More than two decades ago, I stepped off the tenure track to raise a family. When I later returned to the classroom as an adjunct faculty member, I hoped my cobbled-together schedule — teaching courses at two seminaries and a state university — might lead to one full-time position at one institution. But over the years I’ve become reconciled to the itinerant scholar-teacher life, smiling in fellowship at the equestrian statue of John Wesley that I pass on the way to one of my teaching sites. I know I’m in good company. I also know I’m part of a growing population. Recent reports say the majority of courses taught at the post-secondary level in the United States are taught by adjunct faculty.
By definition, we adjunct faculty members are those who don’t fully “belong” institutionally to the theological schools we serve. We’re available to teach as needed — or not. The model adjunct in a seminary setting is a clergy person who teaches a course or two, but whose main job, compensation, and benefits are in parish ministry. As pressures on clergy employment grow, we’re likely to see more scholar-pastors crafting “bivocational” ways of making a living. Added to that group are the newly minted Ph.D.s who envision part-time assignments as stepping-stones to full-time employment — an expectation that is less and less realistic.
With adjunct pay ranging from $3,000 to $3,500 per semester course, a full teaching load of two courses each semester plus summer terms nets only $18,000 to $24,000 a year. This raises justice issues. Institutions are saving money and faculty time by failing to pay adequate salaries or benefits to highly credentialed people who are part of the institution’s work of formation, and who in reality have adjunct or “bivocational” status everywhere they are employed.
Inching toward equity
“What will it take to make an honest woman of you?” my colleague and supervisor at a university once asked me. I didn’t take offense at his attempt at humor because I knew he was expressing his discomfort with the inequality of our situation, forced by institutional structures. He was trying to work out a way that he could ask me to do some additional and innovative teaching and course administration and wanted to know what compensation would seem fair to me. My first response, job security, was something he could not promise, so we went on to strategize about salary.
I believe his discomfort is likely shared by administrators and governing boards of good will who are aware that tighter budgets are increasing their reliance on part-time, undercompensated teachers who are in many ways vocational peers. As budgetary pressures grow and the need for flexibility increases, a sense of justice demands that administrators and boards consider the important and expanding role that adjunct faculty play. Discussions around this issue might begin by asking — and answering — four key questions.
1. Are these faculty members making a living wage for the work they do? Institutions need to provide transparency about compensation structures, so the entire faculty understands the differences between full-time faculty and adjunct compensation. Greater transparency should lead, over time, to adjustments of compensation for greater equity.
2. Do our adjunct faculty members have access to basic benefits through this or some other job? A truly bivocational adjunct may have an off-campus job with benefits, but others may rely on this position and other adjunct teaching positions to cobble together a living wage. For valued faculty in this situation, administrators should ask: Are there ways the institution could create full-time or permanent part-time positions out of the patchwork of adjunct course assignments? This could provide a fairer and more predictable structure of salary and benefits to long-serving adjuncts.
3. What kind of job security can we offer adjunct faculty with a long-time connection to the institution? Part-time faculty, especially those who are piecing together a career at multiple institutions, deserve some predictability in their schedules. This may conflict with the institution’s need for flexibility in hiring according to its needs, but administrators should weigh these competing demands. People who are part-time or bivocational usually need to plan at least a semester, preferably a year in advance, particularly if they are coordinating multiple positions. Contracts over periods of two to five years would provide greater security and fairness.
4. Are there opportunities for ministry review within the context of the institution’s mission? Structured conversations between adjunct faculty and the dean would allow adjunct faculty to learn and share insights about how their teaching contributes to the mission of the seminary and also would remind administrators of the ongoing need to move toward greater equity in pay and benefits.
Low-cost, high-impact perks
Beyond issues of justice, theological institutions can show their respect for adjunct faculty members by providing several affordable amenities. Among them: Office space should be a defined place on campus that is private and professional, where adjuncts can meet students and prepare for class while on campus. When it comes to interacting with their professors, most students make no distinction between tenured and adjunct faculty, so they may not understand why some faculty (tenured) have comfortable and efficient offices while others (adjunct) must schedule one-on-one conferences in the cafeteria or a lobby.
Making an effort to share information with adjuncts is another way a school can demonstrate its appreciation. Communication through simple e-mail or phone chains can alert adjuncts to major events in community life and keep them informed of institutional news. When everyone else on campus knows of a recent tragedy or triumph or challenge, and adjuncts come to campus knowing nothing of it, real emotional harm can result. Technology has removed many time and space barriers. Keeping adjuncts in the communications loop may be as easy as adding their names to the faculty-staff electronic messaging system.
Along these same lines, someone should assume responsibility for providing adjuncts with mailboxes, e-mail accounts, and passwords that enable them to access library and online teaching resources. Library privileges are a significant benefit to adjunct work, especially for a new Ph.D. who is trying to chalk up some publication credits. A mailbox and institutional address help adjuncts make their way in the scholarly world without drawing attention to their lesser institutional status. Copies of campus directories and student handbooks are other important tools that ensure a sense of institutional connection.
In addition to the basic amenities are several practices that promote camaraderie among adjunct and full-time faculty. Invitations to participate in regular community activities such as staff lunches and chapel services go a long way toward building relationships. Adjuncts may not be able to attend every event, especially if they are juggling multiple positions, but the invitations are important. These acts of inclusion also might extend to opportunities to join in ceremonial occasions such as graduations and convocations.
Institutional leaders need to remember that adjunct faculty never get sabbaticals and typically lack the resources for professional development that are available to regular faculty. And yet many are still pursuing scholarly vocations, often in hopes of future advancement. What an affirmation it would be if limited funds for travel to conferences or released time were available to adjunct faculty with long standing in the institutions—or the opportunity to sit in on seminars and share scholarly conversations with colleagues on campus.
Tapping the wisdom of “partner faculty”
I sometimes joke that an advantage of being adjunct faculty is that we’re not expected to attend routine faculty meetings, and we’re not asked to serve on ad hoc or standing committees. But administrators and leaders would do well to check in with us occasionally to alert us to evolving developments in vision, mission, and curriculum. Adjuncts bring a fresh perspective to the table, especially if they have ongoing exposure to the practices of other institutions. It can be enlightening for the administration and for the part-time faculty to discuss how each class that the adjunct teaches fits into the larger curriculum. (By contrast, I remember my years at one institution when I learned my place in the curriculum by looking at my title in the catalogue — assigned to me by the curriculum committee without consulting me.)
Among best practices, I commend one seminary’s annual tradition of offering a luncheon in recognition of “partner faculty.” Those persons on the guest list include all adjuncts teaching in the academic curriculum as well as clergy supervising students. Regular faculty are also invited and expected to attend, and do. The president of the seminary guides introductions, offers words of appreciation, and then shares with the adjunct faculty the current state of the seminary’s mission and their role in that. Such acknowledgment of adjunct faculty as vocational peers and partners in mission, despite the difference in institutional status, goes a long way toward building the healthy teaching that seminaries hope to offer and the healthy teaching communities that seminaries hope to be.
On a personal note…
As I look ahead at a decade that will bring me closer to retirement age, my sense of this call to the work of theological education and formation has not waned. It will probably be a long time before I choose to step back from my current practice of teaching whatever is offered to me, including new opportunities for team teaching and online work. Despite institutional obstacles of various sorts, my sense of vocation has deepened through friendships with colleagues and always, of course, the work with students. The community and individual relationships have affirmed my vocation even when the institution has not.
I also will continue to speak out on behalf of adjunct educators who contribute so much to the learning experiences of today’s seminarians and tomorrow’s church leaders. Awareness is the first step toward lasting systemic change. As financial pressures and issues around adjunct faculty become more prominent in the news and professional literature, I encourage administrators and faculty in the theological academy to find ways to lead on the issues of fairness that reliance on part-time and bivocational teachers raise.
A longer version of this article appeared in Theological Education vol.49, no.2, pp. 33-44. This edited version is printed with the permission of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada.