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Out of the Woods / In defense of part-time college faculty

Published 5:30 am, Thursday, April 24, 2014
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I am a retired part-time adjunct journalism professor from four different universities and colleges. I am here to defend the use of part-time faculty, which the New York Times so harshly criticized in a recent editorial as causing what it called "The College Faculty Crisis."

The Times published an editorial earlier this month, citing many ways colleges and universities are offsetting the skyrocketing costs of higher education these days. One of those ways is replacing full-time and retiring faculty (plus the cost of their benefits) with part-time instructors who have no benefits and get paid a modest fee -- about $3,000 for each course. A half century ago, I was paid $2,000 per course.

To be sure, the quality of higher education is declining because of this trend -- nearly half of all college faculty members are now part-timers, including community colleges. The Times pointed out that a new study conducted by the Center for Community College Students Engagement, a research center at the University of Texas, found that a portrait of the part-time instructors was "alarming."

The report said responses of more than 71,000 teachers found that part-timers face many daunting challenges "because they are treated almost like transient workers," so they have little reason to invest their time and effort into the institution where they work. They don't spend much time on campus meeting with students independently, and they are often given syllabuses at the last minute, affording them little time to prepare for teaching a course.

I take issue with the current system of displacing career faculty with adjuncts. I would argue that instead of treating adjuncts like "transient workers," raise their status and their pay so they fully contribute to campuses educational milieu. Surely, there must be tangible areas of college education than can be cut in order to level the playing field for adjuncts.

For example, many colleges and universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars recruiting top-notch football and basketball players, making those sports money machines that could be reformed. I love sports, but colleges and universities should not be training grounds for "professional student athletes" who frequently leave after a year or two to join the ranks of the pros lured away by big money.

What good is a college education if you don't complete it? Rather than discussing paying college athlete while they are still at college -- an idea that is unfortunately gaining some momentum -- why not eliminate athletic scholarships (football and basketball, especially), altogether and return college education curricula to what it once was: An opportunity to learn how to think, stretch the mind, and encourage innovation in all fields? Rather than pillory adjunct faculty, why not make those jobs more attractive and hire the best professional from every field teach their own full-time specialty at colleges?

I was the fortunate beneficiary of such a career path. I must say the combination of academic teachers mixed in with outside experts such as myself with real-life, real-time journalism experience was, I am told by college students where I taught, a fruitful mixture of the theoretical and the practical to the classrooms where we were invited to teach -- and to attend faculty meetings and give advice. Admittedly, I had a full-time job, as well.

I began my adjunct journalism teaching career at the age of 30 at New York University while working full-time as a daily newspaper reporter in New York. I also taught a course at The New School, a class I created about covering the civil rights revolution and was delighted that some luminaries in that field agreed to lectures -- including Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; Jim Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Whitney M. Young of the National Urban League, and Kenneth B. Clark, an influential black psychologist at City University and civil rights activist.

When I moved to Westport in 1968, I joined the University of Bridgeport journalism department part-time. Howard Jacobson of Westport, the department chair, encouraged me to pass along my expertise to undergraduate students. I moved on as an adjunct professor to the Graduate School of Journalism at Fairfield University, where the Jesuit schools faculty not only treated me as an equal but have me the honorary title of "Father" Klein. From there, still working for a corporation in communications, I joined Iona College's journalism adjunct faculty.

Contrary to the naysayers, I put a lot of time into teaching, meeting with students after class, participating in the department's activities in each of the colleges and universities where I was privileged to teach. I have been away from the classroom for two decade now. I look back on my experiences in those classrooms as something from which I benefited tremendously, and hopefully, so did my students. Some were so good that I actually hired them while I was in corporate journalism for 24 years and as editor of this paper for seven years.

Tom Henry, editor of The Westport Minuteman, was one of my most outstanding students. I saw him awhile back and casually asked him what grade I had given him.

"Straight A," he replied with a smile. Little did I know at the time that his weekly newspaper would turn out to be a leading competitor in our town!

Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at wklein11@aol.com