America's "visiting professor" scam: How colleges are watering down higher education

More and more educators are being pigeonholed into temporary positions that hurt both institutions and students

Published February 19, 2015 4:31PM (EST)

Michael Stuhlbarg in "A Serious Man"     (Focus Features)
Michael Stuhlbarg in "A Serious Man" (Focus Features)

After more than two years of teaching at an elite liberal arts college, at a recent off-campus meeting, I introduced myself to a new colleague: “I’m Rachel Leventhal-Weiner and I’m a visiting assistant professor.” And then I got the dreaded reply:

“Visiting from where?”

Once upon a time, the “visiting” title meant something. It signified a certain level of status—you were good enough in your field to leave your own institution and grace another with your presence. You were a specialist and you were talented. Today, however, that is no longer the case.

The entire American higher education system is moving in the same cynical direction, hiring fewer long-term faculty members and more visitors. Accordingly, the “visiting” qualifier is now an empty signifier meant to confuse both students and job seekers. Like its counterparts, “in-residence” or “term,” the visiting title is meant to distinguish contingent faculty members from long-term, tenured colleagues. These suggestive adjectives are meant to mislead, because visiting and in-residence positions are typically one step away from the lowly "adjunct" status in the faculty hierarchy. Visiting professors are affiliated with institutions on a short-term contract, and rarely, despite the grumblings of the labor market, result in transition to a long-term, tenure-track position.

The rise of “visiting” and “in-residence” faculty positions has grown out of necessity—enrollment in higher education has been growing, and despite some post-recession recovery in some PhD labor markets, tenure-track faculty positions are becoming scarce commodities. Yet institutions of all sizes need more professors, because there are always going to be more students.

Departments choose to hire visiting professors for various reasons: They might need to fill a short term gap between retirement and approval of a new position. They might have a specialist on leave and other faculty members unable (or unwilling) to teach courses outside of their area of specialty. They may want to avoid covering courses every semester but have no prospects of hiring for a tenure-track position. In a survey of chief academic officers conducted by Inside Higher Ed, at least one third of institutional leaders agree that their institutions are becoming more reliant on non-tenure faculty and this trend will continue in the future.

Whatever the reason, bringing on a visiting professor is a calculated move colleges and universities make to cut costs. Visiting professors are typically paid less than their tenured or tenure-track peers, but the salary is higher than adjunct wages, making it attractive to the PhDs that have flooded the labor market, especially in the last few years. But there are consequences for institutions and for students in our system of higher education that should make the visiting professor role less desirable, including a loss of faculty collegiality, a loss of intellectual and personal development for students, and a loss of institutional efficiency. These observations are not a reflection on my current institution. The problem is enterprise-wide.

Faculty collegiality is a crucial element of a vibrant and active intellectual community. Greater reliance on contingent or visiting faculty members seriously impacts the intellectual life of a college or university. Though it varies from place to place, there are few expectations placed on visiting professors in terms of faculty governance, student advising, or other intellectual endeavors, which means that the burden of these activities falls squarely on the shrinking number of long-term, tenured faculty.

Visiting professors face the same pressures as their tenured peers to publish and serve their disciplinary community, distracting them from their students and compromising the quality of the undergraduate academic experience. Visitors may be cobbling together several jobs to make a living wage or distracted looking for their next long-term gig. Many campuses offer opportunities for course development money, for travel expenses for scholarly activities, or to pay student research assistants but as a visiting professor, my colleagues and I are unable to plan for such long-term commitments. Building social capital and adjusting to the rhythm of a new job takes time and in a visiting job, time is not on your side.

Faculty members are part of students’ intellectual and personal development outside of the classroom, and the employment of more visiting and temporary faculty has direct and serious consequences for undergraduate experiences. Students know that they are supposed to connect with their faculty members outside the classroom and invest in getting to know us as scholars and people. These informal conversations outside of the classroom form the foundation for letters of reference or connections to research opportunities. But students who double down on their relationships with contingent faculty may come up short when they try to cash in on this social capital down the road. Though most students assume faculty member have a long-standing relationship with the institution, they typically don’t know anything about the faculty hierarchy, remaining clueless about the difference between an assistant professor, an associate professor, and a visiting assistant professor.

Visiting professors tend to be less connected to campus resources and are often unable to serve as advisors, mentors, or confidants due to lack of time and their tenuous relationship with the institution. When students want to discuss the possibility of an independent study for the following year, it is impossible to commit. As my own contract negotiations stretched into registration last spring, I found it difficult to explain to my students that I was unsure if I would even be counted among the faculty ranks come fall semester.

And finding visiting professors is not necessarily easier than finding PhDs to fill tenure-track positions. Academic hiring is not an efficient enterprise, as a rule. Applicants submit a dossier of materials for every faculty position, regardless of the contracted time. While the process of hiring visiting professors varies from institution to institution, job ads typically call for the same documents you would submit for a tenure-track appointment. Institutions must convene a search committee to review the applications and make decisions, and members of a department may be called in to interview candidates or review applications. With a revolving door of PhDs in visiting roles, departments may have to undertake this process multiple times in a short span of years rather than vet a candidate for either a tenure-track position or a longer-term contract (if that is even an option).

My advisor warned me about the perils of taking a “visiting” job. Visiting professors are subject to the same standards and the same scrutiny as their peers (and competitors) who stayed an extra year in graduate school to work on their publication record or who (luckily) found tenure-track positions. After holding a one or two-year position, most visiting professors have sunk all of their time into their teaching and perhaps also into service for their institution, leaving little time for research. After two years at my current institution, I know that I feel like a real professor even if I’m merely visiting for another few months.

When asked by students or colleagues about life after this institution, I am clear and direct. I have found a new professional life in a policy think-tank, but I tell my students and colleagues that they can always reach me by email, that I am not moving away and that I’ll be local.

Before I landed in my next professional place, I would have told them what any professor visiting from nowhere says when asked about next semester:

“If I’m here.”

Rachel Leventhal-Weiner is a visiting assistant professor turned policy analyst, living in Connecticut. She writes about faculty and family life for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae and blogs at Follow her on Twitter @rglweiner.

By Rachel Leventhal-Weiner

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adjunct Professors College Education Higher Education Labor Visiting Professors