Do What With The Adjuncts?

In testimony to how far out of touch the AAUP has become from the people who pay the salaries of college educators, the organization is now demanding that colleges and universities convert currently serving adjuncts into tenure-track professors. The plan would bypass the national searches that normally accompany creation of new, tenure-track positions.
There’s some disagreement within the AAUP hierarchy about exactly how this radical proposal would work. Marc Bousquet, co-chair of the committee that wrote the draft, told Inside Higher Ed that he favored a two-track tenure system, in which research would be expected only from candidates not from the unconverted adjunct lines. AAUP president Cary Nelson offered an even more extreme recommendation, arguing that the conversos should simply be treated as regular, tenure-track professors.
Why any state legislature would fund such a scheme is beyond me. As I told Inside Higher Ed, “adjuncts are not hired through competitive, national searches, nor (with very, very rare exceptions) does an adjunct position contain any expectation of scholarly production. Converting them en masse to tenure-track faculty status would send a message to graduate students entering the field—much less to state legislators, donors, and alumni—that institutions no longer have any interest in ensuring that tenure-track positions result in the hire of the best candidate, drawn from a national pool to include consideration of the candidate’s scholarly publications.”
In comments at Inside Higher Ed, Nelson dismissed my concerns. “Of course at many colleges contingent and tenure track faculty have comparable responsibilities and qualifications [emphasis added] . . . and throughout the country at many prestige institutions there are contingent teachers with distinguished publication records and wide professional experience.”

This is a remarkable indictment of the academic search process. National searches involve hundreds of hours of committee time and thousands of dollars of resources, and almost always require candidates to submit examples of their scholarship and teaching dossiers. Searches for adjuncts rarely go beyond the eyes of a department chair, generally do not require submission of any scholarship, and sometimes—especially at cash-strapped schools—involve the chair scrambling to find people to teach some unfilled sections at the last minute.
And yet the elected president of the AAUP has now gone on record claiming that these two processes produce faculty members of “comparable . . . qualifications.” If so, why isn’t the AAUP calling for the abolition of national searches? The money saved could go into the hiring of more adjuncts, whose jobs could then be converted to tenure-track lines somewhere down the road.
Several anonymous or pseudonymous comments went even further than Nelson. A representative anonymous quote: “By not converting adjuncts to tenure-track status, the message that will be sent to the general public is that all of these people who have been teaching for years are really NOT qualified to be teaching. Do you really think that state legislators, donors, and alumni will be happy with the administrators and TT faculty who have apparently been hiring unqualified candidates all these years? Maybe they should decide to free up TT positions by getting rid of all the people who have apparently not been doing their jobs (screening and evaluating adjuncts) all these years.”
But in the article, no one—least of all me—was claiming that adjuncts were “unqualified” or “really NOT qualified to be teaching.” It’s my sense, however, that in searches for a tenure-track line, departments aim a bit higher than ending up with a “qualified” candidate: in a national search, 70 or 75 percent of the applicants may very well be qualified. The goal is to hire the most qualified candidate. Indeed, the whole purpose of a search is to sift through qualified candidates to find the best one for the department’s needs.
Another anonymous commenter calls for using the proposal to redefine what constitutes scholarship. “Some of the best teachers at colleges and universities,” he/she says, “are the locally hired adjuncts who understand and have worked with and actually care about their students. Furthermore, experience has certainly demonstrated that it’s much easier and much more likely for an excellent teacher to become a very good researcher, particularly in the scholarship of teaching [emphasis added] and given half the chance and a little support, than it is for an excellent researcher to become a very good teacher.”
In other words: hire people with minimal scholarly credentials, and then claim that they are research scholars—not in their academic discipline but in the art of teaching.
How, then, should the issue of protections for adjuncts be addressed? My preference would focusing on the supply side—limiting adjuncts to a certain number of semesters (6-8). That would allow for people to get experience teaching, which would help them as they go on the job market. It would also deal with the financial realities most universities face. But it wouldn’t sustain the (false) expectation—on which the AAUP bases its scheme—that adjuncting was appropriately a permanent career choice for those who currently happen to be adjuncts and who would receive these newly-created tenure-track lines.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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