Considering Part-time Faculty in COVID-19 Response Planning

by Todd Benson

man giving presentationWith the sudden escalation in both public concern and genuine risk associated with COVID-19, COACHE’s team has been discussing the implications for faculty. As we discussed the issue, an important question that arose was, “Who might we be forgetting?” For us, the answer to that question was part-time faculty. As administrators grapple how to handle their institutions’ response to this global pandemic, here are some thoughts about why part-time faculty are an important consideration in these discussions and some questions that institutions might consider in their planning.

The Unique Implications for Part-time Faculty

Due to the nature of their employment status, part-time faculty are less likely to be comprehensively insured than their full-time counterparts. Some portion of those part-time faculty will be insured through a spouse/partner, another employer, or through out-of-pocket medical insurance. Whether uninsured or underinsured, this population may be more likely than full-time faculty to have to decide whether they can afford testing. Even when tests become available, out-of-pocket expenses could exceed the salary these faculty receive for teaching a single course. Assuming any part-time faculty member showing symptoms does get tested for the virus, the consequences of a positive test are greater for those faculty with fewer resources to support a self-imposed quarantine.

Part-time faculty are more likely than full-time faculty to work at more than one university. That may mean that they are traveling more often for work (e.g. between multiple institutions) which, in turn, may increase their risk of exposure. In urban areas that might mean increased use of public transportation. Further, part-time faculty may be receiving conflicting messages from one employer versus another.

Part-time faculty also tend to be less likely to attend departmental meetings, immediately review messages from the institution, or be aware of campus resources in general. This means that the tactics used to communicate campus updates and protocols may not reach part-time faculty via the same channels used for full-time faculty. Campus communication plans should, thus, be sure to incorporate a wide variety of channels for disseminating updates.

Finally, anecdotal evidence suggests that part-time faculty are more likely to teach introductory course sections with larger class sizes. If, as public health officials are now advising, people should avoid crowded public events, then a lecture class with a hundred or more students should be treated with the same concern as a concert or other public convening. If part of an institution’s obligation to students is to provide a safe environment for learning, then we must consider how large classes taught by part-time faculty are managed.


Some Questions to Consider as Institutions Strategize


How are part-time faculty onboarded and engaged within departments? Is there continuity across departments?

One of the issues that has become apparent in our work with universities is that part-time faculty are typically hired and managed at the department level. That means greater variability in onboarding, orientation, and protocols for communicating. It is especially important in times like these to make sure that part-time faculty are automatically enrolled in any campus-wide emergency alert systems. These systems are predicated on the idea of consistent and widespread dissemination, but if variations in onboarding processes mean that part-time faculty are never asked to enroll, then emergency alert systems will be missing a critical swath of campus constituents.


What are the absence/leave policies for part-time faculty? Do part-time faculty understand the policies? Does your institution understand the types of decisions that part-time faculty have to make regarding leave?

Often, when it comes to university policies, there is the formal/official policy and then there is the unwritten expectation that gets communicated to the rank and file. At COACHE we have seen this sort of dichotomy for years. As an example, from our work on the Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey we hear that faculty do not think their institutions have a Stop-the-Clock Policy even though it exists in black and white in the faculty handbook. Since many full-time faculty do not read the handbook in its entirety, it is reasonable to extrapolate that even fewer part-time faculty are reading the handbook cover-to-cover. In many cases, part-time faculty may get clear messages from chairs and deans, but in the case of a medical emergency of this scale and consequence, continuity of messaging cannot be left to chance.


What types of technological barriers are part-time faculty facing that limit their responsiveness to the current situation?

Right now, institutions are quickly assessing their ability to move all courses online. That sort of universal shift is difficult enough when an institution is working exclusively with full-time faculty. Part-time faculty are much less likely to have office space, computers, and training in online course design and execution. Pragmatically, administrators should be asking where and under what circumstances part-time faculty will teach. Are institutions prepared to provide laptops and pay for high-speed internet in the homes of part-time faculty, or they counting on faculty to foot the bill? One might even wonder if differential approaches are needed for part-time faculty in rural communities compared with faculty in urban communities.

Assuming an institution can clear the hurdle of providing technology and internet access for part-time faculty, the challenge remains to prepare them to adjust their instructional and assessment practices to teach remotely. Asking part-time faculty to change their pedagogy mid-semester is an exceptionally burdensome request.


Who Might You Ask for Help?

Moving ahead, colleges and universities must consider the resources available to them. The first place to look is within your own faculty. Faculty can serve in a variety of roles during a crisis like this. If your institution is convening a team of faculty to address the COVID-19 crisis, consider asking who has expertise in:

  • ...managing issues related to infectious diseases. Universities with medical schools are at an immediate advantage in this respect, but may disciplines study these issues including anthropology, health sciences, and education.
  • ...working with distance learning pedagogy. Perhaps faculty in your School of Education have expertise in scaling online learning. Centers for Teaching and Learning are undergoing a stress test as they help entire institutions shift to online pedagogy. Faculty may be able to help alleviate some of this burden by lending their own expertise.

Particularly in urban settings where universities “share” part-time faculty, one might create opportunities for cross institutional learning. Even without shared faculty, colleges and universities might benefit from cross-institutional, consortial partnerships.

Finally, don’t forget to include some of your part-time faculty in the rooms where discussions about institutional responses are taking place. They are the only ones who can articulate their lived experience. Related to this and equally important, part-time faculty who are asked to help with the response to this issue should be fairly compensated for their time and expertise (and yes, working for your institution as a part-time faculty member is an area in which they have expertise). Asking part-time faculty to support the institution in a time of crisis without compensating them is a perpetuation of an inequitable system. Properly compensating your institution’s part-time faculty for their assistance in crisis planning is simply the right thing to do.


Unearthing Lessons to Carry Forward

It is certainly important to focus now on the most pertinent issues. How do we keep our students, faculty, and staff safe? Crises such as this, however, present opportunities for reflection and problem solving that can have implications far beyond the current situation. For example, Trader Joe’s recently changed its sick/leave policies to include paid leave for all employees until the COVID-19 outbreak is under control. Some universities, like our own, are following suit with similar adaptations. While this is certainly a commendable step, it raises questions about the safety, efficacy, and equity of their original policies...

In the same way, we encourage administrators to reflect on what the current crisis is teaching you about the treatment of part-time faculty on your campus and as a part of the academic community at large. The COVID-19 crisis is elevating problems today that have laid dormant for years. When things return to normal, will those historic policies and practices come across as reasonable? To that end, I hope that, when this situation is under control, colleges and universities will consider undergoing a holistic review of their policies for part-time faculty. Are they clear, well communicated, and accurately reflective of the experiences of this critical, but especially vulnerable, population? If not, will institutions change their policies or just hope that another pandemic isn’t around the corner?


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