mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Higher Ed Transformation
Salvation for Struggling Adjuncts

Here’s a feel-good story for your weekend: A university in New Hampshire is employing struggling adjuncts as teachers for its online education division, a move it hopes others will imitate. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

[Southern New Hampshire] university wanted to see if having full-time instructors would improve student performance and retention, especially in writing-intensive courses.

The college, which now relies on a stable of 2,700 adjunct instructors to staff its online courses, says that the pilot was a success and that it will hire 45 full-time faculty members by the end of the summer, including some from its existing adjunct pool. This is a small but significant step for Southern New Hampshire, which has become a model for nonprofit universities building large-scale online programs.

Online institutions that serve nontraditional students are booming. Meanwhile, doctoral candidates vastly outnumber available tenure-track faculty jobs at traditional colleges. […]

“We are the canaries in the coal mine for higher education,” [Southern New Hampshire instructor Delilah Caldwell]  says.

All in all, this is a very good deal: At $55,000 with benefits, Caldwell’s salary is a marked improvement on the pittance she made as an adjunct. Southern New Hampshire’s teachers aren’t judged on how much they publish, but on how well they teach their students in the university’s online education division, which mainly serves adults. In most cases, they don’t even design their own courses; the school supplies the syllabus and the materials. And though they’ll face an employment review every year, the university expects to keep these teachers on staff indefinitely, as long as they continue to perform.

Many professors would turn up their noses at a position like this, which does not offer the security of tenure or much chance of publishing in prestigious journals. But this program is nothing less than a boon for adjuncts, many of whom make less than the minimum wage with no benefits. And even if Southern New Hampshire won’t guarantee that they can keep their jobs until retirement, these positions still seem steadier than adjuncts’ usual one- or two-semester teaching gigs, which universities often rescind at the drop of a hat.

Educational innovators would be foolish not to make use of the large supply of well-educated, underpaid professors out there. If more schools follow Southern New Hampshire’s example, adjuncts will have better jobs than they currently do; students will be tutored by accomplished scholars while paying only the low tuition of an online program; and schools will pay less for faculty (and be able to fire them should they prove incompetent), thus passing fewer expenses on to students.

What’s not to like?

Features Icon
show comments
  • Stephen

    You write,”students will be tutored by accomplished scholars.” Really? Scholars? Only in the archaic sense of that word. As described, these adjunct faculty have no incentive at Southern New Hampshire to produce anything resembling scholarship as now commonly understood.

    They may be very good tutors and it is truthful to sell their service on that basis. In the vast majority of cases it will not be truthful to describe them as accomplished scholars. In some circumstances, a similar mislabeling would put you crosswise with the law.

    • Jim__L

      “Scholarship”, as now commonly understood, is vastly overrated.

      • Stephen

        That may be true, but to use it as in this case is to mislead, and to misappropriate the term. The model of content delivery by an online course with the assistance of a tutor stands on its merits or it doesn’t.

        • rheddles

          The model of content delivery by an online course with the assistance of a tutor that in a majority of cases in not a scholar, much less an active scholar, stands on its merits or it doesn’t.

          We’re going to find out. And we’re going to find out the value of all that so-called scholarship. The result may be that the tenure track becomes much more narrow and longer. When I was a youngster, it was 7 years to partnership at a big 8 firm. Now it’s 16 at one of the big 4. Academics, few of them really deserve the designation of scholar, are going to see the same thing happen as their institution feels the effects of the 21st century. And as in the other overly bureaucratized professions, there may be little effect on society from the overdue winnowing.

      • Andrew Allison

        Or, as suggested above, misrepresented.

    • Andrew Allison

      The scholarship in question it that required to achieve the rank of adjunct professor, a scholastic accomplishment in-and-of itself (the difference between adjunct and full is tenure, not scholastic accomplishment).

      • Stephen


        First, in a research university, tenure and promotion come after having demonstrated a sustained record of research/scholarship, teaching accomplishment, and service to the university/college, and broader professional community. However, even in liberal arts colleges lacking Ph.D. programs, some level of research production (or scholarship more broadly defined in the performing arts, for example) is expected for tenure and promotion through the ranks.

        A probationary period of no more than 5 years is typical prior to consideration for promotion to the rank of associate professor with tenure. Failure to achieve tenure in that time in most cases leads to termination of employment.

        Having achieved promotion to associate professor with tenure one may then work toward compiling that sustained record of production in the three areas mentioned meriting promotion to the rank of full professor. This last promotion is typically more demanding, and in research-level universities, i.e. ones with Ph.D. granting programs, the time necessary compile the record of sustained productivity needed is often as long as the 5 year probationary period to achieve tenure and promotion to the rank of associate professor.

        • Andrew Allison

          You are correct. I should have written “the difference between adjunct and full is time served and trees consumed”

    • Enemy Leopard

      Not all Ph.D.s are equally valuable, but, generally speaking, a Ph.D. is a scholarly accomplishment. Earning one doesn’t make you a star researcher, or even mean that you’ll continue to do research at all, but it does mean that, according to the standards of your field, you added something novel and interesting. I’d say it’s fair to call an adjunct with a Ph.D. an accomplished scholar, at least modestly so. (Again, you may not find much value in this or that person’s scholarship, but that strikes me as a different question.) One with a Master’s degree may be different, depending on whether it’s a terminal degree in that field, whether original creative work was required, etc.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service