chronicle of higher ed

Report: “Indispensable but Invisible: A Report on the Working Climate of Non-Tenure Track Faculty at George Mason University”

Authors: Marisa Allison, Victoria Hoverman, and Randy Lynn, all of whom are doctoral students in sociology at George Mason University and have worked as non-tenure-track college instructors. Ms. Allison is assistant director of research for the New Faculty Majority Foundation, an organization involved in research, education, and advocacy on behalf of faculty members employed on a contingent basis.

Summary: The three doctoral students conducted an anonymous web-based survey of their public university’s contingent faculty members in the spring semester of 2013. They asked more than 300 questions, some of which were tailored to respondents based on their job status. Of the respondents, 55 percent were part-time instructors, 24 percent were either post-docs or graduate teaching assistants, 9 percent were full-timers off the tenure track, and 12 percent were classified by the researchers as “other,” with most being university staff members.

Among the survey’s findings:

  • Many contingent faculty members reported encountering lax hiring requirements, with just half saying they had been interviewed, and fewer than than three-fifths saying they had been asked to submit references.
  • A lack of preparation was a common concern. A third of respondents said they had been hired so near the beginning of a semester that they had less than two weeks to prepare, and a fourth reported having less than one week. Nearly four-fifths said they had received no training to accommodate unique or special-needs populations such as nontraditional students, veterans, or students with disabilities. Less than a third reported having been trained to deal with students who appeared to be threats to themselves or others.
  • Adjuncts provide a lot for which they are not compensated. Substantial majorities of respondents answered yes when asked if they had used their own computers, phones, or printers. On average, they spent roughly 20 uncompensated hours before the beginning of each semester preparing to teach a course, and more than four-fifths reported putting in uncompensated hours after the semester began.

Some caution might be warranted in interpreting the survey’s results, however, given its response rate. Surveys were fully completed by 241, or just under 15 percent, of the instructors emailed invitations to take part. The report places the survey’s actual response rate at 20 percent to 25 percent because many of the researchers’ invitations had gone to inactive email accounts or faculty members who turned out to be ineligible to participate.

The report says that rates of less than 25 percent are common among methodologically solid web-based surveys, and that its findings echo those of a national survey of contingent faculty members conducted in 2011 by the New Faculty Majority.

The university’s administration, however, argues that the survey’s response rate was low enough to raise the possibility that its results are unrepresentative, and might, for example, have been skewed by higher participation levels among contingent instructors who are unhappy with their jobs. S. David Wu, the university’s provost, on Wednesday described many of the survey’s findings as “not consistent with our understanding of how the hiring process is being practiced and the kinds of services we provide to all of the faculty.”

Bottom Line: Whatever its shortcomings, this unusually in-depth examination of the views of contingent faculty members at a specific institution reveals that many feel they lack adequate preparation or support.


This post originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on October 9, 2014.

Survey of Adjuncts at George Mason U. Finds Big Gaps in Training and Pay

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