By Michael McGuire
After two decades of teaching writing at Washington and Lee University, Bill Oliver is still a part-time professor.
But Oliver is a short story writer and has spent the past few years working on a novel. Teaching part time is exactly what he wants.
“I’m not bogged down like full-time professors with committee assignments and student advising,” he said.
So Oliver, who raised his family in Lexington and coaches a high school tennis team, and whose wife is the head of W&L’s accounting department, is a “visiting” professor.
“I’ve been visiting for over 20 years now,” he said, laughing. “It’s not the right title, but that’s what it is.”
Oliver is one of a growing number of part-time professors at colleges and universities nationwide. According to a study from The Chronicle of Higher Education released this year, the number of part-time professorships at American schools increased 49 percent between 1999 and 2009.
The number of full-time tenured and tenure-track professors has increased much more slowly, 7 and 20 percent respectively, over the same period.
Robert Strong, acting provost at Washington and Lee, said that while part-time professorships like Oliver’s have increased at the liberal arts school, W&L still tries to keep the number of part-time professors low.
Part-time professors make up about 13 percent of the W&L faculty. The average at all four-year schools in the country is 37 percent.
“We still have had an extraordinary increase in part-time professors,” said Strong.
There are more W&L professors going on leave each year, he said, thanks to faculty support provided by alumni and the growing number of faculty receiving fellowships and grants.
Strong said that hiring professors while others are on leave is essential, especially for certain introductory courses like biology and calculus that fill up quickly every year.
“The curriculum is tighter than usual,” he said. “There’s not as much slack.”
When professors take a year off, the school tries to fill the vacant position using visiting full-time professors, instead of part-time professors, Strong said. Though these professors work full time, their
contracts expire after one year.
The number of these full-time, non-tenured professors increased 56 percent nationally over the last decade, according to the Chronicle study.
Neighboring Virginia Military Institute fills its temporarily vacant full-time positions mainly with part-time faculty, said Brig. Gen. Wane Schneiter, the school’s deputy superintendent for academics and dean of the faculty.
“There is always a market for part-time work,” Schneiter said. “Some people don’t want to teach full time.”
Being a full-time professor at VMI comes with additional responsibilities outside the classroom. Professors conduct research and assist students with their own. They serve on committees and help out with student organizations.
“They do a bunch of things that part-time people don’t do,” Schneiter said. “They have a deeper commitment to the school.”
Schneiter said that VMI aims to staff almost all of its positions with full-time professors, leaving just one empty spot in each of the school’s 15 academic departments for part-time professors to fill. Several part-time professors may share one empty spot.
About 35 percent of professors at VMI work part-time, just below the national 37-percent average.
Part-time professors are usually paid less. But the high number of part-time professors at VMI is not a consequence of the slow economy, Schneiter said.
Oliver used to be a part-time professor at VMI. He also founded the school’s writing center in 1996 and served as its director for several years.
He now teaches exclusively at W&L.
“Some people can teach full time and give time to their writing and scholarship,” Oliver said. “I’m not one of them.”