PRISM Magazine  On-Line - October 1999 - Exploring the future of engineering education

Half Empty or Half Full?

by Warren Cohen

Is the proliferation of part-time professors a disquieting trend or a mutually beneficial arrangement?

    Half Empty of Half Full?Like those who hold full-time faculty positions at California State University–Northridge, part-time professor Susan Beatty has a lot going for her. She can teach 14 different classes in mechanical engineering and has consistently received outstanding evaluations from her students. She mentors students, attends department meetings, and leads research projects about transient dynamics in aerospace. Still, although she has been on staff for 21 years and often teaches as many classes as the full-timers, she hasn't been able to join their ranks. Adding to her frustration, when the past three faculty members retired, the college elected not to fill their slots. To make ends meet, Beatty had to return part-time to her old job in private industry. "Students with their first jobs fresh out of school were making more than I was teaching a full load," she says. "It got discouraging."

    A decent paycheck isn't as important to Dennis Ferrigno, who likes his part-time schedule. Until last year, Ferrigno was the CEO of Bateman Project Holding, a designer of compressor plants for the gas and oil industry worldwide. In his spare time, Ferrigno began teaching the "Marketing, Contracts and Sales" course in the University of Colorado at Denver's civil engineering department. On one overseas trip to Israel, he jumped on the red-eye back to Denver to get back in time to teach his class. Now, Ferrigno has stepped down as CEO but still plans to teach only two classes and has no plans to join the faculty full-time. "I really don't want to work more than half-time because that way I'm free to accept some industry assignments," he says.

    Beatty and Ferrigno represent the two extremes of the part-time professor phenomenon, a growing trend that has rankled many in higher education. Some university professors argue that part-timers like Beatty are symbolic of a new class of migrant workers. While they're not picking grapes, these laborers are wandering around the fields of academia, scraping together teaching assignments from different institutions while the fruits of full-time professorship—security, remuneration, stature and academic freedom—remain out of reach. But college administrators insist that not every part-time faculty member is striving for a tenured post—pointing to surveys showing that roughly half of all adjuncts, like Ferrigno, choose to teach part-time. And, some administrators argue, their institutions gain valuable flexibility by scheduling classes with part-timers who provide valuable, real-world wisdom to students. "There has been a recognition that you enrich what students learn by bringing in practitioners who offer the immediacy of experience," says John M. Hammung, director of special projects at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

The Rise of Transient Teachers

    One of the few points on which all sides can agree is that part-timers have become a much more visible part of the higher education landscape. Years ago, part-time professors were used primarily to teach in highly specialized fields like law and to plug emergency holes when enrollments shot up unexpectedly. In 1968, part-timers represented 20 percent of the overall faculty. Today, roughly 47 percent of all faculty teach part-time, and a 1997 study estimated that the growth in part-time faculty likely exceeds the rate of increase in part-time, temporary, and self-employed workers in the economy at large.

    The use of part-timers is particularly high at community colleges, where more than 60 percent of all professors teach less than a full load. Different fields have varying percentages as well. In engineering, part-timers make up 36 percent of the faculty, compared with 53 percent in English and the fine arts.

    Critics and supporters of adjuncts also concur that part-timers have proliferated because of tightening higher education budgets. Over the past sixty years, the U.S. population doubled while college enrollments soared tenfold. In all, the cost of providing education has climbed by about 40 percent per student since 1976. But when adjusted for inflation, the amount of money allocated to higher education from all levels of government has not changed in the past two decades. Thus, demand and costs are up, but funding is not.

    As a result, many institutions of higher education have used the instructional budget for controlling costs. On average, an adjunct earns between $1,500 and $2,000 per course, while full-timers earn the equivalent of $5,000 per class. And institutions usually don't provide part-timers with benefits such as health and life insurance or retirement contributions, resulting in more savings for the institution.

    At UCLA's civil and environmental engineering department, for instance, the program's budget hasn't increased since 1991. Though the California legislature cut the school's overall budget by 25 percent after the early 1990s recession, the stagnation is also a result of the soaring cost of budget items other than instruction. Department chair Michael K. Stenstrom estimates, for example, that it is four times as expensive to build a lab today as in the early 1990s. And now, the state mandates that 0.5 percent of UCLA's budget be earmarked for liability insurance. With fewer dollars to spend, the program can't hire more faculty; whereas the department once had 21 full-time faculty slots, today, seven positions are officially vacant—with no money to fill them. Stenstrom has been forced to hire the equivalent of eight part-timers. "We have twice as many part-time faculty members as we should have," he says.

Differences of Opinion

    The issue of how many part-timers are too many is the key controversy surrounding the issue. Does the growing reliance on part-timers improve on or detract from higher education? The American Association of University Professors has collected data showing that part-timers hold far fewer office hours than full-timers and are more apt to avoid giving essay exams because they take too much time to grade. And contrary to the notion that a glut of Ph.D.s has saturated the academic market with unemployed experts, the reality is that only 16 percent of part-timers hold Ph.D.s compared with 54 percent of full-timers.

    Critics charge that these facts indicate that overuse of part-time staff hurts academic excellence. "The change in relying on part-timers has been so massive that accrediting bodies haven't been as careful as they ought to be in assuring quality," says Ernst Benjamin, director of research at the AAUP. Stenstrom agrees, and believes that problems arise when part-timers replace full-time professors in teaching core academic courses. "We want to have continuity in our program with the bread and butter of our curriculum being taught the same every year, but last year three-quarters of the core courses were taught by part-timers," says Stenstrom.

    If the use of part-time faculty—and the disgruntlement of the temporary practitioners—is most widespread in the liberal arts, it appears to be less of an issue in engineering, where the use of part-timers doesn't seem to stir up as much controversy. The AAUP study shows that roughly 68 percent of part-time engineering professors are satisfied—roughly equal to part-timers teaching business and law—compared with just 42 percent of those in history and 47 percent in English. And many engineering deans and administrators also find that part-timers offer their programs more advantages than disadvantages.

    One of the most important benefits for research universities is the different perspective that hands-on professionals bring. Part-time professors can help prepare students for jobs that require some background in the business skills of project management. For instance, Ferrigno doesn't remember any of his undergraduate work in plasma physics years ago. But when it comes to teaching students about making deals and finding partners in a globally competitive engineering marketplace, he can offer lessons from the front lines. "I can impart some of the business applications and industry orientation," he says.

    And unlike in the humanities, where the canon of literature can take decades to change, new technology means that the equipment is always improving. Beatty, for instance, teaches students about current computer-aided design software packages, which assist in equipment manufacturing. "When I went to engineering school, we used punch cards for computers," Beatty says. "A program needs outside research to make sure that it stays current."

    Engineering educators also face vigorous competition from industry in attracting talented people, which will likely hold down the number of part-timers the discipline can attract. George A. Timblin, assistant dean in the engineering technologies division at Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina, says he has trouble finding part-time professors in a strong regional economy where the unemployment rate is less than two percent.

    With so many engineers working, Timblin can't find anyone to teach during the day. The robust market also means he's unable to offer salaries that are competitive with the private sector, so he has had to fill more full-time posts than he would have preferred. "Our graduates are going to work for $30,000 a year and that's what we pay a person with a master's degree to teach," says Timblin. "Hiring is on my mind all the time."


Tired of Waiting

    Of course, the demonstrated need for part-timers in engineering doesn't mollify those who have had trouble finding full-time spots. Many engineers hope to improve their candidacies by accepting post-doctoral research positions at universities. Bradley A. Striebig has been a research associate in Penn State University's applied research laboratory since receiving his doctorate in 1996. He works with three to six students each semester designing an air pollution control system for repainting Navy ships, and also teaches an introductory environmental engineering course. He hopes these experiences will help him fulfill his dream of a tenure-track position at the university. But although Penn State has had two openings in the past three years, Striebig hasn't even received a formal interview. "I guess there isn't a lot more I could do other than continuing to do a good job, but the longer I stay here, the more inertia starts to take over," he says. The danger for part-timers is that these posts may not improve their chances of gaining a full-time position. Admits UCLA's Stenstrom, "We sometimes do people a disservice by keeping them around as part-time faculty."

    There are some indications that universities are starting to slow down in their hiring of part-timers. In May, Georgia State University announced that it would cut its part-time teaching staff from 306 to 150 next year and add 65 full-time faculty jobs. The AAUP's Benjamin says the tight job market has dried up a ready source of adjunct help, forcing schools to hire more full-timers. And because of flush state budgets, legislatures can give more money to higher education—at least seven states will increase their allocation to universities by double-digit percentage increases between 1999 and 2001. Many more have agreed to increase funding to public schools at a rate that surpasses inflation, which could help stem the part-time tide.

    Until the overall trend shifts, however, professors like Beatty and Striebig will have to take solace in the simple joys of watching their students absorb knowledge and thrive in the real world. "I get satisfaction from seeing my students grow and develop," says Beatty. "It's better than sitting in a cubicle doing the Dilbert thing all day." Adds Striebig, "The part I enjoy most about my job is seeing my students have their picks of graduate school or going into industry. I don't know if it's overlooked at the university, but it has a huge impact at the personal level."


    Warren Cohen is the Midwest correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.

What do YOU think?

or e-mail us at to share your opinions.


navigation bar