Academic Exchange Quarterly     Summer   2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  2

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Adjuncts Happen: Strong Faculty; Weak System


Barbara Garii, Lesley University

Naomi Jeffery Petersen, Indiana University South Bend


Both Garii and Petersen are currently assistant professors of education; each has taught in adjunct capacity as well.



Given the current increase in the use of adjunct faculty, this paper addresses adjunct faculty role expectations for the purpose of clarifying program stressors.  Because university policies on adjuncts are open-ended or unspecified, each participant defines adjunct roles differently; these definitions are not always compatible.  Both core and adjunct faculty focus on teaching but core faculty also must perform a service role of influencing continuous program modifications.   Adjuncts often limit their role to teaching and may not fully incorporate policy changes, undermining programmatic coherence   Inequity is experienced by core and adjunct faculty as well as students.  Understanding perspectives is a first step towards program coherence.  While solutions aimed at reducing stress for core and adjunct faculty are not readily apparent, initial discussion of the dilemma allows us to consider options as programs are revised in response to new standards.


Graduate programs in Schools of Education (SOEs) are administered and taught by faculty with a great range of association to the university.  The common bond tying together all adjunct faculty is their lack of permanent connection to the university and the existence of a contract that can be nullified with no penalty at the behest of either party.  Based on the literature and confirmed by preliminary interviews with core and adjunct faculty members, adjunct faculty appear to limit their role to teaching wherein they may share their specialized knowledge with willing students. Adjunct faculty often hold full time professional positions within their field of expertise; such faculty generally recognize that their interests lie in the interaction and contact with students (Schneider, 2003) rather than in the development of an academic persona or maintenance of an academic infrastructure.  Therein lies the basic stress to the system: each participant in the system defines the role of the adjunct somewhat differently and these overlapping but separate definitions are not always compatible. 


Adjunct faculty members have been variously described as peripheral to campus life, marginalized from the academic mainstream and frustrated by their exclusion from campus governance, less likely to interact with students outside of class, less effective as teachers, more focused on their lack of long-term job stability than the system that provides the job, and more likely to inflate students’ grades which may compromise academic rigor in order to sustain student approval (Johnson, MacGregor, & Watson, 2001; Klein, Weisman, & Smith, 1996; Lane 2002; Rifkin, 1998; Scheutz, 2002, Sonner, 2000; Wyles, 1998).  The lack of participation in and understanding of departmental and university affairs may translate into a “loss of credibility with frustrated students” (Edmondson & Fisher, 2003, p 11).  


On the other hand, adjunct faculty are recognized for their expertise and the cutting edge knowledge they bring to the classroom, along with their ability to illustrate theoretical perspectives with real-world experiences (Edmondson & Fisher, 2003; Ellison, 2002; Schneider, 2003).  Additionally, there are analyses suggesting that adjunct faculty appreciate their association with the teaching institution (Klein, Weisman, & Smith, 1996), have limited interest in participating in the administrative details of the academy (Lesley & Gappa, 2002; Schneider, 2003), and maintain long-term adjunct teaching connections with the institution (Schneider, 2003).  


This dichotomy is particularly apparent when comparing adjunct roles at community colleges to those in professional graduate programs, such as Schools of Education (e.g. Ellison, 2002; Lane, 2002; Rifkin, 1998 versus Edmonson & Fisher, 2003, Johnson, MacGregor & Watson, 2001).  Community college adjunct faculty often hope to establish a full-time career in academia and be fully involved in campus life, yet may need to teach at multiple institutions earn a livable salary (Sonner, 2000).   In contrast, graduate level adjunct instructors may be career professionals, working full-time or recently retired, who are interested neither in a full-time academic commitment nor the day-to-day administrative tasks of full-time faculty (Klein, Weisman, & Smith,  1996; Schneider, 2003).  They do not feel marginalized because they are not marginalized: they are well-respected within their professions and they see their adjunct positions at graduate, professional schools as enhancing their already well-established professional lives and as a gesture of service to the profession,.  Klein, Weisman, and Smith (1996) reported this to be true in schools of social work; this may be true of other professional schools, such as law or business, as well. 



Questions are therefore raised about the role of adjunct faculty in professional graduate programs, specifically in SOEs.  These questions are not always apparent to adjunct faculty themselves nor to their full-time colleagues nor to the overall system. Are the adjunct faculty members “merely” clinical experts, “merely” substitute teachers, or “merely” bargain-priced service providers?  Or are the adjunct faculty members truly part of an academic team that should contribute to the development of their academic department and the trajectory of the institution itself? With these questions our investigation began.  


While these questions cut across academic and professional disciplines (Johnson, MacGregor & Watson, 2001; Klein, Weisman, & Smith, 1996) they are of particular concern to SOEs which offer graduate level education to classroom teachers.  Recent changes in teacher education expectations and policies (NCATE, 2002; USDOE, 2002) have influenced an increasing number of teachers to return to school to upgrade credentials.  Many graduate SOEs  rely on adjunct faculty to help meet the needs of these students and to stay within budgets that have not been adjusted accordingly (Johnson, Kavanagh, & Mattson, 2003; Kirp, 2003).   These external pressures generate stress, but non-certificate graduate programs offer teachers the opportunity to deepen their expertise.  These programs are not strictly governed by accrediting organizations (Henderson & Scheffler, 2003).  Therefore, in order to study the SOE adjunct role, we limit our discussion here to non-certificate programs.


We present a framework for understanding stress and tension in graduate SOE programs that rely on adjunct teaching faculty.  This framework is guided by preliminary interviews with core and adjunct faculty members at two SOEs.  One SOE is a traditional, state-funded campus-based graduate program serving teachers who live in a small Midwestern city.  The second SOE is at a private university offering graduate degree programs on a national basis in a satellite cohort model.   


The explicit role of full-time faculty is three-tiered: teaching, service, and scholarship (Lesley University, 2003; SOE IUSB, 2003).  On the other hand, adjunct faculty describe a role that lies solely with the realm of teaching: while they are influenced by the realities of their professional positions, they are less concerned with the needs of the overall university system and more influenced by practical realities manifest in their professional lives and in the graduate classrooms in which they teach  (Jonas & Weimer, 1997; Rifkin, 1998).  Initial discussions with full-time faculty at the two institutions suggest that what full-time faculty bring to the classroom is informed and influenced by their service and scholarship.  Due to their full-time affiliation within the institution, full-time faculty have a systemic perspective that colors their understanding of decision-making processes and course integration; their course revisions are informed by both theoretical understanding (e.g., scholarship) and policy directives (e.g., service to the university). 


A tension develops within the range of expectations held by all perspectives (full-time faculty, staff, administrators, students, adjunct faculty, and professional community) regarding the participation of adjunct faculty. SOEs must align with external systems, i.e., NCATE (2002), which require democratic participation by all faculty, including adjuncts, in curriculum development and program implementation, evaluation, coherence, and integrity.  Full time faculty encourage adjunct participation in governance and curriculum development--not just for efficient division of labor but also for more effective implementation of policies (Edmondson & Fisher, 2003).  In this way, students of adjuncts would have equitable access to intellectual and logistical resources.  Because the students are the ultimate recipients of the systemic health of the institution, they are also the most vulnerable to confusion, mixed messages, inconsistent implementation, and misinformation, seeking assistance from their most frequent or personally accessible points of contact. 


Full-time faculty blend teaching, service, and scholarship by teaching each other in addition to teaching their students (Boyer, 1990).  Full-time faculty hope adjunct faculty will share their specialized knowledge with the SOE as well and help influence curricular changes and program expectations. Alternatively, they may regard adjuncts as a necessary condition of an under-funded system better served by more full-time positions (Johnson, Kavanagh, & Mattson, 2003; Kirp, 2003).  The institution may officially acknowledge adjuncts’ role-positive contributions, in part to justify the increasing proportion of adjuncts responsible for implementing programs (NCATE, 2002).  Additionally, the institution may encourage adjunct faculty to participate in student evaluation, program assessment, and collection of both artifacts and data for national, state, and local accreditation exercises (USDOE, 2002).   However, full-time faculty report that although adjuncts who do participate feel professional pride in being ‘a part of the team’ and respected for their input, most adjunct faculty do not participate, even when invited.  Core faculty and administrators further admit that communication is inconsistent at best, reducing the response rate and increasing the tendency for adjuncts to be faceless and voiceless when decisions are made.


Ultimately, the instructional delivery of the adjunct instructor rests on the beliefs and definitions of the adjunct him/herself;  this delivery may inadvertently undermine official efforts of the institution.  Although adjuncts offer specific expertise and clinical experience that help students bridge the intellectual gap between theory and practice, adjuncts’ lack of connection with the institution may belie a full understanding of the values, needs, and institutional expectations that underlie the interdependent nature of individual courses within SOE programs.  While the institution and full-time faculty may perceive the role of adjunct faculty as influential beyond the confines of the classroom, adjunct faculty may prefer not to venture beyond their interactions with students in the classroom.


There are many models of adjunct inclusion into departmental structures (Edmondson and Fisher, 2003; Howard & Hintz, 2002; Johnson, MacGregor & Watson, 2001); these models all presuppose that adjunct faculty wish to participate or have the time to participate in orientation and on-going mentorship programs or are interested in maintaining active two-way communication with the SOE.  Adjuncts may be less connected to the institution than full-time faculty but they may not see this as a detriment to their goals because their professional goals lie elsewhere (Ellison, 2002; Jonas & Weimar, 1997; Schneider, 2003).          


The increasing use of adjuncts in SOEs affects the quality of programs because the demands on the adjuncts exceed the scope of their perceived knowledge and responsibility.  Without clear role definitions, adjunct weaknesses (e.g., lack of knowledge of university and program expectations) and program weaknesses (e.g., poor articulation between and among individual courses) magnify each other; overshadowing the collective strengths.  In order to strengthen the infrastructure of various SOE programs, we have to recognize the complications of maintaining a system that does not clearly define or intentionally cultivate the roles and expectations concerning one of its key components: adjunct faculty members. 


This articulation and cultivation is based on the infrastructure of communication that is allegedly used by all members of the institution.  An important difference between adjunct and full time faculty is how they obtain, understand, and utilize information about university and SOE policy, procedures, curricular mandates, and institutional concerns, which are derived from state directives, organizational responses to federal, state, and local initiatives, institutional budgetary concerns, and student evaluations of courses and programs.   Because the role definition of the adjunct faculty –purveyors of specialized knowledge – is not necessarily compatible with the adjunct’s role definition as understood by the full time faculty or the system itself, the adjunct faculty may place less importance on the specifics of the communication and may be unwilling and/or unable to integrate this information and knowledge into their classroom presentation.  Adjunct faculty may be less concerned with the theoretical implications of policy directives and more interested in the practical applications.  Thus, this lack of clear definition adds stress to an already overburdened academic system. 


The adjuncts are not the weak links in the system.  However, the lack of common understanding of the role of the adjuncts suggests that the academic system itself is precarious.  The full time faculty   need additional, non-teaching support  , while the adjunct faculty wish to maintain their pristine role in the classroom.  Additional departmental communication and/or expectations of service to the department or participation in departmental governance may discourage adjuncts because these extra responsibilities are seen as burdensome and distracting. University (as opposed to SOE or departmental) expectations assume that all faculty, including adjunct faculty, participate in academic administrative life.  While adjunct faculty may accept that their participation is important, institutional expectations of participation are neither sufficient nor compelling enough to inspire meaningful participation beyond attendance at irregular get-togethers.  Simultaneously, SOE administration looks to maintain flexibility in scheduling while ensuring that the adjunct pool is strong and viable.  Thus, there is an administrative imperative to tolerate less adjunct participation than is considered necessary for systemic health.  


Ironically, solutions to some systemic problems interact to generate miscommunication:  Efforts to make graduate programs accessible, i.e., after hours, weekend, or off-site classes with no staff or core faculty on duty, remove students from more authoritative guidance.  The communication structure exposes the tensions in the system.   Due to professional demands, adjunct faculty are less likely to look to printed sources of information, cyber or otherwise, and rely, instead, on the face-to-face communication that is less available to them.  Additionally, these printed sources present adjuncts with disembodied information that may seem meaningless, useless, and/or irrelevant to their concerns and professional perspectives although the information may be relevant for student guidance and appropriate presentation of the University “face.” Finally, adjunct faculty might not be routinely connected to the SOE via computer, more often the prime means of communication in SOEs.  


As mentioned in the title, the problem is not with adjuncts but with the system. The systemic stress appears to lie within the need to reconcile the demographic and logistical realities of adjuncts with the democratic ideals of the institution and its core faculty.

 Tolstoy’s (2001) insights ring true:  Although all systems are vulnerable in the same way, all systems require particular solutions that are specific to their contexts.  It remains for the SOE leadership to analyze the interacting elements and facilitate effective communication and participation, beginning with a close monitoring of all decisions affecting and affected by adjunct faculty.






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