Professionals As Part-Time Professors

October 1, 2007
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There is ample opportunity for local professionals interested in sharing their expertise with future generations through West Michigan colleges and universities. Roughly a third of the secondary classes in session during a typical semester are taught by adjunct faculty, most with full-time jobs in their respective fields.

Professionals serving as college professors in the recent past range from icons of industry such as Cascade Engineering founder and CEO Fred Keller, politicians and social workers such as Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell and Grand Rapids Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss, engineers such as DornerWorks’ David Dorner, lawyers, accountants, chemists and designers, and journalists such as Tom Rademacher, Bob Becker and Rob Kirkbride.

“It’s an exciting and flexible way to share your expertise and to give something back,” said Tammy Stachowicz, an adjunct professor at Baker College of Muskegon and chair of the social science department. “There are a number of reasons that people want to. For me, it’s more of a passion: I want to be an influence on people going into the field.”

Some professionals are attracted to teaching for altruistic reasons. They have a desire to contribute to the educational system or a particular institution, an interest in changing the way an industry operates from the ground up (a la Fred Keller), or a basic desire to teach. Others are seeking supplemental income or professional growth, and many are recent retirees.

“It’s a win-win situation for the college,” said Stachowicz. “You get to control the hours that you work and stay in the field, and it isn’t always the case where you’re doing it on the side. The colleges get people with expertise in certain areas without hiring a full-time person with benefits and everything.”

Baker College is one of the region’s more avid users of adjunct faculty. As many as 90 percent of the school’s instructors are adjunct, including many department chairs. A large number are established professionals who have exited the field for various personal reasons, including retirement and, in Stachowicz’s case, to devote more time to raising a family.

While there is no readily available data tracking the background of adjunct professors in the region, it is assumed that the majority are employed full time in their sectors of expertise. There is an ongoing need to fill these ranks with qualified applicants.

“One of the big benefits is that it provides the university a lot more flexibility in programming,” said Thomas Brown, executive vice president for academics and provost of Davenport University in Grand Rapids. “It allows us to better meet whatever the current needs of the workplace are.”

As a general rule, there is a higher contribution by adjunct faculty at institutions with lower concentrations of traditional students. At Davenport University, full-time professors are used primarily for freshman-level classes, where students often need more mentoring and advising as part of acclimating to university studies.

Instructor candidates at Davenport are introduced to the school through occasional newspaper advertisements and through referrals by current faculty and affiliated employers. There is no shortage of applicants, Brown explained, and the school looks for the same qualifications it requires of its full-time faculty — lengthy experience, a graduate degree in the discipline and the appropriate certifications for the field. Candidates are vetted during a full-day weekend workshop and are expected to participate in ongoing training sessions.

“These are typically not professional educators,” Brown said. “They’ve probably had very little or no training in teaching, so they need to rely on us to do that.”

Baker College invests significantly in faculty training, Stachowicz said. “It’s fairly easy to make the contact. What scares people is how to teach. They need to have the patience and dedication to figure out how to get that expertise and information out of their head and into the students.”

With limited exceptions, all the local colleges look for a combination of experience, graduate degrees and the appropriate certifications. Some, such as Ferris State University-Grand Rapids, put a higher emphasis on experience. “But it really goes both ways,” said Donald Green, the school’s vice chancellor and dean. “You don’t want to bring in people who are just going to sit up there and tell war stories, and you need to make sure they understand today’s instructional models and teaching approaches. You have to have the best of both worlds.”

Candidates are typically directed to assistant dean Tracy Powers before being evaluated by the appropriate program. The university requires all candidates to perform a trial presentation in front of a classroom as part of the interview process.

On the adjacent campus, Grand Rapids Community College requests that all adjunct candidates fill out an application in its online database. Even established adjunct professors are required to do so each semester. The school does provide training opportunities for newer instructors with no teaching background.

“We have a fluid need,” said Kathy Keating, GRCC executive director of human resources and labor relations. “One of the advantages of engaging adjuncts is to manage enrollment and staffing fluctuations, so the pool we draw from is always changing.”

Grand Valley State University and Aquinas College both receive the majority of their candidates through referrals and unsolicited applications. Joe Godwin, associate vice president for academic affairs at Grand Valley, advises candidates to seek out department chairs or current faculty members. When a particular need arises, the chairs will actively recruit from the professional community, if necessary.

“Someone will have had some experience with the individual to gauge how they might perform in the classroom,” Godwin said.

Grand Valley has more than 1,000 tenure-track and otherwise full-time instructors on staff, teaching 80 percent of the classes. Still, the university has a constant need for adjunct at the extreme ends of its programs. Entry-level classes are often taught by adjunct professors, and there is always room for highly qualified professionals able to teach graduate classes.

Some professions are more competitive than others. Schools have their pick of applicants from fields such as human resources, education and communications, but struggle to fill needs for more technical and profitable areas of study.

“We’re always looking for good people in mathematics, chemistry, and some of these fields where you’re making enough money that you’re only going to teach at night if you have a strong personal desire to do so,” said Brian Matzke, director of instructional services at Aquinas College. “When you find someone like that, it’s delightful.”

Some colleges generate increased interest from the professional community with unique programs that appeal to the passions of individuals who might not otherwise have considered teaching. Aquinas’ sustainable business program, for instance, has attracted interest from some of the region’s foremost sustainability experts. Its community leadership program was until recently led by Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell.     

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