Dependence on Visiting Professors Contributes to Unstable Academic Environment

For several budgetary and administrative reasons, institutions of higher education are rapidly shifting toward higher percentages of visiting assistant professors as opposed to tenure-track positions. According to College Factual, 11 percent of Oberlin’s total instructional personnel is part-time but not faculty, or non-tenure track faculty, otherwise grouped together as adjunct faculty. Thankfully, Oberlin has a significantly lower percentage of adjunct faculty compared to the average across higher education, but that may change in future years. Given the financial exigencies outlined in the One Oberlin report and ongoing concerns with faculty pay, it might only be a matter of time before the College considers remaking its faculty composition — if it isn’t doing so already.

There are three factors that deserve higher consideration when hiring faculty members: students benefit from an abundance of long-term faculty; faculty benefit from the freedom to conduct research and the ability to build their careers; and both of these factors benefit the institution by attracting young, competitive academics who are looking for long-term positions. 

Oberlin’s low student-to-instructor ratio naturally allows professors to give more attention to their students, both in and out of the classroom. This is a large selling point for the College as a whole. Some students decide to come to Oberlin because of the benefits reaped from close relationships between students and faculty members. During the semester, this means more detailed feedback on papers, more personalized advice during office hours, and accommodations that are better tailored to individual needs. Often, students take multiple courses with the same professors, which translates into a long-term rapport. Students often ask their recurring professors to be their academic advisors or write letters of recommendation. In addition to building a relationship, students benefit intellectually from the opportunity to immerse themselves over several semesters in their professors’ specialized fields. This can translate into doing credited research with professors, which is invaluable in securing offers from graduate schools, or individual research in the form of capstones or honors projects. 

An additional concern with adjunct faculty is the short-lived nature of their course offerings due to their limited time at the institution. If a student were to become especially interested in a field of study that a visiting faculty member specialized in, the sudden departure of the professor teaching that course could derail the student’s long-term plans and negatively impact their academic career.

First-years have also expressed specific concerns with being assigned faculty advisors who are visiting professors. It is difficult for faculty to advise students on unique institutional requirements and provide them with targeted advice regarding courses and faculty they have little experience with. Incoming classes are increasingly disillusioned with the quality of Oberlin’s faculty. It has become more difficult to ask upperclassmen for advice because the professors they know may not be at Oberlin anymore. This year’s course selection has brought this issue into particularly clear focus, with desires to take specific courses stunted by, “Oh, actually, I think they were a visiting professor.” 

For faculty, the opportunity to stay at one institution for more than two years gives them a secure place to work on their research and fine-tune their courses. Getting published in journals and writing books is what enables faculty in the humanities to develop an edge. Meanwhile, professors in the sciences need resources, students, and time to work on lab experiments and data collection — all of which demand a steady base of operations. The ability to invest time and energy in research will no doubt incentivize up-and-coming academics to accept positions at Oberlin, which is a long-term investment in the success of the institution.