By: Tzvi Levitin  | 

The Elusive Hunt for Adjunctificiation: Does Yeshiva College Have a Faculty Problem?

It all began with a cryptic email in early September from Professor Gabriel Cwilich, Physics Department Chair and then-Director of the Honors Program. In it, he said he wanted to talk to The Commentator about “a subject connected to YU that has the faculty quite worried, and I think it might interest you to explore.” (Cwilich is currently on sabbatical, after which he will return as a physics professor, with his position in the Honors Program assumed by Dr. Shalom Holtz, Chair of the Bible Department.) Intrigued by the mysterious message, and wondering if his request related to campus murmurs about a leadership change in the Honors Program, Editor-in-Chief Doron Levine and I quickly set up a meeting with Cwilich in his office. But at the meeting, by which point the news of Cwilich’s departure from the Honors Program had already spread throughout the college, Cwilich was eager to move past that discussion and give The Commentator a lead on a story we hadn’t yet considered writing about: adjuncts.

Cwilich claimed that faculty members of Yeshiva College were worried about “adjunctification,” a phenomenon spreading across liberal arts colleges throughout the country wherein full-time professors are slowly replaced by part-time faculty. Adjuncts are hired on a by-the-semester basis and receive very low compensation and little to no benefits from the university. Adjunct faculty earn as little as $500 per credit hour of teaching, oftentimes teaching multiple courses at several universities to stay afloat.

Cwilich cited recent and upcoming departures of full-time faculty members and the lack of plans to replace each one with a new full-time professor as evidence of Yeshiva College’s path toward a faculty supported primarily by adjunct labor. For example, the Biology Department lost three professors in the 2015-2016 academic year: Dr. Yakov Peter, who was tenure-track, left to Landers College for Men, while Dr. Carl Feit and Dr. Barry Potvin, both tenured, retired. Cwilich said that the administration had hired one full-time faculty member to replace these three professors (the Biology department is currently searching for another full-time faculty member as well), and that there were no plans to replace any full-time humanities professors who might leave or retire in the foreseeable future. After advising that we look into the issue further by talking to faculty members and the administration, Cwilich asked us to bear one question in mind: “What is the price that students pay when this happens?”

Before we left, Cwilich pointed us to a 2014 Guernica article, “The Teaching Class,” outlining the ramifications of universities saving money by employing adjuncts. The article claims that “in 1969, 78 percent of professors held tenure-track positions. By 2009 this percentage had shrunk to 33.5,” and that these changes had resulted not just in workers’ rights problems for professors, but also in worsened learning conditions for students. According to Guernica, adjunct faculty are primarily concerned with job retention, which is largely dependent on student evaluations. They will thus sacrifice quality of education for the sake of being liked by their students.

And what about the student experience outside of the classroom? Because the university is less invested in them, part-time faculty are less likely to be invested in their students’ success and in the mission of the university. If a professor has to teach courses at three schools just to put food on the table, they have less time and less motivation to hold office hours, help students explore and enrich their interests, and write graduate school recommendations.

After reading several articles echoing the points made in Guernica, it seemed indisputable to me that adjunctification presents a dilemma for the larger landscape of liberal arts education, both for the teaching profession and for the student experience. But was it a problem at Yeshiva College?

At the Yeshiva College Student Association’s open meeting with Joanne Jacobson, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, in December, I asked the Dean for her thoughts on how adjuncts affect the students in Yeshiva College. She began by praising the potential for adjuncts to bring diverse perspectives and interesting courses to YU. “Adjuncts can be fantastic. They’re often younger, often right in the middle of what’s going on in their field. [Interdisciplinary classes on] terrorism, capitalist economies, for example, can be a great reason to use adjuncts. [They] bring things we don’t necessarily have. That can be enriching, and they can be excellent faculty.” But Jacobson continued: “You need letters of recommendation, support and advice in applying to graduate school, and we can’t ask adjuncts to do that -- which is a loss for students. It’s not necessarily a poor experience in the classroom, but all these other things that are part of college, these are things that adjuncts can’t provide.”

Jacobson also stressed the importance of avoiding substantial reliance on adjuncts because “you have to build on the basis of doing right for your faculty… I do not think it’s ethical to build a faculty with heavy dependence on adjunct labor. They’re not getting benefits, they’re almost certainly teaching at other colleges. [It's not fair to expect them to be] interested in the future of the university or the department.”

Professor Daniel Kimmel of the Sociology Department  (full-time, tenure-track), echoed Jacobson’s sentiments: “My father is an adjunct teacher in sociology and social work. He’s been teaching the same five courses over and over again, he has huge enrollments, and they pay him very little… The long and short of it is they’re taking advantage of him.”

While Jacobson provided valuable insight on the process of adjunctification and the implications for students and the University at large, she had limited information on overall trends in adjunct hiring at Yeshiva College and recommended I speak with Dean Karen Bacon, Dean of Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences for both Yeshiva College and Stern College.

In my January interview with Dean Bacon, her assessment of the situation was definitive: “We’re not moving in the direction of adjuncts. By no means.” When pushed a little more on the ethics of hiring adjuncts in place of full-time professors, as is being done in the Biology Department while the process of recruiting full time faculty takes place, Dean Bacon said: “it’s true that adjuncts are paid much less and do not have the benefits... [We are] between a rock and a hard place. Is It  unethical to hire adjuncts because the pay is low, and or is it unethical not to hire adjuncts  at all?  Across the country adjuncts patch together a living wage by teaching at many institutions and we are part of that system. Here at Yeshiva, to create a full-time position, that either doesn’t exist or is a replacement, we have to go through an analysis… If I as a Dean can’t justify a position, it’s not going to get approved, because it’s not in the budget.”

When asked about how faculty decisions are made when there is limited funding, Dean Bacon said that, in addition to academic considerations,  a lot of has to do with the interest of donors. "People don’t necessarily want to give money for courses. The younger donors tend to be  savvy businessmen and women, who are philanthropists, who are more hands on with their donations… Some want bricks and mortar , to support facilities like  a building. Others are interested  to give to the programs that relate directly to the businesses they are in."

I left the interview with a little more clarity on how hiring decisions are made from the administrative standpoint, but I still had not received any hard data on whether adjunct hiring was becoming more prevalent at Yeshiva College. Over the next few weeks, I compiled lists of all Yeshiva College faculty members from both Spring 2012 and Spring 2017. With the help of Senior Academic Administrator Yehudis Isenberg, who meticulously categorized my lists into “tenured,” “tenure-track,” “full-time,” and “adjunct” faculty members, I calculated the differences in faculty populations of 2012 and 2017. The most noticeable difference was the overall number of faculty. Whereas there were 151 faculty members in 2012 (not counting Undergraduate Torah Studies faculty who taught Yeshiva College courses), there are only 101 this semester, a decrease of one third. The number of tenured or tenure-track professors went down from 66 to 46, indicating a severe loss of faculty with job security and long-term commitment to the university. And things do not look so bright for the near future, either: whereas there were 27 tenure-track professors in 2012, there are currently only six. Percentage-wise, this is a drop from 18% tenure-track faculty to a measly 6%.

But what of the adjuncts? Somewhat surprisingly, the proportion of the Yeshiva College faculty made up of adjuncts has fallen slightly; whereas there were 55 adjuncts in Spring 2012 (36% of the faculty), there are only 33 adjuncts in Spring 2017 (33% of the faculty). It seems that while Yeshiva College has suffered a large loss of full-time and tenured faculty over the past five years (perhaps in response to lower enrollment, perhaps causing lower enrollment, but more likely a little bit of both), the strategy has not been to replace these faculty members with adjuncts; rather, the strategy, for better or for worse, has been to not replace them at all. Retired tenured professors are not being replaced by new additions to the tenure track, and full-time professors who find greener pastures are seldom replaced by new hires unless the department is desperate.

I think Dean Bacon put it best: when the University is in a tough spot financially, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. Institutions, like people, only truly reveal their priorities and their values when their resources are limited. Do we sacrifice the number of courses we offer to avoid dubious adjunct hiring practices? Do we freeze salaries, or do we discontinue the Philosophy department? Do we demand more of our professors, so our students don’t come to expect less from the University? These questions are not easy to answer, but students paying tuition certainly have the right to know how and when these decisions are being made.