The Ominous Rise Of The Adjuncts

By Maurice Black & Erin O’Connor

Review of John C. Cross and Edie Goldenberg’s Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education. (Cambridge: MIT Press): 2009.

According to the AAUP, 48 percent of faculty are part-timers, and 68 percent of all faculty appointments take place off the tenure track. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) cites comparable numbers, reporting that a mere 27 percent of postsecondary instructors hold fulltime, tenure-track positions. Such figures are the familiar touchstones of debates about the nature and future of academic work, undergraduate education, and academic freedom. They anchor official statements and form the basis of movements. Adjunct faculty are unionizing, and the AFT has launched a campaign to increase the proportion of undergraduate courses taught by fulltime and tenure-track professors to 75 percent.

Surrounded by statistics, activism, and commentary, the adjunct faculty member is never far from discussions about higher ed reform. “There is no subject so painful and so ubiquitous as the role of adjuncts in higher ed,” writes Louisiana State University English professor Emily Toth, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Ms Mentor.” Nor, perhaps, is there an academic subject so thoroughly stylized. The underpaid, uninsured, and underappreciated “freeway flyer” has become a tragic figure, a poster prof for the moral, economic, and ethical failings of modern-day academia. Hardly a month goes by without another scandal in which someone fires—or fails to renew—an “invisible adjunct” who has expressed controversial views. Such cases—and the anger they evoke—have become the standardized set pieces of an academia that has yet to reckon with the fact that its modes of employment have undergone a seismic shift.

The supporting casts in these set pieces are as stylized as their non-tenure-track stars. There is the bean-counting administrator, an anti-intellectual corporate drone who sees adjunct faculty as a handy way to reduce overhead. And there is the smug tenured professor who sits idly by while a corps of shamelessly exploited workers enables his light teaching load, his leisurely sabbaticals, and his inflated salary. Together, these characters facilitate two structures of blame. The first focuses on putatively deliberate actions, assuming that the rise of adjuncts is an intended consequence of a specific, crass economic plan; the second focuses on passive inaction, assuming that tenured professors have made a Faustian bargain to secure their own comfort at the expense of tenure and academic freedom for future generations.

Blame of this sort is righteous indeed, and can feel awfully fine. But it’s important to recognize its origins in oversimplification and caricature. The cost-conscious administrator is not so ruthlessly calculating as the blame game makes her out to be, nor is the tenured professor so consciously entitled. The fact is that neither administrators nor faculty can be exactly blamed for the rise of adjunct faculty. As John C. Cross and Edie Goldenberg demonstrate in their meticulously documented, devastatingly dispassionate Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education, this is a situation that no one set out to create and that no one actively maintains. They find that the growing numbers of non-tenure-track college teachers are, instead, the cumulative, unanticipated result of decades of disconnected, dispersed decision-making by administrators, deans, department chairs, and staff members working within a decentralized system where planning, assessment, communication, accountability, and adjustment are all exceptionally challenging endeavors.

A devastating correlative fact is that no one actually knows what the facts about adjunct labor in academe actually are. Take the statistics propagated by the AAUP, the AFT, and others—the ones that underwrite the academic labor movement and that fuel debate about what the rise in adjunct faculty means for the quality of undergraduate education, for academic freedom, for tenure, and for a host of related issues. These, Cross and Goldenberg note, are often drawn from statistics published by the U.S. Department of Education, which collects them from colleges and universities. But—and this is the appalling discovery at the heart of the book—colleges and universities do not themselves track this information. When called upon to report figures, they throw something together. But they don’t actually know what’s happening on their campuses. The “data” they report is largely guesswork done to produce what the authors call “fictitious precision.”

When Cross and Goldenberg visited the ten elite public and private schools around which their study is based, they encountered deans, provosts, and presidents who were not aware of the extent or nature of non-tenure-track teaching on their campus. They encountered department chairs and unit-level staff who were aware of their own local, ad hoc patterns of appointing non-tenure-track faculty, but were ignorant of the broader context or aggregate impact of those decisions. They even found that the language used to describe non-tenure-track personnel—whose titles and job descriptions vary from position to position, department to department, and school to school—conspired, on campus after campus, to blur important distinctions among instructors, researchers, post-docs, graduate students, assistant professors, visiting professors, and even staff. In other words, they found that across the board, non-tenure-track faculty are retained “without meaningful administrative oversight.”

What created the problem? The sources are many and varied. Ill-conceived budgets and measures aimed at cost effectiveness play a predictable role, as do the expense and inflexibility of tenure-track positions. Non-tenure-track-teachers typically do most of the remedial education on campus, and they are vital stopgaps when enrollments spike. Then there is the ever-escalating competition for higher rankings, greater visibility, and more prestige. The authors find that the modern university competes with its peers on almost every conceivable front—the success of varsity sports teams; the size and luxuriousness of dormitories, cafeterias, recreational centers, and other amenities; the success of fundraising campaigns and endowment investment strategies; even the number of iPods among the student body.

Because academic rankings are at the forefront of institutional prestige—the authors met with one department chair whose very first words were “We’re number one!”—schools and departments compete vigorously for the most distinguished faculty in their fields. Aggressive recruiting pushes up salaries, draining budgets even as it reduces the number and size of classes that tenured faculty actually teach (light teaching loads and the promise of small, specialized classes have become crucial bargaining chips in the recruitment game). The tenure-track teaching load has halved over the past forty years, the authors find, while the number of tenure-track faculty has remained relatively constant. Meanwhile, the undergraduate population has exploded. Today tenure-track faculty teach less than half of the lower division arts and science credit hours offered at elite universities. So who does teach them? Enter the adjunct.

No one decided to create this perfect storm of pressures—but resolving the unwieldy and complex situation that those pressures created is not easy. As Cross and Goldenberg note, universities occasionally attempt to boost their prestige by shifting en masse from non-tenure-track to tenure-track faculty. But such a move requires millions and might only happen once in a generation. To cite a couple of salient examples: the University of Virginia plans to hire three hundred tenure-track faculty at an estimated cost of $130,000 each in annual salary and benefits; Michigan plans to hire one hundred tenure-track junior faculty at an annual cost of $100,000 each, plus a one time start-up cost of $20 million. For schools without such resources, redistributing salaries and teaching loads would reduce their ability to compete for prestige-enhancing academic superstars. Rankings hang in the balance.

The authors are blunt about what this means in practice: when it comes to non-tenure-track teachers, they write, “we necessarily confront the question of who is minding the store.” Most of the time, they conclude, the answer is “No one.” Universities usually only address the issue when they must—when adjunct faculty mobilize to form a union, for example, or when scandal erupts. Along the way, the reactive, “damage control” model of adjunct management has ensured that there is little meaningful, constructive study or discussion—within or across universities—of what the rise in adjunct faculty actually means for educational quality, academic freedom, or governance.

For example, some say adjuncts are better teachers than research-oriented tenure-track professors; others say they are forced to secure their popularity—and thus their job security—by pleasing students with artificially inflated grades. But lack of information renders the debate largely speculative. The same sort of impasse arises with academic freedom. Is it possible to ensure academic freedom without tenure? If not, what will become of free inquiry in the age of the adjunct? If so, what will become of tenure? There are impassioned opinions on all sides. But the discussion is mired in misinformation and the selective argumentation of advocacy-driven campaigns.

When it comes to governance, things are no better. At the department level, there is confusion and inconsistency about whether adjunct faculty should participate in shared governance. At the institutional level, things have not even progressed to the point of confusion: presidents, provosts, and trustees have, for the most part, failed to ensure that this growing corps of college teachers is properly understood and properly managed.

Cross and Goldenberg stress that non-tenure-track faculty are here to stay. This segment of the professoriate is no longer “adjunct” or “contingent” to the tenure-track standing faculty, despite the language commonly used to describe it. Consequently, they argue, academia should address the complex constellation of issues non-tenure-track teachers raise—from employment conditions to academic freedom to educational quality to governance to the costs of competing for status and rank—in a systematic, institutionally coherent manner. Presidents, provosts, and trustees must make sure that their institutions are actually gathering the data they need to make informed, wise decisions about whether, when, and how to employ adjunct faculty.

Such self-study, Cross and Goldenberg observe, might reveal some surprising things. Among them: the numbers of non-tenure-track teachers may in fact be even higher than those currently reported. And yet, the authors suggest, it’s also possible that the pervasive image of the impoverished, exploited freeway flyer might require some updating. Cross and Goldenberg find that, contrary to prevailing mythology, many adjuncts do have benefits, offices, and a reasonable degree of job security, at least at elite schools. At Duke, dedicated non-tenure-track teachers may be appointed as professors of practice (POP). POPs begin with a three-year contract at the assistant level and advance to associate and full professors of practice, with contracts extending up to ten years. Full-time POPs receive full faculty benefits, may serve on the academic council, and may compete for paid leave. At Northwestern, non-tenure-track faculty may climb a similar ladder, from lecturer to senior lecturer to college lecturer. At Washington University, lecturers become senior lecturers after five years, at which time they receive tuition benefits for their children.

Readers may wonder what all this means for less prestigious, less wealthy schools. One suspects that at many colleges, public universities, and community colleges, the rise in adjunct teachers is a lot less tied to the rankings game and a lot more tied to economic bottom lines. In such settings, the solutions developed by Duke, Washington, and others may be fiscally impossible—particularly at a time when even billion-dollar systems such as the University of California are proposing substantial pay cuts for standing faculty.

Still, Off-Track Profs presents a refreshingly sober, evenhanded examination of a volatile, increasingly pressing subject. Focused on the careful gathering of facts and the comprehensive analysis of causes, it models how administrators across the country might begin to study what non-tenure-track teachers are doing on their campuses—and to formulate policy grounded in a knowledgeable understanding of the role such teachers play in their particular institutional culture. Cutting through the stereotypes and the confrontational stances that tend to dominate discussions of non-tenure-track teachers, Off-Track Profs charts a way forward that stresses institutional accountability and procedural clarity. As such, the book may actually be laying the groundwork for win-win solutions that benefit faculty (tenured and not), students, and administrators alike.


Maurice Black and Erin O’Connor are research fellows at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.


3 thoughts on “The Ominous Rise Of The Adjuncts

  1. As you rightly state, the situation for adjunct faculty at elite universities is far different from the situation at “less prestigious, less wealthy schools.” I was an adjunct at two small schools in my area for about 18 years. Low pay, no tuition benefits whatsoever (for me or for my family), and no health benefits until near the end of my time at one of the institutions that I worked for. (It was a branch campus of a large university and had adjuncts as members of the faculty union.) Even after 18 years, I was employed on a semester contract basis.
    I am now a full-time, tenured faculty member at a small community college. I ran into a former colleague. He is still an adjunct and teaches at three universities to keep his family afloat. Luckily for him, he landed a “temporary faculty” position at a larger local university and gets higher pay and tuition benefits for his daughter there. But in my current position, I see adjuncts who are struggling to earn a living.
    Some adjunct faculty members are retirees who are supplementing their pensions or people with full-time jobs who enjoy teaching on the side. Others are young people who are trying to launch a career and pay the bills. It’s the latter group that, in my view, is being exploited by the system as it stands. It’s good to read that some institutions are finding creative ways to compensate and recognize these teachers.

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