Digest No. 08 - January 2021

Impact of Adjunct Faculty Working Conditions on Instructional Quality

Rhoades, G. 2020. “Taking College Teachers’ Working Conditions Seriously: Adjunct Faculty and Negotiating a Labor-based Conception of Quality.” Journal of Higher Education 91 (3): 327–352.


Contemporary higher education has increasingly relied upon non-tenure-track adjunct faculty to provide instruction, advisement, and mentorship to undergraduate students. As the empirical literature has repeatedly demonstrated, high-quality teaching and student-faculty interaction is a key component of critical outcomes such as student persistence and engagement.

This study is premised on the consideration that the working conditions of instructors are the learning conditions of the students, and that these working conditions are therefore central to understanding instructional quality. The author performs a wide-ranging content analysis of the collective bargaining agreements and contracts of adjunct faculty over the last 20 years in order to examine the extent to which institutions support the quality of adjunct instructors’ working conditions by providing them access to professional development (such as pedagogical workshops and research seminars) and instructional resources (for instance, course management systems and syllabi). The study indicates that while many institutions have improved the working conditions of the adjunct faculty they employ, access to these resources frequently remains discretionary and stratified rather than mandatory and universal.


Many full-time tenure-track faculty members enjoy the benefits of ample instructional support (access to syllabi, course management software, and IT support), professional development, input into shared governance (curricular and professional development decisions), and institutional infrastructure (space to meet privately with students, photocopiers, library and scholarly database access). These same conditions are not always available to the rising number of adjunct faculty members who increasingly share a greater burden for providing instruction. Arguing that “teachers’ working conditions are central to quality,” and that high quality is an imperative for running an efficient institution, the author performed a critical discourse content analysis of 254 adjunct faculty collective bargaining agreements dating from 2001 to 2021 (p. 327). This nationally-representative sample was examined to shed light on “the balance between [adjuncts’] professorial rights of access versus managerial discretion to not provide that access… stratification between full- and part-time faculty in working conditions associated with quality…[and] in what ways, if at all, do contract provisions about adjunct faculty’s access to instructional resources and PD [professional development] explicitly refer to educational quality and/or public benefits/beneficiaries beyond faculty” (p. 332).

This analysis revealed that, while substantial gains had been made over the last two decades in adjunct working conditions, “over half the contracts afforded managers discretion to not provide access to fundamental instructional resources and one-quarter to not provide PD” (p. 335). Furthermore, where access was provided, it was frequently stratified with more absolute and widespread access being granted to full-time faculty, and lesser or no access being made available to part-time faculty. The study also concluded that the language
acknowledging the linkages between working conditions and educational quality were infrequent, as was discourse recognizing the impact of quality education upon the greater institutional and public good.


This study has implications for adjunct faculty hired to teach courses at CIC member institutions. The working conditions of these instructors materially influence how well they can discharge their duties. Strengthening provisions for instructors to have ample access to instructional materials and the training they need to do their jobs well is a worthwhile investment.

The urgency of this realization is compounded by the instructional changes brought about by the recent pandemic. What does high-quality professional development and instructional resourcing look like after the shift to hybrid and online teaching? How can institutions meet the needs of all their instructors so that they can meet the needs of students? When curriculum is redesigned, what opportunities exist to include adjunct faculty in this process?

About the Authors

Gary Rhoades is a professor of educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Austin, A. E., and A. G. Trice. 2016. “Core Principles for Faculty Models and the Importance of Community.” In Envisioning the Faculty for the Twenty-First Century: Moving to a More Mission-Oriented and Learner-Centered Model, edited by A. Kezar and D. Maxey, 58–80. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Kezar, A. 2013. “Examining Non-Tenure Track Faculty Perceptions of How Departmental Policies and Practices Shape Their Performance and Ability to Create Student Learning at Four-Year Institutions.” Research in Higher Education 54 (5): 571–598.

Mellow, G. O., D. D. Woolis, M. Klages-Bombich, and S. G. Restler. 2015. Taking College Teaching Seriously: Pedagogy Matters! Fostering Student Success through Faculty-Centered Practice Improvement. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

Morphew, D., K. Ward, and L. Wolf-Wendel. 2016. Changes in Faculty Composition at Independent Colleges. Washington, DC: Council of Independent Colleges.