Temporary Faculty Have An Increasing Presence At NIU

Feb 27, 2017

In a period of declining enrollment and shrinking university budgets, adjunct and temporary faculty are taking a wider role in higher education, including Northern Illinois University.

When someone thinks of going to college, the common image is a wizened old professor lecturing to a classroom of eager undergrads. Or a teacher’s assistant holding a session for graduate students. Christopher McCord, Dean of NIU’s College of Arts and Sciences, says that’s at least the ideal.

Dr. Christopher McCord is Dean of NIU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

“Our core of our instructional delivery comes from our professorial faculty and our graduate students, but every year we have needs that exceed what the faculty and graduate students can deliver."

To pick up the slack, NIU -- along with many other American universities -- hires temporary faculty members, also known as adjuncts, to teach additional courses. Dr. Barrie Bode, who chairs NIU’s Biological Sciences Department, says their tasks differ from their more research-oriented colleagues.

“The tenure-track faculty are hired with that as one of the primary factors when they’re brought on board, whereas instructors are primarily brought on for their teaching," he explains. 

Even though NIU has always made use of adjuncts, Dean McCord notes their use has increased due to recent circumstances.

“We have been, unfortunately, for some years, in a period of enrollment contraction," he says. "One of the consequences of that is we need fewer instructors. We’re also in the period where we have to monitor our budgets carefully, so we need to make sure we’re not putting out more capacity than our students need.”

Balancing this capacity means eliminating redundant or unnecessary courses, as well as juggling around which faculty members teach them.

“We’re not going to say “Oh, faculty member A, we’re going to assign them a course that they’re inappropriate to teach just because we need them to teach something extra," McCord says. 

Dr. Barrie Bode is Chair of NIU's Department of Biological Sciences

Dr. Bode says it’s also a national trend of attrition.

"As tenure-track faculty retire, they’re being replaced by temporary instructors.”

These retirements come earlier because of changes in the State University Retirement System (SURS), into which full-time faculty pay for pensions.  If resources are tight, these early retirees may not be replaced.

Bode says he’s seen faculty in his department drop from 28 to 20 since his arrival. He’s seen similar losses in the Chemistry department.

“When I got here in 2009, chemistry had 24 faculty," he says. "As of this year, they’re down to 12.”

However, there’s also a third type of faculty that bridges the gap between adjuncts and full-time professors. Dr. Carl Campbell, chair of the economics department, explains. 

“When the regular faculty declined so significantly, some of them were replaced with visiting assistant professors who were able to teach graduate courses”

These professionals don’t have the same kind of benefits as full-time faculty, but they often have more specialized experience, can teach graduate courses, and have greater student engagement than temporary faculty. Campbell’s department currently has two such professors.

Dr. Carl Campbell is Chair of NIU's Department of Economics.

“Even though we might have different roles, we all get along really well together, so it works well in our case," he says.

However, temporary faculty members aren’t without their disadvantages. Having more adjuncts than full-time faculty means fewer people to carry out research. Furthermore, Bode says, these staff members can lack continuity.

“They’re typically paid lower-scale wages for what they do, so many teach at multiple institutions across the region until they can land a fairly permanent position. So you get this very transient structure.”

McCord understands these concerns but says trimming excess capacity will continue to be a concern with declining enrollment and an uncertain state budget.

“I welcome the day where we have the problem of needing to staff up in a hurry because we have so many students coming in that the problem is not where we need to move courses away from but where we need to move to. Unfortunately, that’s not the environment we’re in today.”

This semester at NIU has seen some departments replace adjunct teachers in favor of regular faculty while others have added adjuncts to deal with student needs. Until budget issues are resolved, the role of non-tenured faculty at NIU and on campuses across the state will continue to evolve.