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Adjuncts, lecturers and professors, oh my!: Who's best at teaching?

Published: Monday, Sept. 23 2013 11:15 a.m. MDT

As traditional colleges and universities seek the ideal mix of adjuncts, lecturers and tenure-track professors, nontraditional colleges that do away with tenure altogether are popping up.

Western Governors University has nearly 40,000 students in its online program, which is competency-based. Most instructors hold graduate degrees, but there is no tenure system. The school was founded in 1997.

A new experiment to watch is the Minerva Project, which aims to offer an elite university education for half the cost of an Ivy League school. Tuition, room and board will be about $29,000 per year, compared with about $60,000 at elite U.S. universities. Seminar-style courses for small groups of select students will be conducted via the Internet, taught by subject-area experts from around the world. None will receive tenure.

Schools like these throw out the tenure system and eliminate costs for buildings and expensive athletic programs.

Unexpected consequences

The impending enactment of the Affordable Care Act adds another facet to the debate over instructional staffing at colleges and universities. When the law goes into effect in January 2015, it will require employers to provide health insurance to employees who work 30 or more hours. But in academia, workload is determined by number of classes taught or students supervised, not counted in hours. What 30 hours means within academic settings hasn’t been fully defined yet.

“It’s a strange side effect of the Affordable Care Act," Laird said. “Institutions that want the quickest solution will reduce hours of all part-time people to fall under the minimum and simply increase the number of people working in those roles. I don’t think that education wins in that scenario.”

Already, some institutions are limiting adjuncts’ teaching hours to avoid having to provide health care benefits, according to Inside Higher Ed.

As tenured faculty at traditional colleges and universities see their responsibilities increase, employing contingent faculty not on the tenure track is seen as a necessary supplement, Laird said. But the devil is in the details when it comes to deciding who should teach Biology 101 and freshman English. The only certainty in the discussion about instructional staffing at colleges and universities of the future is that it won’t look like yesterday’s model.

“We will be working out for the next couple of decades what faculty roles are and how they get divided,” Laird predicted. “We haven’t found the silver bullet yet.”

Email: cbaker@deseretnews.com Twitter: @celiarbaker

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