Part-time shift questioned at MU

Some worry that increasing reliance on part-timers could erode education.
Monday, June 21, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:15 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

A change in makeup in the numbers of MU faculty, administrators and staff to fewer full-time employees and more part-time is raising concerns of cheaper but possibly less effective education.

“The popular view is that there has been some acceleration” in the hiring of part-timers, said Gordon Christensen, chairman of MU’s Faculty Council.

However, university officials said there are lots of explanations behind the pattern — and an intentional shift of the work force is not one of them.

“We’re not making a concerted effort to convert the work force from full-time to part-time,” said Tim Rooney, the interim director of budget at MU.

Rooney said factors such as the growth in some department budgets and the offering of retirement programs have contributed to the changes in numbers.

Faculty and staff have said they think that within their departments and offices there has been a push to hire part-time employees to plug holes in personnel in tough fiscal times.

University records show that MU has about 100 fewer full-time and other benefit-eligible employees than it did in 1999. It also has about 400 more part-timers. Last year alone, MU lost 277 benefit-eligible employees and added 229 part-time workers, those ineligible for benefits.

Rooney acknowledged that part-timers are a less costly investment for the institution.

“It’s certainly less expensive to hire a part-time person because you don’t have any benefit costs,” he said. “Benefits cost — there’s no question.”

For every benefit-eligible employee, MU directs a sum equal to more than 27 percent of the employee’s salary value to the benefits pool, according to the Institutional Research Office on campus.

University officials say the work-force shift is not a trend, but rather a reaction to budget deficits and cuts. The four-campus University of Missouri system, of which MU is part, had $148 million withheld by the state over the past three years.

“The first year you’re OK,” said Vicki Rosser, an expert in higher education and an assistant professor in the MU College of Education. “The second year, you’re hanging in there. But if you get into the third year and there’s no hope on the horizon, that’s when people start looking.”

Should the work force shift and economic hardship continue, compounded by trends such as growing enrollment, rising tuition and a steep drop in the numbers of students from low-income families, MU would face serious challenges in providing a high-quality education.

MU officials said employment numbers are remarkably flat from an institutional standpoint, but acknowledge that more drastic changes might have taken place in individual departments. Numbers broken down by academic units show the same ups and downs over the last five years. Although the drops don’t seem high, they are when compared with recent spikes in enrollment. MU has more than 25,500 students on campus, compared to 22,898 in 1999. MU’s current student-to-faculty ratio is about 18.4-to-1. Rosser, who tracks developments and challenges in higher education, said this is higher than the average ratio at some peer research institutions such as schools in the Big 10, where it stands around 15-to-1.

Faculty replaced nationwide

Christensen said the Faculty Council is concerned that numbers of ranked faculty are waning and not keeping up with enrollment.

“Our understanding was that the employment of regular ranked faculty has been slowly declining,” Christensen said.

From 2002 to 2003, the university lost 58 benefit-eligible ranked faculty members, most of them to an early-retirement program. In the same time frame, it brought in 76 temporary unranked faculty members. Some of them are the retired ranked faculty members who came back to teach part time.

A recent report by the American Association of University Professors stressed that nationwide, ranked faculty are being replaced with unranked faculty — full-time or temporary. Sheer numbers are not the only problem. Unranked employees — a category that includes lecturers, instructors and graduate assistants — have started providing the same services as ranked faculty, although they do not receive the same privileges. They do not have academic freedom, they aren’t allowed to serve on committees and they are not doing research.

Christensen said unranked faculty are surprised to hear how little protection they have. He added that there has been a push to grant more rights to unranked faculty, but that is not an easy change to implement.

“Some people would say, ‘I’ve earned the rights of tenure, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to share them with unranked faculty who did not go through the process,’” he said.

Lawrence Revard and Chris Wilson are two unranked faculty members in the English department trying to address this issue. Unranked faculty don’t have a campuswide group representing them, so they tend to focus their efforts on their department.

Revard and Wilson said unranked faculty in their department have low wages compared to those of ranked faculty, job insecurity and no set criteria for evaluation or promotion. Most of them are on one- or two-year contracts and don’t find out until late in the summer whether their stay at MU will be extended. Right now, they also get paid the same salary every year with no adjustment for inflation and cost of living — but Revard said this is due to change. He added that the unranked faculty demands have been discussed in the department in the last few years and some will be met.

Revard said unranked faculty have the same workload as regular faculty and should get more of the same benefits. Fighting for the rights of faculty who are not as protected as tenured ranked ones is not easy, however, and not many are willing to do so.

“It is hard to motivate people who have no reward in the outcome,” he said.

Rosser said shifting the work force toward part-time unranked faculty would be bad for the institution.

“When we hire temporary people, it’s with hope that things will improve,” she said. “You can only have part-time people cover positions for so long until it becomes problematic to our students,” Rosser said.

Supporting the institution

Despite these shortcomings, both faculty and staff members support the university through hard financial times — they understand the need for quick fixes. Last fiscal year was the first time when tuition revenue and not state appropriations made up the significant chunk of the UM system budget.

“Everybody wants to be a good citizen in hard times and give everything to the academy,” Rosser said. “But you can only do it for so long until you start getting tired of covering the added workload responsibilities.”

Gail Lawrence, chairwoman of the Staff Advisory Council, said a lot of staff representatives have picked up extra duties in recent years. Everyone is trying to do their best, she said, but they do not operate as effectively and are not doing as good a job because they are understaffed and have work overload. She hopes the university will take notice of this.

“We strive very hard to keep our integrity intact and give our students what they paid for as much as we can,” Lawrence said. “And we’re doing it with a whole lot less.”

Shifts in numbers explained

Although benefit-eligible employee numbers are straightforward, a distribution of temporary employees by academic unit is hard to do. Temporary employees may work a single concert or a few ballgames or they may work for years. MU officials said their employee-management software, PeopleSoft, cannot provide a breakdown of numbers for temporary employees without running the risk of providing flawed data.

PeopleSoft was introduced in 2001, and MU is still trying to adjust to the new databases to avoid creating misleading data, also called data bias. Keeping track of employees and monitoring their numbers over large periods of time is secondary to day-to-day activities such as managing student enrollment or making sure salaries are paid. This is what John Spencer, interim director of MU Institutional Research, calls “tyranny of the immediate.”

MU’s Institutional Research team, which analyzes the campus databases of students, faculty and staff, has itself been cut from eight to three members in the past few years. With a team of three, the department cannot spend too much time on analyzing trends and changes. The data systems work well on the day-to-day activities. Managing a student’s enrollment necessities and making sure people get paid are the institutional priorities.

These daily necessities seem to have been responsible for most changes in MU’s employment over the recent economically tough years. Rooney said reasons for shifts in numbers from full-time to part-time include:

  • Re-coding of positions, or changing the categories of employees.
  • A growth in the athletic department budget, which brought a growth in administrative positions.
  • Grants and contracts brought in lab technicians or supervisors to monitor research.
  • MU’s fund-raising campaign added staff.
  • Two retirement programs offered in 2000 and 2002.

Rooney said the same reasons are valid when looking at the spending levels for benefit-eligible employees. Funds spent on faculty and researchers totaled about $148.5 million in 1999 and about $155.3 million in 2003. Spending on administrative positions — from secretaries to deans — jumped from $143.8 million in 1999 to more than $170.5 million in 2003.

Rooney said the increase in spending is due to a variety of reasons. These include staff increases in the athletic department, whose current $35 million budget is almost triple its 1998 value. It is also due to more spending in research and development.

Faculty members have always been worried about a growth in administration numbers and spending, Christensen said. From 1999 to 2003, the number of benefit-eligible staff members — which includes the bulk of the administration — grew by 0.36 percent, a figure that does not seem to back up faculty worries. Temporary staff, on the other hand, went up about 15 percent in the past five years. This category includes everything from ushers at basketball games to student workers.

Lawrence said a lot of staffers who took the last retirement program in 2002 came back to work part time. She said this helped the university because the people were already familiar with the system.

“They can replace a person, but they cannot replace what that person knows,” Lawrence said.

Salary information on temporary employees also was unavailable for this story because of data bias. Spencer said it’s hard to pull information about paying temporary employees because they change frequently and get paid irregularly. To get good data, temporary employees’ information has to be compared with MU’s previous database system, which Spencer said would take some time.

Lawrence said that in tough times, one does the best one can to meet the needs of people with what is available. Currently, MU is trying to do that with part-time employees — because it costs less, she said.

“Is that the trend the university is going to continue to take? I hope not,” Lawrence said.

Mel George, former interim president of the UM system, said that universities have stopped having too many long-term contracts, opting instead for short-term people they can get rid of more easily should economic circumstances warrant.

“It’s a lot easier to make cuts if you have people towards whom you do not have contractual obligations,” George said.

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