Saturday, April 16, 2011

The exploitation of adjunct faculty

I have discussed previously that the US higher education system is not sustainable. In particular the low teaching loads in many institutions will have to increase in light of funding issues, and/or faculty salaries will have to decrease. And many professors will have to realize that their research is simply not for it and they will have to concentrate on teaching.

In fact, such an evolution has already been unraveling for a few decades, in the form of the replacement of tenure tracks faculty by contract teachers that go by various titles like adjunct professor, professor in residence, etc. For example, the proportion of tenured and tenure-track faculty in the US went from 45% in 1975 to 24% now. The share of graduate students in teaching is stable at 20% and the slack is taken by part-time faculty, whose share went from 24% to 41%. This shows that there is now a two-class society in higher education: rather well-paid regular faculty with low teaching loads, and exploited contract faculty.

Why exploited? Because their pay is low, they get no benefits, their classes can be canceled anytime, and they ofter have to teach at several places simultaneously to make ends meet. Below is a video from one such contract worker describing the situation at Marist University. While this seems to be a rather extreme case, it is not that far off what is happening at other places.

How is this going to pan out in the long term? I maintain that there is going to be higher teaching loads and lower pay for everyone but in a few top research institutions. This could take some time, as the current privileged faculty first needs to be replaced by attrition.


Kansan said...

At least from what I have seen, adjunct faculty were people from industry and government who would teach evening classes for the love of teaching and some pocket money. Departments and students appreciated them for the real world perspective they brought.

I find it disturbing that adjunct faculty are now faculty stuck in some purgatory. They were not good enough for a regular faculty position but are not interested in a position in government or industry. And given how they have to work, they have very little chance of ever making it to the next level. This is no life.

Chicago, PhD said...


I am really not sure what you mean when you say "they [adjuncts] were not good enough for a regular faculty position..." since this is not only a myth, but a very pernicious one at that.

Some (even some of the tenured elite) think that those who adjunct do so because they aren't "good enough" - that is, if they *were* good enough, they would have a tenure-track job.

However, the math is really very simple: annually, there are over 60,000 PhDs produced in the United States, whereas there are less than 20,000 tenure-track jobs available. So at any given time, there is only 1/3 as many jobs as there are job-seekers. It is impossible for even the best, even the best from the most elite research programs, to all get good jobs.

Across the board, departments and institutions collectively *choose* to cut tenure-lines and replace them with numbers of adjuncts, so the "dirty secret" is that tens of thousands of brilliant degree-holders are being produced, for whom there are no jobs. None.

Kansan said...

While I agree that the US is not capable to absorb all the scientific talent that emerges from its graduate programs, I think it is wrong to label all the freshly minted PhDs as brilliant.

What I am belaboring is that a substantial part of these adjuncts are given false promises of better academic jobs in the future. They will not happen, barring some exceptions. In the meanwhile they get thoroughly exploited.

Garret said...

Instead of taking an adjunct position in the early 1990's, I took a fulltime position at a prestigious private university in Mexico. Times were good and I was able to retire at age 65 after 15 years of service as a full professor, and with good benefits. Times are not so good anymore with all the guns and drug money flooding in from El Norte. In a similar situation today I would join the Occupy Wallstreet demonstrations.