The College of William and Mary has been employing a greater number of adjunct professors as part of its faculty in recent years, according to Provost Michael Halleran. The percentage of tenured faculty is currently just under 50 percent and has been decreasing for a while. Like many other schools, the College kept costs low for decades by turning to adjuncts, and the trend probably won’t be changing anytime soon.
There is no question that students at good schools, including the College, expect their professors to have experience — no student wants to be the guinea pig that a new professor uses to perfect his teaching methods. The College always wants to have professors who are leaders in their respective fields; that means making sure professors have not only experience, but also some degree of job stability. Tenure-track professors engage in research that not only makes them more knowledgeable about their area of expertise but also improves the reputation of our school, which benefits everyone who earns a degree from the College. However, adjuncts have the advantage of being able to cover many more of the College’s short-term needs, including specialized classes, unanticipated workloads or new ideas departments want to try out. In addition, they bring much of the same knowledge as tenured professors, often with more accessibility to students — something on which the College prides itself.
Once again, the big issue is money, and it’s no surprise that the use of adjunct professors and college costs are closely interwined. Adjunct professors are essentially cheap and disposable — they make extraordinarily little money for their education level, and their contracts are structured so the school can get rid of them fairly easily. Having a lot of adjuncts allows the College to keep costs low to students during difficult financial times (like now). On the other hand, this policy costs us a lot of great professors who aren’t comfortable with the idea that the College can make their careers as flexible as it wants.
The fact is, the College is in constant competition with other schools for the best professors. The risk associated with having so many adjuncts is that the fewer tenured faculty members we have, the less committed our faculty as a whole will be. I’m sorry to burst the idealistic bubble, but it’s true. Even though they’re not in it for the money, professors like job security and pensions just as much as the next person, and they know the College isn’t their only prospective employer. If the administration does believe the College is a special place, then it has to believe that there’s a difference between the professor who has been here for years and the one who just arrived. Professors who have been here longer are more likely to know what works best for our students, and are more likely to have done the work most relevant to us.
The College continuously walks the fine line between quality and affordability, and it has to consider that different kinds of students may be either helped or hurt by the way it approaches its professors. Some students may not like the idea that the College constantly puts its good name at risk when it misses out on the chance to keep good professors for financial reasons. Others find it very difficult to pay for school as it is and won’t be thrilled with the College doing anything to push tuition more and more out of their price range. The College isn’t going to be able to manage its faculty without making somebody angry.
The College’s decision to make more of its professors adjuncts has undoubtedly kept tuition as affordable as it possibly could be, and the administration is going to make its decisions with that in mind. but it must be aware that the labor market for professors is uncertain. Because we don’t exactly compensate our professors lavishly, we’re at risk for having our academic quality — the most important thing we have — whittled away by better opportunities elsewhere. Adjuncts can be a great fit in many of situations, but we can’t let them become emblematic of the way we treat our faculty.