ST. LOUIS — When college administrators explain why they hire part-time faculty, instead of pricier full-timers, they often conjure images of instructors such as Kim Rensing, who teaches criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
A lawyer who spent a decade in the St. Louis County prosecutor's office, Rensing has a wealth of real-world experiences not typically found among academics who spend their entire lives in and around classrooms.
"It gives me an advantage over someone who's never practiced," said Rensing, who's been an adjunct instructor at UMSL since 2007.
For a university without its own law school, Rensing represents an inexpensive way to add expertise to the faculty roster. She needs no office. No phone. Only a mailbox and a university email account. And best of all, she's paid just a small portion of what a full tenured professor would cost.
Part-time faculty members such as Rensing have long been fixtures on college campuses. But cash-strapped schools are increasingly turning to such adjuncts — generally defined as instructors paid on a class-by-class basis — while looking for ways to educate record numbers of students.
And while most agree that adjuncts make fine teachers, some critics say the trend is hurting students by depriving them of the mentoring and stability provided by professional faculty. It doesn't help, they say, that the rise in adjuncts coincides with ever-rising higher education costs.
"Students are paying more and getting less," said Howard Bunsis, secretary treasurer of the American Association of University Professors.
A look at nine of the region's top institutions shows that adjunct hiring soared from 2002 to 2011, with the ranks of these part-timers increasing by 10 percent to 50 percent at most of the schools. MU, for example, saw a 48.4 percent increase, while UMSL recorded a 55.8 percent jump.
Administrators can point out several advantages offered by adjuncts, but it seems that much of the increase can be attributed — in one way or another — to nationwide cost-cutting efforts by schools coping with financial hardship.
"The shift away from full-time faculty is just something — except at the richest institutions — that is going to continue to occur," said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell University Higher Education Research Institute. "That's a cost savings thing. It's as simple as that."
The world of higher education teaching contains many layers and titles, including professors, assistant professors, associate professors, instructors and lecturers. Details can differ from school to school, but at the upper end of the faculty spectrum is the tenured professor — someone with a great deal of job security who divides his or her time between teaching, research and service activities such as student advising. Pay varies widely by school, but at the larger institutions, can easily exceed $100,000 for full professors.
At the lower end of the spectrum are adjuncts, who get paid a few thousand dollars each semester to teach a class. Even if the adjuncts teach a full load of four classes a semester, they are unlikely to get even half of the tenured professor's paycheck. And they generally work on one-semester or one-year contracts, giving them virtually no job security and, often, no benefits.
Their ranks include UMSL's Susan Crowe, who teaches a couple of courses on western art. She recently finished her master's degree in art history, plans to pursue a doctorate next year and hopes to one day teach full time.
But with such jobs becoming harder to find, she knows it won't be easy. Already, she is preparing for the possibility that she'll have to pick up classes at other area schools in the fall.
For now, teaching two classes is workable because her husband provides a second, stronger income.
"But this is not a model we'll be sustaining," Crowe said. "We don't get paid a lot of money, but I do enjoy what I do."
Administrators generally prefer not to dwell on the saving.
"I don't know that we have anybody hiring adjuncts just to save money," Glen Hahn Cope, UMSL's provost, said. "It wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that some departments would do it to save money. I'm just not aware of it."
Instead, they like to talk about the advantages of adjuncts at a time of unprecedented college enrollment.
At MU, for example, enrollment has risen nearly 30 percent since 2002. That's created the demand for the sort of short-term flexibility offered by adjuncts, said Michael O'Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science.
"When we get flooded with new students, it's a blessing," O'Brien said. "You certainly don't want to hire people and have to lay them off later."
Others say adjuncts are an important element of higher education, allowing instructors such as UMSL's Rensing to give students real-world insights.
That's a key component of the educational mission at Webster University, where adjuncts outnumber full-time instructors 700 to 200, said Julian Schuster, the school's provost.
The school is in the midst of a study of its adjuncts with a goal of offering many of them something more than course-by-course contracts. It's possible that some veterans could be offered annual or even multiyear contracts to solidify their positions with the school, he said.
But he insists that adjuncts — and what they have to offer — will remain a key component at Webster.
"It's not just a simple formula of what's cheaper or what's more expensive," Schuster said. "You need to have a proper balance between the theory and the practice."
The problem, critics say, is that adjuncts don't necessarily approach their jobs in the same manner as full-time faculty members.
For the most part, they are quick to praise adjuncts as classroom instructors. And no one is calling for the abolition of part-time faculty. They are seen as a key piece of the higher education structure, covering classes for busy researchers and handling the introductory courses shunned by many full-time professors.
"It's nice having three to four adjuncts to teach classes we don't want to touch," said Stephen Montgomery-Smith, professor of mathematics at MU. "If I were doing day-to-day college algebra, I would get bored out of my mind."
The problem, critics say, is that schools are relying too heavily upon adjuncts, with some studies showing that more than half of the nation's college instructors are part-timers. And while adjuncts tend to be more heavily used at community colleges and smaller four-year schools, they are on the rise everywhere.
And that has veteran educators such as Bill Connett, professor emeritus in UMSL's math and computer science department, worried about the future.
"The university is sort of destroying itself by having so much of its content taught by adjuncts," Connett said. "It's a dangerous path to go down."
Interestingly, the criticism of adjuncts tends to revolve around what happens outside, rather than inside, the classroom.
Some complain that adjuncts, essentially paid just to teach, don't have time to spend mentoring and advising their students. That's compounded by the fact that many of them work at two or three different schools in order to make ends meet. They also are not typically involved in cutting-edge research in their fields.
Others worry about academic freedom protections — or rather, the lack of it — for adjuncts. Academic freedom is what shields tenured professors from administrators unhappy with a particular piece of research or teaching technique. In theory, it protects the purity of the education process.
Because adjuncts don't have the same protections, they are more likely to tailor their teaching to the whims of the administrators who hired them. That makes them more vulnerable to questionable practices such as grade inflation, Montgomery-Smith said.
"The integrity of the teaching mission can get lost that way," he said.