Jean Mandernach: Why Empowering Adjunct Instructors in Scholarly Activities Matters

An EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) Member Profile

Like its natural namesake, Grand Canyon University (GCU) is a large entity—although you might not believe it at first glance. The university has only a small number of its 3,000 faculty members on campus serving Phoenix-based students. The rest of its faculty includes 2,738 online adjunct instructors who labor behind the scenes along with GCU’s fulltime online faculty.

They’re serving roughly 60,000 online students, who make up nearly 80% of the university’s entire student population.

As executive director of  GCU’s Center for Innovation and Research in Teaching (CIRT), Jean Mandernach sees herself and her team as enablers for all faculty, including these remote adjunct instructors.

“We help faculty to identify gaps as a means of rounding out their expertise,” Mandernach said. “At CIRT, we offer a wide range of programs to enhance our faculty members’ strengths—whether they’re teaching on campus or online—and also support them in engaging in scholarly activities.”

Beyond Traditional Scholarship

When you think of traditional scholarship, peer-reviewed journal articles and academic conferences likely come to mind. However, GCU uses Boyer’s Model of Scholarship, which expands upon the traditional definition of scholarship and research to reflect a broader and more flexible set of activities. These could include volunteerism within professional associations, discipline-specific public speaking engagements, and other real-world applications of faculty expertise and knowledge.

Although such scholarly activities may not be typically associated with adjunct faculty, in the university’s case, they were necessary in order to meet accreditation standards. It can be argued that rounding out faculty members’ experience in a holistic manner also has a positive impact on student learning.

Reaching the adjunct online instructor contingent proved to be a new challenge for CIRT, however; specifically, how to effectively motivate adjunct instructors to voluntarily participate in external activities beyond the scope of their teaching contracts. (And you thought your job was difficult!)

Supporting Various Adjunct Populations

It goes without saying, then, that encouraging scholarly activity among adjunct instructors isn’t exactly an easy task.

“While Grand Canyon University has several groups within our own faculty (on campus, online, adjunct, etc.), we had been treating them as if they were homogeneous,” Mandernach said. “This was an oversight, but one that our team was equipped to change—and by remaining inclusive while recognizing their inherent differences and motivations, I’m very pleased to say that we did, with excellent results.”

A deeper dive into the university’s online adjunct instructor population revealed three main groups:

  • Working professionals and retirees who are teaching as a means of ‘giving back’ to the community;
  • Aspiring academics, whose terminal degrees need to be complemented with real-world teaching experience;
  • ‘Professional adjuncts,’ who often hold several adjunct instructor roles at a number of institutions.

The CIRT team discovered early on that working professionals and retirees—while enthusiastic about sharing their expertise in the classroom—were (perhaps not surprisingly) the least likely to volunteer to take on projects in the name of scholarship. This was often due to time constraints, or a desire solely to teach.

Professional adjuncts had seemed to be in the same boat.

When the CIRT team shared that faculty wouldn’t actually be layering on more work, but rather, simply acknowledging professional contributions in the community at large, things got interesting.

“A lot of opportunities started blossoming, and we now have a very robust participation from our adjunct faculty,” Mandernach said. “They might be speaking to their local rotary club about their industry or discipline, and now they understand that this absolutely counts as scholarly activities.”

Aspiring academics, on the other hand, are eager to enhance their experience and build their CVs. As a group, they’re most interested in CIRT’s remote mentoring and collaboration. CIRT has established grant programs to assist the university’s postdoctoral instructors in attending academic conferences; they also support these instructors by connecting them with on-campus faculty and helping them to design research projects to be done remotely.

“The bittersweet part of all this is knowing that if I and my team do our jobs well, we are probably going to lose these people. They’ll gather the experience needed to move forward in their careers, and on to teaching and tenure-track assignments,” Mandernach said of the aspiring academic cohort.

“It’s a great feeling to know that we are helping faculty in building their careers. Now that we’ve started this effort for our adjunct faculty at GCU, there’s no turning back.”


Jean Mandernach is Executive Director for Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching Grand Canyon University. An active member of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, Mandernach recently led an ELI course on the subject of evaluating online teaching. Resources including Grand Canyon University’s online classroom review and peer support review instruments are accessible for download here. For more information, be sure to check out her EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative webinar Improve Your Teaching: Integrating Evaluation and Feedback for Pedagogical Change.


I applaud GCU for recognizing that some (in my experience, many) adjunct faculty do scholarship/research and as professionals need support in order to be able to continue doing research while they're working in difficult conditions. However, I find the tone of this interview/article to be, well, at best pollyanna-ish about the realities of the faculty GCU is purporting to help. Most directly, like most schools, GCU pays adjunct faculty very poorly and offers little to nothing in terms of benefits. So, while giving them credit and some mentoring for research is good, doing so at the expense of simply compensating them reasonably is not good. Second, the program director must not have paid much attention to the job market she believes she's preparing her adjuncts for. Many of them have no place to go, which is why they went to work for GCU and similar institutions in the first place. There's more, but you get the idea. This feels like a nice gesture that's a little misguided, and certainly doesn't address the fundamental problems of GCU's instructor cadre.

It is important to note that enhanced adjunct faculty support and increased compensation are not inextricably linked issues. As you have indicated, adjunct faculty compensation is a challenge that many (if not, all) institutions continue to face. But, regardless of compensation issues, institutions can still provide dedicated, holistic support for adjunct faculty. Fundamental in our support of adjunct faculty is an awareness that contingent faculty are not a homogeneous population... so while some adjunct faculty seek full-time employment, benefits, institutional integration and research support, others do not. In this case, our goal was not to be all things to all adjunct faculty nor was our goal to address compensation challenges (which, I agree, is an issue that all institutions must address); rather, the goal (and one which we continue to strive towards) is to provide more holistic support and inclusion to those adjunct faculty who seek increased research involvement. We recognize that many of our adjunct faculty are active scholars, so it is important to ensure that they have the resources and support to continue their research activities. Other adjunct faculty would like to be more involved in research, thus we work to create a community of scholars that values the adjunct faculty contribution and provides avenues for remote collaboration. And, equally important to note, there are also adjunct faculty who have no time or interest in engaging in research... this is okay, but this is not our target population. Our role is not to push adjunct faculty to become researchers, but rather to support those that seek additional involvement in scholarly activities. I agree with your assessment that the job market for academics is depressing… and research shows the challenges may be intensified for adjunct faculty trying to break into tenure-track positions. But, within this context, there are two important considerations: 1) Not all adjunct faculty seek full-time faculty positions. In fact, a survey of our own faculty (n = 603) found that more half (55%) of the adjunct faculty were satisfied with their current role and were not seeking additional employment. Thus, the desire to support, integrate and engage adjunct faculty is not reliant upon the assumption that they are being prepared for future tenure-track careers. 2) For adjunct faculty to effectively compete for limited positions in a highly competitive job market, it is essential that they demonstrate a record of teaching and scholarship. Thus, for the 43% of our faculty who reported that they are seeking a full-time academic position, having the opportunity to build their research credentials and network with other scholars may assist them to be more competitive for the limited opportunities that arise. You are right; holistic support for adjunct faculty is a complex issue that involves a number of institutional stakeholders. Our model for supporting adjunct faculty scholarship does not solve all the challenges faced by this population… but it is a key step in recognizing that adjunct faculty are an integral, valued component of higher education.

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