By Bobbi-Lee Smart, Ed.D.
My dissertation research on the “Involuntary Adjunct” focused on the perceptions of the impact of adjuncts on community college campuses in Southern California. I specifically wanted to understand the reality of involuntary adjuncts – those who want (or wanted) full-time tenure track jobs, have been unable to get those positions, and work as “full-time” adjuncts (those whose adjunct work is the majority or entirety of their income) (Eagan, Jaeger, and Grantham, 2015).
“Adjunct” is not a dirty word, but it’s treated like one, and this stigma masks the truth
While some have balked at my use of the term “adjunct” in my research, it was intentional. I wanted to draw attention to adjuncts’ original role in higher education. The term adjunct literally means something which is a non-essential or temporary “attachment” or ”appendage.” Adjuncts were never meant to be the majority of faculty nor to work in the system for decades. Yet according to the Chancellor’s Office, adjuncts are over 60% of faculty in the California Community College System and the average time adjuncting before finding a full-time tenure-track position is 7 years according to a higher education lobbyist I interviewed for my dissertation. This does not account for those who are still adjuncts after 7 years, nor those who have left the field altogether because they have lost hope.
As the word “adjunct” denotes, the state and most community college districts treat them as if they are auxiliary to the campus and not vital to the institutions in which they work. Just look at the way most districts are handling the COVID-19 pandemic to see the way adjuncts are still treated as non-essential. Adjuncts are the first to lose classes, which has also lead to the loss of healthcare benefits, and they are required to be separately certified to teach online in each district even though each district uses Canvas.
Due to the negative stigma of the word adjunct, quite a few people prefer to use alternative language, such as “contingent,” “part-time,” “lecturer,” “non-tenure-track lecturer,” or “instructor.” All of these names mask the work conditions of adjuncts, as each implies something different, generally something more stable and positive. Changing our job title may make these instructors feel better and it may make others feel more comfortable to use these terms, however, none of these names change the way we are treated.
The focus of most discussions about the pandemic’s impact on community colleges and even emails from college presidents or chancellors are about how they are protecting full-time tenured/tenure-track faculty. The fact that adjunct issues are not discussed or are secondary shows that adjuncts are not a priority for those in power. The structure of higher education faculty has changed, yet the work condition of adjuncts has been slow to keep pace with the new reality, at times facing active resistance such as limiting our voting rights on committees, senate, or in our unions.
Full-time equal opportunity hiring is equal opportunity in name only
While the numbers of adjunct positions are constantly on the rise, the number of full-time tenure-track faculty positions has stagnated, making adjunct positions highly desirable and competitive. Recently the Faculty Obligation Number (FON), the minimum amount of Full-Time faculty a district must have based on the percentage of Full-Time equivalent students, was reduced due to low enrollment in the face of COVID-19 making these jobs even more scarce. There is no guarantee that those positions will reopen within the next couple of years and by then more people will have graduated and entered the now extremely competitive job market.
In California, Title V stipulates that when a tenure-line position opens, the job is to be publicly announced in the name of equal opportunity. Adjuncts at the campuses where the positions are open are not supposed to be given any sort of favoritism or, conversely, be discriminated against. However, my dissertation research showed the exact opposite was found to happen quite often. One former college president, several deans and department chairs, and both full-time and adjunct faculty observed that the way job ads were written either favored a specific adjunct they currently employed and wanted to hire or excluded adjuncts currently working in the department.