool at the national level. There are examples where certified public accountants teach statistics at four-year universities and a police chief teaches criminal justice at the local community college. Other examples of actual situations known to the authors are of an attorney who taught English composition, a petroleum engineer teaching calculus, and construction foremen teaching welding, carpentry, or some other occupational trade. In the last case, one of us (RES) knows of a foreman who enjoyed the challenge of teaching so much that he left the lucrative construction business and is now teaching building trades full-time. Adjunct faculty receive a high degree of satisfaction from their relationships with their students which is the primary reason they continue to teach. On the other hand, other adjuncts are unemployed high school teachers or instructors from smaller, less prestigious institutions who are attempting to parlay their adjunct position into a full-time appointment. Individuals with a background in modern languages, mathematics, or some of the physical sciences actively seek adjunct positions in order to bridge the gap during a career transition to another position. We have personally seen this occur with adjuncts in French, statistics, computer science, education, nursing, and physics.

The strengths of the adjunct faculty system are manifold with experience being the key element to their success. As active or retired practitioners in their respective fields, adjuncts draw knowledge from their life and professional experiences. Students obviously reap the most benefit from this real world expertise, but the educational community also gains recognition and respect from their association with the college or university. This wide variety of adjunct expertise enables the institution to offer not only the required courses but additional courses that would not ordinarily be scheduled. Clearly, adjunct faculty members compliment the full time faculty, thus enriching the overall curricula. In doing so, they bring an increased level of productivity and flexibility to degree programs. The professionalism of most adjunct professors has been consistently exceptional, lending further credibility to the institution's reputation.

Availability and reasonable salary requirements are additional strengths of adjunct faculty members. Possessing well-rounded educations and a wealth of practical experience, the majority of these individuals are employable in a number of different professions and disciplines. They chose to teach mainly for the service they render to the students. The average salary of an adjunct is well below that for the same load taught by a full-time faculty member. Their overall value to an institution was realized when it became demonstrably clear that the judicious utilization of adjunct faculty can increase institutional versatility, possibly free funds for academic and capital programs and generally enrich the learning experience of students (Thompson, 1984).

There are a number of aspects of part-time, temporary professorships that need improvement. The lack of teaching experience in the classroom is a major weakness that must be addressed. Most of these individuals are mildly shocked when they first encounter the routine and challenges of serving as an adjunct faculty member. Although adjunct faculty bring a rich level of experience to campus, they usually have difficulty with the mechanics of teaching. If they have taught at a lower level, say high school, they may be assigned a course which they understand, but is far beyond their scope to teach at the university level. In most cases, it takes a minimum of about three years to become proficient at this new skill or level.

The opposite aspect of this challenge is exemplified by the professional who thoroughly understands the advanced level of his or her discipline, but is required to teach entry level courses, while at the same time, is learning how to teach. From personal experience in both situations, the authors can testify to the significant degree of stress and frustration that develops. Adjuncts who are conscientious about their performance and effectiveness always go through this period of inner turmoil. To complicate matters, most new adjunct faculty are provided little, if any, guidance and mentoring in the methodology of teaching. The general perception appears to be that if an individual possesses the educational pedigree and is indeed a professional in his or her field, then he or she should know how to teach. This complacency may stem, in part, from academic freedom and the university culture where it is understood that it is the professor who determines course content.

The lack of departmental support is another weakness of the adjunct system, particularly at larger universities. The adjunct faculty member typically has no office or telephone and often is not provide with a job description, course description, or even a syllabus. In our experiences as adjuncts early in our careers, our orientations consisted of picking up a book, a room number, and a class roster from the departmental secretary. There was no orientation or handbook to guide us, just some "friendly advice" from the secretary or a TA.

Regardless of their dedication to their classes, the low salary of adjuncts at some universities often creates animosity. The general attitude among adjuncts is often colored by the disparity between their high level of "expertise" and their low level of remuneration. Moreover, adjuncts are not always respected and admired by the permanent faculty. Cassebaum (1995) complied a list, some of which follows, of the attitudes of permanent faculty towards their adjunct brethren: "Adjuncts aren't as good as other teachers; we hire them in August sometimes." "They work for so little, they can't be putting in much time." "They're lucky they don't have to do all the committee work and extra stuff we do." "If we paid adjunct faculty on a prorated basis, there wouldn't be enough money for our pay increases."

These weaknesses and attitudes make it clear that improvements to the current adjunct system are necessary in order to begin to raise the professional standing and effectiveness of adjunct faculty in the university community. First and foremost, adjunct faculty should receive a substantial pay increase, providing them with more respect and dignity as professionals in their fields. Adjuncts should be afforded frequent opportunities to meet with the Dean, department chair, and others in the academic support areas, particularly early in the term. Pre-term orientations would enhance their awareness of university events and policies, allowing them to become more significant contributors to the team effort. A full-time faculty member should be assigned to each adjunct as an academic mentor and as a liaison with the department. The permanent faculty member would be responsible for guiding and advising his or her adjunct counterpart and also keeping that individual informed of any new departmental and university issues.

Issues concerning class and curriculum should also be addressed. Providing more advanced notice on which classes are to be taught, along with a copy of the text(s) and related syllabi would lend more credibility and prestige to the position. Inviting adjunct instructors to departmental meetings on course development or revision may be of practical value, in addition to raising the stature and self-worth of the individual involved. In many instances this may not be possible because of primary job schedule, but the objective is building credibility in the view of permanent faculty and staff.

The professional standing of adjuncts depends to a large extent on the opinion of full-time faculty within their department. If adjuncts perceive that they are unappreciated, the institution's savings on direct costs may be a false economy, in that lowered morale and enthusiasm can only be detrimental to performance (Maguire, 1984).

The improvement of the quality of adjunct instruction should be one the standing goals of any department that employs adjunct faculty (Kamps, 1996). Given that the knowledge of subject material is inherent in an adjunct, the key objective is overcoming inexperience in the classroom. Several practice sessions with the faculty mentor followed by periodic performance evaluations could be of immense help. Considering that most state educational systems require that prospective K-12 teachers have one or two semesters of student teaching under the auspices of experienced teacher, the university level system can afford to do no less. Carson (1988) has suggested that institutions should identify a supervisory position to coordinate instruction provided by part-time faculty, including responsibilities for recruitment, hiring, scheduling, orientation, counseling, in-service education, and evaluation. Further the evaluation should include student evaluations, classroom observations, and post-observation conferences.

The role of adjunct faculty in institutions of higher education is continuing to evolve. Although this paper is not exhaustive, our intent is to draw conclusions from the current status of adjunct faculty and their importance to the future of higher education. Based on our research, the following conclusions are drawn:

  1. Adjunct faculty members play a very significant role in the delivery of quality instruction at many colleges and universities.
  2. Statistics indicate that at least 40% of credit hours earned are taught by adjunct instructors. Therefore, it is incumbent upon institutions to improve their assimilation and participation in the educational process.
  3. Adjunct faculty will continue to be needed to satisfy the current instructional and budgetary shortfalls.
  4. The current climate presents a realistic opportunity to apply a continuous quality improvement program.
  5. There are specific ways to improve the use of adjunct professors.
  6. Any measures taken to improve the quality of adjunct instruction should be proactive.

Based on the findings of this study, the following recommendations are made concerning adjunct faculty members:

  1. Additional studies should be conducted on the successful employment of adjunct faculty and the implications on the quality of instruction in higher education.
  2. Workshops for administrators charged with improving the quality of adjunct instruction would help them develop the best approach for their particular institution.
  3. Administrators and department chairs should explore every possibility to improve the role of adjunct faculty.


Avakian, A. N. (1995). Conflicting Demands for Adjunct Faculty. Community College Journal, 65 (6), 34-35.

Carson, V. M. (1988). Supervision of Part-Time Faculty: A Model for Community Colleges (Report No. JC 880 318). Dekalb College.

Cassebaum, A. (1995). Adjuncts with an Attitude?: Attitudes Encountered in the Struggle for Fair Pay and Job Security for Adjunct Faculty (Report No. CS 215 002). Washington, D.C.: Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Kamps, D. (1996). Continuous Quality Improvement in the Employment of Adjunct Faculty: A NIACC Plan (Report No. JC 960 1400). Mason City, Iowa: North Iowa Area Community College.

Maguire, P. (1984). Enhancing the Effectiveness of Adjunct Faculty. Community College Review, 11 (3), 27-33.

Thompson, H. (1984). Utilization of Adjunct Faculty Members (Report No. HE 017 472). Kokomo, Indiana: Indiana University at Kokomo.

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