Budget concerns affect contingent faculty

Anna Bellegante

While all faculty, staff and students at Iowa’s public universities are suffering from state budget cuts, adjunct professors are taking a particularly hard hit with decreased funding.

Adjunct professors, or faculty who are employed on a contingent basis, differ from tenured professors in that their positions are usually not as stable, with their contracts needing to be renewed annually in some cases. Contingent faculty are expected to spend most of their time teaching, since they typically do not have the research, grant proposal and outreach duties of tenured faculty.

But the limited state budget, combined with the shortage of available tenure positions, means contingent faculty members are often working harder than their pay suggests.

Mack Shelley, professor of statistics and political science, said universities increased their reliability on contingent faculty in the late ‘70s when many tenure tracks became unavailable due to the positions that were already filled. Now, even with the overall decline of faculty, contingent faculty is still on the rise. Hiring contingent faculty is easier, less expensive and less risky than investing in a tenure track-eligible candidate.

“The economics of it are almost irresistible from an administrator’s point of view,” Shelley said.

Shelley went on to acknowledge that while adjunct professors and lecturers are equally qualified to teach as tenured faculty, their potential temporary status could affect students’ educational experiences.

“What [departments] really want is more tenure-track positions … because that provides solidity and stability,” Shelley said. “Arguably, that would benefit the students as well.”

Kathleen Waggoner, adjunct associate professor of sociology and political science, has had a unique experience as a contingent faculty member.

Waggoner has been employed at Iowa State for more than 30 years. After an injury in 1995 leading to a condition called reflex sympathetic dystrophy, Waggoner was forced to reduce her employment to part-time. Despite her five degrees, publications and grant proposals, Waggoner is earning a fraction of what she earned as a full-time adjunct professor in civil and construction engineering before her accident.

While Waggoner admits having a larger paycheck would be ideal, she believes she has been treated fairly and is not bitter about what happened.

“Budget constraints being what they are, the university is doing what it can with the limited resources it has,” Waggoner said.

Waggoner said she doesn’t understand why many people attach a negative connotation to the word “adjunct.” Without trivializing the rigorous process of the tenure-track, she said she has created her own rigor in the classroom. Waggoner remains an adjunct professor because she loves teaching.

“I will keep doing it until I feel I no longer make a contribution,” Waggoner said.

Even with today’s shaky economy and her contingent faculty position, Waggoner said she is not worried about job security. As long as she keeps doing her job and there is a need for her position, she feels the university will keep her employed.

While Waggoner is satisfied with her adjunct experience, Shelley said the lack of support for higher education is a problem. He said the increased reliance on contingent faculty can be correlated to “budgetary uncertainty.”

“There has to be … a social betterment commitment … to try to make sure that there is continued support for higher education,” Shelley said.