The Rise of the Pseudo Faculty

The last 30 years have seen a substantial change in the composition of college and university faculties, including a significant increase in the share of instruction delivered by non-tenure-track, contingent faculty, both full time and part time.

Based on data from the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the U.S Government Accountability Office found that from 1995 to 2011, the percentage of instructional positions filled by contingent faculty increased from 57.6 to 71.6 percent across all types of post-secondary institutions. The number of full-time and part-time contingent positions more than doubled in this interval, while tenure-track positions grew by a little under ten percent.

These results are skewed by rapid growth in two-year and (for a time) for-profit institutions, which rely most heavily on contingent faculty. In four-year, nonprofit or public institutions, the share of tenure-track instructors dropped from over 50% to about 35%. The share of part-time instructors increased from 30% to almost 40%, and the share of full-time contingent instructors increased from somewhat under 20% to about 25%. By 2015, contingent faculty accounted for 61.4% of instructional positions at four-year institutions.

These shares have largely stabilized, though the share of contingent instructors nationwide declined through the decrease in the number of for-profit institutions after 2011. Relying on the same ED data, the American Association of University Professors reports that in fall 2019, full- and part-time contingent faculty accounted for 62.9% of all instructors across all post-secondary institutions nationwide. Across baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral institutions, contingent faculty accounted for 56.2% of instructors.

Even at prominent research universities, tuition affects budgets far more than do research funds. Only patient-care revenues at institutions with hospitals approach the importance of tuition. Teaching faculty members are better at generating tuition than are the tenure-track faculty. They are paid less than the regular faculty and, because they have no research responsibilities, might deliver twice as many courses per year at a research university. The sustained growth in the ranks of teaching faculty makes good business sense.

The terms of non-tenure-track faculty employment vary greatly across institutions and sometimes include collective bargaining rights. Some full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members are on continuing contracts, but most are on fixed-term contracts ranging from one to a few years in length. Part-time faculty appointments are the least expensive appointments of all, but can offer students special professional depth and expertise that full-time faculty members cannot.

The 49,000-student University of Southern California (USC) has a larger share of contingent faculty than the national average. Materials circulated by the USC Academic Senate for the 2020–21 academic year show a full-time USC faculty of 4,822 across 21 schools, inclusive of part-time faculty members working more than half-time. Of these, 1,480 (31%) are tenured or probationary, i.e., tenure-track. The remainder are non-tenure-track personnel in teaching, research, practitioner, clinical, and librarian ranks. In addition, the university has 2,435 part-time and adjunct faculty members working less than half-time, typically delivering one or two courses a year.

What makes USC even less typical is that all of these different categories of faculty members are part of the USC Faculty Assembly, the electorate that contributes directly or indirectly to faculty governance. They are eligible to vote for and serve as the leadership of the Academic Senate and to participate in most university and senate committees, though only tenured faculty members participate in activities related to tenure decisions.

This is a relatively recent development. Prior to 2012, there were differences across USC schools in the governance roles exercised by full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members. These personnel were brought into the Faculty Assembly university wide as a result of a 2012 revision to the Academic Senate constitution. This change was driven in part by the continuing rapid growth in USC’s compliment of full-time, non-tenure-track teachers. This new super-majority voted to revise the constitution again in 2016 to also bring USC’s part-time faculty into the Faculty Assembly.

[Related: “Who Owns the Universities? Who Runs Them?”]

USC’s central administration is enthusiastic about these changes, largely because it has quietly initiated and promulgated them. This is a managed outcome, the pursuit of which has been in the hands of a Vice Provost who has, since 1998, served as the senior liaison between the Academic Senate and the university administration. He has been the constant player amid an otherwise shifting cast of USC and Academic Senate leaders. As the result of this long-term focus, the USC administration has succeeded in diluting and diminishing the governance role of the tenure-stream faculty, reduced instructional costs, and made it infeasible for any of the USC faculty to unionize. The key has been asserting that all non-tenure-track faculty are engaged in shared governance, no matter how casual their connection to the university.

In National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, 444 U.S. 672 (1980), the U.S. Supreme Court found that Yeshiva University’s full-time faculty members are managerial employees excluded from coverage by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), making them ineligible to unionize and bargain collectively. The Court held that

The controlling consideration is that the faculty exercises authority which in any other context unquestionably would be managerial, its authority in academic matters being absolute. The faculty’s professional interests — as applied to governance at a university like Yeshiva which depends on the professional judgment of its faculty to formulate and apply policies — cannot be separated from those of the institution, …

The critical question for determining whether university faculty are employees or managers under the NLRA is whether they exercise effective control over central university policies. The faculty’s status as managers is a function of such faculty governance activities, and independent of academic tenure.

All USC faculty members are positioned as managers under the NLRB v. Yeshiva ruling, and thus ineligible for collective bargaining rights. Equally useful for the university administration, the tenured faculty now constitute a mere 20% of USC’s Faculty Assembly, yoked to a supermajority of contingent faculty members whose priorities are distinctly different from those of the residual, regular faculty minority.

Aside from experience gleaned during their own educations, the full-time teachers who constitute the bulk of this group have relatively limited knowledge of how a research university should best be organized to pursue and impart knowledge. They also suspect that the tenure-stream faculty members are paid too much, that they themselves are paid too little, and that the tenure system is an anachronistic construction leading to unfair outcomes. They take as prima facie evidence of the tenure system’s systemic unfairness that the market for academic talent did not lead them to tenure-track appointments.

It may be possible to exercise academic freedom without tenure, but not at the University of Southern California. USC’s full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members are almost all on fixed-term contracts, and are in effect fired and rehired every three years. Removing a non-tenure-track faculty member is largely a matter of not renewing his contract when it expires, USC Faculty Handbook assurances of academic freedom for all notwithstanding. USC’s contingent faculty quickly learn the merits of risk aversion. Consequently, despite the inflated number of participants, there is relatively little faculty governance at USC.

USC’s full-time, non-tenure-track faculty are accomplished, sophisticated scholars who deserve a role in faculty governance if they want it, though they should have the option to unionize and bargain collectively if they prefer. The University of Michigan, for example, has followed this path. Full-time teachers there belong to a union, while Michigan’s regular faculty fall under the Yeshiva ruling.

[Related: “The Short Second Career of Professor Sebastian Ridley-Thomas”]

USC’s part-time teachers working less than 50% time should not have a governance role, but still might want to unionize, though many or even most of this group are not at USC for the pay. Part of the benefit they receive from teaching is their professional connection to a research university of USC’s caliber. The university and the students benefit greatly from their work at USC, but the institution is not the foundation for their professional identities or reputations, and they do not typically know enough about how research universities are organized to reliably execute a governance role.

Most importantly, in no case should the governance role of USC’s tenured faculty continue to be submerged under a parliamentary avalanche of non-tenure-track personnel. The USC administration has no incentive to change its careful arrangements. It prefers a representative governance body in which the regular faculty is systematically outvoted by a much larger group whom the administration can influence with relative ease. Change will have to be driven by the tenured faculty if they want a credible governance role.

The constitution of the Academic Senate could be revised to create a bicameral body, one side of which would consist of the tenured and probationary faculty with the other consisting of the contingent faculty. Achieving this would be challenging. For different reasons, neither the non-tenure-track faculty nor the central administration want to acknowledge the differences between the roles, priorities, and responsibilities of the contingent and regular faculty; nor to acknowledge the crucial tie between tenure and academic freedom at USC.

A unilateral but more incremental alternative would be for the regular faculty to form an IRS 506(c)(6) tax-exempt nonprofit membership association that only USC’s probationary, tenured, and, possibly, emeritus faculty previously holding tenure would be eligible to join. Incorporation creates a permanent association identity that would make joining more appealing, though nonprofit membership associations have no collective bargaining power. Rather, this would be a forum that can authoritatively communicate to the administration the position of the tenured faculty on matters of importance to them, opinions formulated with academic freedom. Including the emeriti in such an organization would be useful because they can offer both experience and time.

An IRS tax-exempt designation would be useful if the organization has revenues, primarily dues. If, instead, costs were eliminated because all service to the organization was voluntary, then there would be no need to pursue tax-exempt status. It would be sufficient and simple to incorporate as a California nonprofit mutual benefit corporation.

Research universities’ national shift toward non-tenure-track teaching faculty is a broad market outcome that university administrators should try to decipher. Thus far, the only interpretation that they have offered with any frequency is implicit: Tenured faculty and full-time teachers are interchangeable in the classroom, and research universities need not alert students and parents that this replacement is rapidly underway.

Administrators understand that these substitutions conserve resources, though too often for more administrators. The faculty hiring practices of most research universities now have much in common with Las Vegas casinos. In gambling halls, a few expensive, labor-intensive stations (roulette, blackjack, craps, etc.) are located front and center to attract attention. These stations are surrounded on all other sides by a vast array of low-cost, computerized, capital-intensive gambling stations stretching out across the casino floor. The croupiers, stickmen, and dealers present an engaging image that helps entice gamblers through the doors, but these stations are loss leaders. The real money is made off of the low-cost stations.

At research universities, the tenure-stream faculty are the faces front and center on the casino floor, attracting tuition-paying patrons and their parents to the campus, and then on to the non-tenure-track slot machines in back. This casino model may be the best short-run means of harvesting tuition at research universities and, perhaps, of paying for the burgeoning administrative class surveilling the casino floor, but it comes at the expense of the research enterprise—and, ultimately, the very mission of research universities.


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Author

  • James E. Moore, II

    James E. Moore, II is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Southern California, where he was appointed in the Price School of Public Policy, the Astani Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, and the Epstein Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering. He served as founding director of the Transportation Engineering program, director of the Systems Architecting & Engineering program, department chair, vice dean for Academic Programs, and chair of the Engineering Faculty Council for three terms.

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11 thoughts on “The Rise of the Pseudo Faculty

  1. If I understand correctly by the comments that I am reading, hasn’t this vice -provost already witnessed every scandal at USC in his 25-year role as advisor to the provost ? How does he still have his job ? There is something much deeper going on here. Whose arm do these administrators at USC and other universities as well , twist to keep their jobs for that long despite the scandals ? Or is it an orchestrated attempt to kill academic freedom in the US?

    1. This particular Vice provost’s longevity does stand out, though the scope of his role has diminished incrementally. He continues as the central administration’s liaison with the Academic Senate.

      When the previous USC President received a no-confidence vote from the Academic Senate, and resigned, there was a simultaneous, scheduled change in the chair of the Board of Trustees. I sent the new Board chair a list of 25 central administrators whom I thought should leave their positions. This included all of the Vice Provosts, the Provost, most of the Vice Presidents, and a raft of attorneys inside and outside of the General Council’s office. The list was implicitly a list of the handful of personnel I thought they should keep. All but two of the people on my list were gone within a year and a half, though I doubt this had anything to do with my input. It is par for the course during an academic regime change.

      Unfortunately, the two who remained, this gentleman and one other, were at the very top of my list. I have a couple of theories about why they are still with us, but I will spare the moderator the burden I would create by sharing them.

      -Jim

      1. Professor Moore, I respect your articles and please keep them coming. In my view, the problem with USC (and perhaps other academic institutions as well) is inherent in your message

        “He continues as the central administration’s liaison with the Academic Senate.”

        Why does your central administration need a liaison to interact with its faculty in the first place? Isn’t this top-bottom management? Why does it live in an ivory tower and dictate items through a liaison? Where is the respect for the faculty, who all have distinguished degrees and who teach and supervise future generations, and who should be encouraged to have critical thinking? How could they be treated this way? Perhaps this scheme was devised by the liaison himself to keep his job for 25 years. Perhaps weakening the faculty was his way to show his value to the administration to keep his job. What a scam! In my reading of your article, I think the title should not be about the rise of the pseudo-faculty, but instead the oppression of US faculty and free speech at the hands of administrators who keep their jobs for 25 years. This would be a more representative title.

  2. The issue is not just about the teaching as the comments below note . The more important issue is the control of academic freedom and expression . By having non-tenured faculty on the senate , the archeological vice provosts (who have been around for a quarter of a century) can control them and in turn control the whole tenured faculty by the policies they coerce . What a scam !!

  3. The issue goes beyond a Vice provost who has caused damage . It extends to an attack on academia and to many other universities as well . As for USC, I am hearing that their new chair of board of trustees is an ethical person , but the swamp s still full : their president , and vice provosts and everybody else who has tolerated this scam must leave. USC needs to account for its scams and gradually rebuild its reputation . But it will take new leadership.

  4. Wonderful article that unveils a lot of what is happening in higher education and the back scenes that university administrators are conducting. This attitude ruins free speech and ruins academia . It is not clever or ethical . Mindingthecampus must continue publishing these articles . It is the only way that people will know the true stories .

    Why is a Vice provost around for 25 years ? If he started that position at 60, I take it he must be 85 now ? How much of the same mindset and damage to academia can one contribute in 25 years ?

    USC has had its share of scandals but it seems that its issues are rotten from the top as this oped in the LA Times noes
    https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-11-03/uscs-administrative-culture-is-still-rotten-from-the-top-we-faculty-wont-keep-quiet
    Op-Ed: As a USC professor, I can’t stay quiet about the administration’s toxic culture

    This is not surprising if the same administrators have been around for 25 years . But the blame also extends to its leadership and its board of trustees for keeping this environment .

    USC and other academic institutions must get a wake up call. It is already too late .

    1. Thank you. I am glad you liked it. I am impressed by USC’s most recent Board of Trustees chair. I allow myself to give her credit for our brand new Provost, who was Dean of USC’s Law School, and for whom I have high hopes. He has done much for our Law School and does not seem to have fallen down the DEI rabbit hole. The President seems to think he has bona fides in this area, and I am hoping he has her and the rest of them all fooled.

      -Jim

  5. A relevant point to Jim’s article, this from Quora blog written by
    Colin Riegels
    Doctoral candidate: in Law (college major), University of OxfordMar 12

    Do Oxford and Cambridge not only pay their faculty far lower than do the top-ranked US universities, but also do not even offer academic tenure? If so, why don’t more of their faculty take tenured, far higher-paid positions at a top US university?
    There was a really ugly expose on Oxford University in The Economist a couple of weeks ago,[1] that was only uglier because it was so glaringly true.

    Whereas UK academic institutions normally have about one-third of their teaching staff on temporary short term contracts (the academic equivalent of zero-hours contracts), at Oxford that rises to an absolutely whopping two-thirds. Some people work at Oxford for well over a decade hopping from short term temporary contract to short term temporary contract with no tenure and acquiring no employment rights (or maybe not – a couple have sued alleging that after that length it should be treated as continuous employment), all the while making only slightly more money than they would flipping burgers.

    Although Oxford has a few superstar professors who are paid decently and have secure tenure, the vast majority of the actual teaching is done by DPhil students and postdocs who work without security for little more than the minimum wage permitted by law. The obvious question is: why?

    And I suspect the honest answer is: because they can. I get the same e-mails that other DPhils get advertising teaching opportunities when they arise. And the DPhils and postdocs fight and claw to try and get those prized teaching slots so that they can work very hard indeed for not very much money. As bizarre as it sounds, it is absolutely market forces at work. Every available teaching slot is massively oversubscribed by enormously qualified applicants.

  6. This is an interesting article because all the tenured faculty at UMass Amherst *are* unionized as the Massachusetts Association of Professors, a NEA local. See: https://umassmsp.org/ This may be a matter of state law as all professors in the University of Maine System are unionized under the auspices of state law. See: https://afum.info/

    The three things that I think the author is missing though are (a) graduate teaching assistants, (b) the balance between teaching and research, and (c) decline in faculty productivity in teaching over the past 5 decades.

    First, every research university I know of employs graduate students to teach sections of undergraduate classes. In many places the majority of freshman & sophomore classes are taught by TAs (increasingly unionized — see https://local33.org/) and they need to be somehow counted in any evaluation of the percentage of classes taught by tenured faculty.

    Second, using graduate students to teach classes represents a de-facto cost shifting of tuition dollars to research in that the parents are paying for teaching (not research). One goes very quickly into the weeds with this, but my point is that a century ago, professors were hired to teach and did research on their own time. (It was the 50 years war and the desperate need to defeat first the Nazis and then the Soviets which changed this.)

    Third, the simple fact is that professors aren’t teaching as much as they did 60 years ago. Classes no longer meet on Saturdays, and we no longer have a 17-week semester (exclusive of finals). Furthermore, let’s take just one research university that I am familiar with (UMass Amherst) — professors have gone from teaching “4 & 4” in the distant past to “3 & 3” circa in the ’80s, to “3 & 2” in the ’90s, to “2 & 2” in the ’00s, to even less now.

    Well, even if the number of tenured professors remained constant, you would need to hire a lot of adjuncts to make up for the reduced teaching load of your tenured faculty.

    There are a lot of other issues, such as the percentage of “tenure track” faculty who actually *had* tenure circa 1973 (when higher ed was expanding) as opposed to how many do now, the differences between a private IHE (which I believe USC is) and public ones (which I have attended and worked for), and even how maternity leave (and now paternity leave) has changed things.

    Above and beyond that, I think that Dr. Moore raises an incredibly interesting issue of shared governance, although I’m not sure that it will end the way he fears it will. Instead, I can see a coalition building between the tenured faculty and part time adjuncts whose interests may not be the same, but who share the same opponent (the administration). I’d actually *expect* that to happen — a deal of “we’ll support you on this if you support us on that.”

    And in a world where upward of half of all colleges and universities are expected to fold by the end of the decade, a world where being within walking distance of a physical library filled with paper documents is no longer necessary, and an economy where a college degree is no longer the employment credential it once was, re-examining how universities are run and governed may become quite prudent.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

      Some faculty unions were organized before the 1980 Yeshiva ruling, and these were allowed to persist. They were not required to disband. They were allowed to continue to bargain collectively. I do not know the history of the UMass Amherst faculty union, but presume it is a member of this set. The Yeshiva ruling is a US Supreme Court ruling and applies nationally from 1980 onward. There are no state-by-state differences with respect to the terms of the ruling.

      Much of the article is specific to USC, where the question of graduate student teaching mostly does not arise. As a general rule, USC prohibits this practice except very occasionally in advanced graduate courses. USC is also reluctant to put part-time faculty in front of undergraduates. This is a strategy for competing with the University of California system (and Stanford) for the hearts and minds of parents. USC promises that, unlike students who attend UC, undergraduates attending USC receive instruction from full-time faculty members. USC is less forthcoming about whether those faculty members are tenure-track or nontenure-track.

      USC has a large, professionally-oriented set of master’s programs, particularly in STEM fields and business, and this is where part-time teaching personnel generally make their contributions.

      With respect to graduate student teaching more generally, both the GAO and the AAUP were constrained by the data definitions in their IPEDS sources. The authors of GAO-18-49, CONTINGENT WORKFORCE, sometimes excluded Graduate teaching assistants from their summaries and sometimes included them, but were explicit about these choices. Some relevant information from two of the footnotes included in the report appears below.

      Footnote a from Table 1 in GAO-18-49, CONTINGENT WORKFORCE: “Graduate teaching assistants are not included in the table because the IPEDS data do not distinguish between those who may be instructors of record for courses or those who may instead resemble teaching assistants or classroom support of various kinds (e.g., grading, discussion leading, and lab setup).”

      Footnote d from Figure 3 in GAO-18-49: “IPEDS defines graduate teaching assistants as those who ‘assist faculty or… [perform] teaching or
      teaching-related duties, such as teaching lower level courses, developing teaching materials, preparing and giving examinations, and grading examinations or papers.’ We consider these positions to be unique situations because the IPEDS data do not provide information about whether
      the graduate students in these positions are instructors of record or are providing classroom support of various kinds.”

      Research-active faculty are definitely teaching less than they used to, at least in STEM fields. I have often characterized teaching as the exchange tenured faculty agree to make so that they can pursue research. Many would prefer not to teach at all, except perhaps the advanced graduate students most useful to them in research. Successful researchers, i.e., consistently funded researchers, have some market power. Universities compete for them, and one way to compete is to reduce teaching loads. Tuition still remains of central importance, so institutions accommodate the preferences of the faculty members they must compete for by hiring nontenure-track personnel, who are never in short supply, to deliver more of the requisite courses.

      -Jim

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