The Adjunct Problem, or the Adjunct Benefit?

What do we do about the adjunct problem?

Everybody knows it exists, and everybody agrees on its elements.  Well-qualified, talented, and conscientious people teach multiple courses, sometimes on different campuses, at a few thousand dollars per course.  Add up class prep and grading hours and their labor sometimes falls below minimum wage, and they don’t get benefits either.

The practice creates a two-tier system, with tenured and tenure-track folks on one, adjuncts on the other.  Adjuncts take up most of the undergraduate teaching, enabling the others to conduct their research and handle upper-division and graduate courses, thus maintaining a grating hierarchy that damages group morale.  Also, because of their tenuous status, adjuncts can’t give students the attention they deserve and they can’t apply the rigor they should.  (If an adjunct is a tough grader, the students complain and the adjunct loses the course next semester.)

The system hurts everyone except the privileged profs and the university accountants (none of whom would ever criticize the system, however much they profit from it), but what do we do about it?

At a conference recently covered by, sponsored by National Center for Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, speakers and attendees pondered the problem and proposed different solutions.

The main answer they came up with was to grant some form of tenure to adjuncts.  It couldn’t replicate the normal system, though, for if schools did so, many adjuncts would be kicked off campus forever.  Universities simply don’t have the money to keep all of them on at tenured wages.  At best, they could tenure some of them as teaching specialists and give them heavy teaching loads.  They would terminate the rest.  Those remaining would have to be able to handle a variety of courses and duties, for universities like the flexibility of ad hoc hiring, which allows them to make adjustments semester by semester to the changes in enrollment and student preferences.

Others at the meeting offered a different tenure system, supported by unionization.  At University of British Columbia, it works this way:

“The system there has no rank or tenure, she said, with 60 percent of faculty deemed ‘regular’ (half-time or more) and the remaining 40 percent ‘non-regular’ (less than half-time) — and with both groups on the same salary scale. If faculty members serve a year with satisfactory evaluations, they are classified as ‘permanent regular.’ Professional development is available to both regular and non-regular faculty, and benefits are for anyone who works half-time or more. Courses are assigned on the basis of seniority. Layoffs are determined on the basis of reverse seniority, not by full- or part-time status.”

It’s hard to see how this solves the money problem, however.  One of the biggest appeals of adjunct labor isn’t security, but benefits and salary.  Indeed, regular employment isn’t the problem.  Schools need adjuncts fairly steadily from semester to semester, and even though they don’t promise anything for the future, adjuncts usually (I think) can rely on a post.  What schools really like is that adjuncts cover the same courses at a fraction of the price of a tenured professor.  You can’t alter that exploitations without making the operating cost soar.

So let’s be honest about how deplorable the system really is, or rather, for whom.  From the institution’s perspective, including the perspective of those professors on regular appointments, the adjuncts system works wonderfully.  As long as a group of teachers is willing to work for exploitative wages, the system will continue.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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5 thoughts on “The Adjunct Problem, or the Adjunct Benefit?

  1. For 6 years I’ve been an adjunct at a university. I’m told most adjuncts have significantly better student evaluations than tenure trackers. “Gee you seem to actually like to teach” is a common statment from my students; implyimng tenure types view teaching as a burden. Adjuncts usually bring real world experience to the class room, which the students appreciate. Given the swelling salaries and lightening teaching loads of most starting on the tenure track, adjuncts are crucial to the business models of most departments. Yet too many adjuncts hurts the dept. ratings and most department chairs cull the number of adjuncts down if they can. All this contibutes to the rapid acceleration of teaching costs. As for tenure? I worked 4 decades in industry and we did fine without tenure.It should be abolished.

  2. I appreciate this article. I am an adjunct at a local community college. I absolutely love teaching and wish to do it FT eventually. Maybe it is that I am still young and somewhat naive, but I think that if I keep teaching and teaching and teaching, that I will eventually gain FT status somewhere someday. However, maybe I won’t. I take pride in being an adjunct even if I am being “exploited.” In the end, it’s the kids I am teaching that count most.

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