Higher-EduBusiness: Can we have it both ways for very long?

Colleges and universities have used adjunct staffing for decades, whether the adjunct staff were graduate Teaching Assistants or professionals and consultants from industry wishing to teach a course now and then. In either of those forms, the relationship was one of convenience – the administration got cheap labor and the laborers got tick marks for their resumes. Unfortunately, the success of the model in those two cases has become the justification for staffing entire programs with external, contingent help.

One can argue that when a college decides to reserve the senior level courses for the full time faculty and use contractors to teach the lower levels, the college has sacrificed quality for operating margins. But if educational institutions are in fact businesses, then that is not a convincing argument: such trade-offs are as ubiquitous as Post-Its in the corporate world. The more significant objection to that practice, one more likely to matter to those provosts and division chairs who have the savvy and the fortitude to look beyond this semester’s bottom line, is that the solution is not sustainable.

Adjuncts have been instrumental in helping institutions mange enrollment spikes and low skill levels in incoming freshmen classes. Both cases are completely consistent with the goals of contingent staffing: addressing a short term need that is outside of established business operational goals and yet represents a risk to those goals. It’s a short term expense with a nonbinding commitment by all parties to address a surmountable obstacle to long term profits and program viability. In more standardized arenas – project management, engineering, administrative positions, etc. – the trade-off between consistency and quality of work and availability of competent resources is manageable.

However, individual college courses and entire college curricula are anything but a standardized environment. Most colleges allow adjuncts great freedom in course content and design. Lower division courses taught by contingent staff may meet the abstract program objectives, but content mastery and skill mastery can vary widely from student to student and section to section. The financial and the educational goals of contingent program staffing make sense:  apply expensive senior faculty where their expertise is best invested – in  upper division courses. But if the students arrive at those courses ill-prepared, the educational goal cannot be met.

Even if a college tries to mitigate that risk by standardizing its lower division offerings, it faces another challenge: dwindling resources. While there are many people willing to take a part time job as adjunct instructors of one or two Composition or entry-level Anatomy and Physiology courses, there are far fewer individuals available and qualified to teach multiple upper division courses in a discipline. (There may be many of them still in the population at large, but they long ago found real teaching posts or took other employment to escape poverty.) When help is hard to find, you pay more for those you do find; so on this scenario, the educational goals of program contingent staffing can be met only at the expense of the financial goals.

Add in decreasing enrollments due to both economic pressure and demographics, and you have the makings of the classic unsustainable business model – cost reductions that impair efficiency coupled with decreased revenue.  If the 4-year schools naively implement the contingent staffing model, I fear that the only institutions that will survive will be the ones that understand how to acquire, qualify, and manage a fully contingent resource pool and are willing to decommit from the traditional academic objectives of comprehensive, coherent, and cross-disciplinary education.

Perhaps sometime in 2015 we’ll see the Harvard Business Review publish an article by a once tenured professor of business at a recently bankrupt major university, one of 400 adjuncts at the University of Phoenix all competing for three spring contracts, entitled “Rising from the Ashes: Why Phoenix  Ate Your School’s Lunch”.

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About caerdescri

Author, editor, educator.
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