BEI Survey: Working in the Shadows: Engaging Adjunct Faculty

AdjunctsIn this installation of BEI’s research on business school engagement, we focus on a topic that is receiving increasing attention in the media, namely, the role of adjunct professors in business school education. In theory, adjunct professors offer institutions a win-win situation. As contract employees, adjuncts often help business schools achieve their educational goals while easing the budgetary constraints created by year-to-year variations in enrollments. Further, adjuncts are typically working professionals who bring an immediate relevancy to the classroom, helping to make direct connections for students to the “real world” and substantially influencing student learning. Adjuncts themselves often benefit from being associated with the university as well, which lends professional credibility and builds their networks.

Yet, the steady rise in the deployment of adjunct professors across universities has brought considerable controversy regarding their use and, sadly, abuse. Although beyond the scope of this research brief, several media and federal reports have revealed a shadow workforce of sorts in which many adjuncts are living below poverty levels and working under extremely difficult conditions. Indeed, as reported over the years by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International (AACSB), roughly 20 percent of business school faculty are employed as adjunct/part-time. Not surprisingly then, AACSB and other accrediting bodies have sought to make formal distinctions about the roles such contingent faculty play in educational endeavors.

For instance, AACSB accreditation standards make the distinction between “participating faculty” and “supporting faculty.” Most adjuncts are likely to fall under “supporting faculty,” which AACSB Accreditation Standard 5 defines as faculty members who do “not, as a rule, participate in the intellectual or operational life of the school beyond the direct performance of teaching responsibilities.” Although this definition uses the term “intellectual” to refer to knowledge creation through research activities, it unfortunately understates the considerable contributions made by such faculty members to a school’s educational climate. These contributions can extend far beyond the classroom to include networking, skill-building opportunities, internships and so forth. Thus, despite the narrow formal definition of adjuncts as simply “teachers,” informally their roles are frequently more akin to full-time faculty.

How Engaged Are B-School Adjuncts?

According to the AACSB, participating faculty members must deliver at least 75 percent of the school’s teaching, leaving the remaining 25 percent to supporting faculty. This raised an obvious question regarding the overall engagement of adjuncts (supporting faculty). In our engagement survey, we asked respondents the extent to which the overall success of the program depends on deep involvement from various stakeholders, and more specifically from adjuncts.

Results indicated that only 42 percent of respondents believe that success of their program is tied to adjunct engagement, yet as we previously reported, 95 percent believe that an engaged faculty body is critical to their success. It is clear that for the majority of respondents, adjunct faculty members are not considered to be among “the faculty.” And not surprisingly, when asked about adjuncts’ current level of engagement within their program, only 45 percent of respondents endorsed positive levels of engagement. Put bluntly, roughly 20 to 25 percent of faculty is typically composed of adjuncts—so these findings indicate that up to one-quarter of a school’s faculty are largely ignored and minimally engaged.

As broader trends regarding nontraditional faculty in higher education continue, the paradox that emerges in these results should give business school policymakers some pause. If roughly one-fifth to one-quarter of the faculty are unengaged and perhaps even working in the shadows, what does that suggest about the potential engagement (or disengagement) of students and the overall levels of program quality? By and large, low levels of engagement among adjuncts are likely to have deleterious effects on a school’s culture, reputation and learning environment, all of which may be lurking beneath the surface.

Improving Adjunct Engagement

Given the generally low levels of adjunct engagement, for most schools there is likely to be some relatively easy methods to improve engagement and the overall impact of adjuncts. We discuss three low investment/high payoff interventions below:

  1. Increase faculty accountability to support adjuncts. The common disconnect from the full-time faculty that adjuncts experience is a significant source of low engagement. One possible solution to this problem is to appoint department coordinators to serve as faculty “mentors” or liaisons between the full-time and adjunct faculty. Such a position could be construed as a faculty service role and would give adjuncts a single point of contact for questions and concerns that arise in and out of the classroom.
  1. Socialize adjuncts into the business school culture. Onboarding adjuncts must be more than providing a course syllabus and map to find their classrooms. At minimum, business schools should offer a biannual orientation that provides information regarding academic policies (e.g., academic integrity), roles and responsibilities in the college (e.g., Dean of Students), common teaching pitfalls, and of course, potential ways adjuncts can get involved in the life of the school. In addition, adjuncts should be offered mechanisms for calibrating their expectations to that of the full-time faculty. For instance, offering regular classroom previews, invitations to department social events, and direct requests to be involved in student-led co-curricular groups and activities.
  1. Increase social recognition. Social recognition is a powerful tool that both motivates individuals who receive recognition as well as shapes future expectations for everyone else. At a minimum, department chairs and deans should regularly include adjuncts on the list of those who receive public praise when a job is well done. More formally, business schools can improve recognition by developing teaching awards that are dedicated specifically for adjuncts. This provides an opportunity to highlight the importance of adjunct contributions and affords students the opportunity to recognize excellent teaching or other contributions.

Click below to read this survey report as a PDF.

Business Education Insider Survey 5 – Engaging Adjunct Faculty

By Erich C. Dierdorff and Robert S. Rubin, DePaul University Driehaus College of Business

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