On being a tenure-track parasite of adjunct faculty [updated]


My job, as a tenured associate professor of biology, wouldn’t be possible without a sizable crew of adjunct instructors in my department.

Here is some context about the role of adjuncts in my particular department: At the moment, the ratio of undergraduate majors to tenure-line faculty is about 100:1. This isn’t unprecedented, but is on the higher end of laboratory science departments in public universities. Because we have so few tenure-line faculty, and so many lectures and labs to teach, we hire a slew of adjuncts every semester.

It’s not like the adjuncts are there to make life easier for tenure-line faculty. They’re here to keep the department from falling apart and to teach classes that otherwise we would be unable to teach. One thing that keeps us tenure-line faculty busy is advising. All of our majors required to be advised every semester in half-hour appointments, one-on-one with tenure-line faculty, in order to be able to register for the subsequent semester. In addition to our base teaching assignment of four lecture courses per semester and the standard research and service expectations, we’re worked mighty heavily.

Lest I complain, I am thankful on a daily basis that I am paid a living wage, if below market rate, and I am in a union that has mostly held on to benefits like our parents fathers used to expect from their employers. That’s more than our many adjuncts can say. If it were not for a stroke of tremendous fortune in a very difficult time, I would not be able to be in this position.

While I do have some additional responsibilities that are not expected of our adjuncts, this disparity between job expectations is tiny compared to the massive disparity between our relative pay, benefits and job security. While I would hope to think that the things I offer on top of my teaching (research opportunities and individualized mentorship for a small number of students, external grants to bring money and reputation to the institution, and a meaty role in institutional governance) bring value, I cannot reasonably rationalize that those services justify the massive gap between the my compensation and that of my adjunct colleagues.

I also am conscious that many tenure-line faculty in my university do little to nothing more than some of the adjuncts, skipping out on faculty governance, making themselves unavailable to students outside class, and not providing research opportunities. These faculty are more like adjuncts with a full professor’s paycheck and pension. What’s worse is that I could choose to devolve into such a role with no consequences for my pay, benefits or security of employment.

I have particularly benefited from the contributions of adjunct labor. In my current university, I actually have never taught the full base teaching load, as I’ve always had some fraction of my time reassigned to additional research, administration, outreach or professional development activities. (And, to be clear, I spend more time on the jobs to which I am reassigned than is expected of me while teaching.) The only way that I have been able to carve out time to keep my research lab ticking, write grants and run some programs is because others have stepped in to get the work done. These people are as qualified as I am to teach these courses, have plenty of teaching experience, and are getting paid less than I would if I were to teach those courses.

Hiring an adjunct instructor as a one-off to cover a course that needs to be covered isn’t necessarily exploitation. But if this temporary labor pool is not truly temporary, and if these are not one-off arrangements but instead a machine that requires the dedicated effort of many contingent workers on a long term basis, this is overtly exploitative of the contingent labor pool.

It is wrong that my department has several people who teach lots of courses for us, year after year, and aren’t able to receive an appointment as a professional ‘lecturer’ that acknowledges their professionalism and compensates them as one would expect from an employer after providing years of service. It’s not criminal, but in some countries, it might be.

When I graduated from a mighty-fine private liberal arts college twenty years ago, the catalog had the name of a tenure-track professor next to every course. I had taken two courses with adjuncts the whole time I was there (one of which was taught by a senior and established person in the field who did for it fun and for the students). Now, students on this campus take many courses with adjunct instructors, the campus catalog no longer has the professor’s names tied to courses, and there is a large and growing pool of adjuncts clamoring for equitable treatment. This isn’t a sign of the decline of this institution, but instead an indicator of the adjunctification of higher education.

Like the house elves in the Harry Potter series, an army of highly-qualified and hard-toiling adjuncts make the magic happen in a university, without recognition or reward. Faculty members on the tenure-line are not ignorant of this massive injustice that empowers their existence, but mostly feel powerless to rectify the systemic situation. Universities have created a caste system, and how is it that individual members of one caste can create an equitable labor arrangement? Short of a quixotic revolution, what is there to do?

We can agitate for change. We can decry the situation. We can write blog posts, articles and books about the exploitation of adjuncts as working-class academics. That’s part of moving towards change, I guess.

However, I feel that this isn’t enough considering that I am a member of the caste that benefits from the labor of the adjunct caste. I’m not saying that I don’t deserve the compensation that I receive, but it is abundantly clear that long-term adjuncts don’t deserve the lack of compensation that they receive. I just don’t see any particular course of action that I can do within the context of my own job. I can, and do, treat adjuncts as full colleagues, and I can join the others in our union to advocate for adjunct rights.

I do not have the power to make right any systemic wrongs, and neither does my Chair, nor my Dean. I suppose the power is within the Provost’s office to make these changes but the budget isn’t there. The entire university system has been calibrated to cut costs on the backs of adjuncts.

If tenure-line faculty members are failing to press hard for the reasonable and fair employment of the adjunct labor pool, then it’s probably not because they aren’t aware or because they don’t care. It’s the same reason that they don’t take specific action in their lives to reduce their own carbon emissions, and it’s the same reason they don’t buy all of their clothes that are certified sweatshop-free, and the same reason why they don’t buy books from independent booksellers. The problem is so big and so systemic, that it’s overwhelming.

Individuals have trouble remembering that individual actions, at the right place and the right time, make change happen. The university is not making things easier for tenure-line faculty either, who need to take up a greater share of the non-teaching work as tenure-line positions fizzle away. I want to rage for adjunct rights, and it makes me upset, and I want to do something. So I wrote a blog post, but I can’t imagine that this will change anything.

So, what else should tenure-line faculty do?

Update 27 Sep 2013: The non-rhetorical answer to the rhetorical question above was provided by Jenny in the comments, who shared this story about specific and concrete efforts at Portland State University written by Jennifer Ruth. That is, apparently, what we should do.

46 thoughts on “On being a tenure-track parasite of adjunct faculty [updated]

  1. Our Uni now has a promotion and retention system in place for instructors and lecturers. This = progress, even if not perfect. Our Instructors and lecturers also have votes and say in departmental curriculum, hiring, etc.

  2. Please consider joining the New Faculty Majority – http://www.newfacultymajority.info/equity/ – which is open to TT faculty as well – and helping advocate for the unionization of adjuncts on your campus. Given the precariousness of adjunct employment status – and their vulnerability particularly when it comes to union-busting tactics and other forms of retaliation – the advocacy and support of tenured and TT colleagues such as yourself is vital.

  3. Do adjunct faculty belong to the faculty union? And/or do they have their own union? In our university system tenured/tenure-track faculty refused to negotiate a faculty contract that didn’t include reasonable provisions for temporary/part-time faculty and limit the percentage of faculty that are non-tenure-track. Seems like something all unionized faculty should be taking a stand on.

    • Actually, our adjunct faculty are welcome, and some are robustly involved, in the union and we are pushing hard and negotiating adjunct benefits and inclusion. A provision for limiting the % of non-tenure track faculty would be exceptional, though I don’t see that as politically feasible I’ll have to look into it. I’d like more information about unions that have negotiated such a thing successfully.

  4. Thank you for this. It sounds as though you teach in my home university. It is indeed a caste system, and the Harry Potter analogy is wryly apt. I am hopeful that the current widespread discussions and outrage #IamMargaretMary will place all university lecturers shoulder to shoulder, but as a historian, the two basic rules are: follow the money, and pay attention to power. This post exquisitely does both.

  5. Instead of adjuncts, we should have teaching faculty and research faculty. Some people might wear one hat or the other, some might wear both. They should be the same in the hierarchy.

  6. Thanks for this excellent post. However, isn’t there a contradiction between acknowledging that you have “a meaty role in institutional governance” and thinking that you “do not have the power to make right any systemic wrongs”? Why don’t you and your colleagues use that meaty governance role to force your university to offer equal pay for equal work?

      • In that case, here are some suggestions: Organize a demonstration on the steps of the administration building, in front of the office of the university president. Organize a conference on campus on this issue, and invite faculty, students, media, representatives of local labor unions, and the public. Get the local media to cover your events. Coordinate your actions with student groups and make sure adjuncts have a prominent role. Shame the administration into responding, and keep the pressure on them until they change their policy. That’s how social movements are made.

      • There is such a thing as a vote of “no confidence” in the Provost if this is actually an issue the faculty at your Uni are willing to go to the line for. You, along with the adjuncts, also control whether or not classes get taught at your Uni. Again, what really matters how much you all care about the issue, the power is yours and your fellow teachers’.

  7. Also, while universities have been hiring more and more adjuncts on poverty wages, administrators’ salaries have continued to rise. Many university presidents are paid as much as CEOs of large corporations. Why not start a campaign to cut their salaries — and your own — so adjuncts can be paid a living wage?

    • Sure. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll advocate a cut to my own salary, which is already below market rate, so that I can increase the salary of others. /sarcasm. I may have a disdain for the whole Ayn Rand school of thought, but umm, you’ve come knocking at the wrong door. And I’m a dude who’s openly concerned about these issues.

      Of course higher level admins make way, way too much. It’s obscene. But if you lump tenure-track faculty in with administrators as the overpaid oppressors, you won’t get much traction from the exact population from which you need support. The goal is to lift adjuncts up, not to bring tenure-track faculty down. We’re on your side. And we aren’t paid enough, either, though we’re obviously paid more. Don’t alienate your closest allies.

      • You observed that some tenured faculty are paid high salaries for doing very little, and are totally unaccountable. Do you want to make common cause with them and defend their privileges, or would you rather stand for the principle of fair pay for real work? If you side with adjuncts, I think you’ll have to fight a lot of your tenured and tenure-track colleagues who are quite happy to be parasites.

        You also observed that the university budget may not actually make it possible for all the adjuncts to be paid as much as tenure-track faculty are paid now. I’m not convinced; I’d want to see real calculations. But if you’re right, what then? Are you going to tell the adjuncts that they just have to accept injustice? How are you going to convince them that your salary shouldn’t be reduced so theirs can be increased?

        • I can’t believe that after I wrote this post, you’re suggesting that I’m not siding with adjuncts. Okay, I can believe it, but it’s remarkably obtuse and monomaniacal.

          The budget isn’t there to convert all of the adjuncts, wholesale, to living-wage positions. Things should not have evolved to this point, but they have. If you look under the hood at the budget of any California State University, you’ll see that. Some have public books and you’re welcome to examine them. Mine isn’t at that point yet.

          Please avoid trolldom. I haven’t yet had to moderate someone out of a conversation, and I don’t want this post to be the first.

        • If I understand you correctly, your position is that this is a terrible injustice, but nothing can be done about it without affecting the privileges of people like you, therefore nothing should be done. Thanks a lot. Go ahead and ban me now.

        • You’re spot on, except for the banning.

          What privilege should I want to let slide? Cutting healthcare for my family? Increasing my teaching load from four courses per semester to five? Getting paid less even though real income levels for TT faculty have been sliding, particularly in my university system?

          If adjuncts do get the pay and benefits accorded to them as full members of the faculty, you do want that job to be worthwhile, right?

          You just wrote before that you weren’t convinced that there was no money in the budget to adequately compensate adjuncts. Then, you wrote that TT faculty need to take a paycut for equity. So, which is it?

        • OK, our objective here is to find a way to give decent salaries to those who are currently working as adjuncts. Maybe this could be done just by cutting administrators’ salaries and other wasteful spending (I suspect many universities could simply eliminate a lot of administrative offices without any ill effects on scholarship or teaching), but maybe, as you say, that wouldn’t be enough. The rest of the money will have to come from somewhere. I see two options, which aren’t mutually exclusive: either the university’s trustees find a way to increase its overall budget, or instructors’ salaries have to be redistributed from the haves to the have-nots. In the latter case, how can this be done as fairly as possible? How about getting rid of the whole concept of adjuncts and just having one kind of decently-paid employment status for university instructors, with a single payscale and a single path to promotion?

          This would not only be fairer, it would be better for students and for the health of academic disciplines. We currently have the paradoxical situation where many adjuncts live in poverty while going to great lengths to do original research and be great teachers with huge teaching loads, while many tenured professors earn very comfortable salaries and have been teaching the same two courses for 30 years, haven’t updated their syllabi in all that time, and haven’t done any research since getting tenure. How about eliminating these two extremes and finding a single middle ground for everyone?

          No doubt this middle ground would require those who benefit the most from the current system, quite possibly including yourself, to make sacrifices. But it would be more ethical because it would enable all instructors to live with dignity. Moreover, it would unite us around common interests, rather than pitting an aristocracy of “parasites” (your term) against an army of serfs, as the current system does. This would put us in a much better position to engage in a collective struggle to increase university budgets and thus to raise the standard of living of all instructors.

        • This stereotype of the tenured professor not doing research and phoning in the teaching is misfounded. Moreover, it sounds like you don’t have experience with university-level budgeting. The way you’re approaching this conversation is a non-starter. Good luck with the revolution.

        • The stereotype of tenured professors is quite real. Retiring tenured professor Philip Schrodt tells it like it is: http://asecondmouse.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/going-feral-or-so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-fish/

          Since you don’t like my proposal, perhaps you’ll like the probable alternative: in twenty years or so, when your generation has retired, and the few remaining tenure-track positions have been phased out, everyone will be an adjunct, selling their blood plasma and picking food out of garbage bins to survive.

        • If that’s how you read Philip Schrodt’s blog post, you’ve seen something between the lines that I haven’t.

        • Terry & Benjamin,
          You provide an excellent if heated exchange between two intelligent and well-intentioned people — one of the most insightful I’ve seen on this or any other topic in a long time. Even though there’s no resolution, at least the problem is well-framed. And that’s a great big step. Thank you for that.
          ~ Steven R. Van Hook, PhD
          (a longtime independent college educator)

  8. The next time you are part of a search committee lobby to hire one of your adjuncts instead of bringing in an outside candidate.

    Its like the story about the thousands of starfish on a beach after a storm. A boy is picking them up and throwing them back into the ocean and somebody tells him he can’t possibly make a difference. He picks one up, tosses it back to the ocean, and says “It made a difference to that one.”

    • The jobs of the adjunct and the job of the tenure-track faculty members are different, at my institution. Any adjunct at our institution who has taught well and clearly has an interest, ambition and ability to run a productive undergraduate research program should be highly competitive for the position. For any long-term adjunct, I would spend my efforts lobbying for them to be appointed to a full-time lecturer position, which comes with more security of employment and benefits without the advising, research, mentorship, grantsmanship and governance expectations of tenure-line faculty.

  9. I’ll just quote Schrodt: “Why give up a sinecure that pays three or four times the median income and if you just want to do absolute minimum—and plenty of Boomers do—involves maybe 10 hours a week, if that?… Almost everyone in my generational cohort has dropped completely out of the research scene…. A long-past-his-prime senior professor at Kansas was notorious for arriving in class lugging a reel-to-reel tape deck from which he would play recordings of lectures he had presented in earlier years. I’m not making this up.”

    • Actually, you provided three quotes, disconnected to one another, embedded within a post about an entirely different topic. Moreover, finding one dude who agrees with you is mighty scant. I have a bank of blog posts, easily found, as well as plenty of data, that say otherwise. It’s impressive how you’ve turned a conversation about adjunct compensation to the topic of do-nothing entitled faculty. Congratulations.

      Here, now you may have the last word:

  10. If it’s not financially feasible to hire enough tenure-line profs, or at least tenure-line profs plus lecturers who make living wages and have benefits, to teach the students, and it once was, how did it get to this point? State funding cuts? Senior admin salaries? Rapid growth of the student body in general or the major in particular?

    I hate to say this, but maybe the size of the major needs to be capped, at least temporarily? Such a high ratio of students to tenure-line faculty seems really problematic.

    If the issue is state funding cuts, well, at least then you have an issue to rally around, albeit one that may be difficult to effect at the necessary level.

    I like the idea, suggested earlier, of faculty and students organizing together. Alumni, who donate, may also be organizable.

    • How it got this way, throughout the country, is a complex story. The simple version, at least in the CSU, is that the Chancellor before the current one was anti-faculty and came into his office looking to crush the union, abolish tenure, and run departments with mostly adjuncts. He lost on the first two, but over time by starving the campuses he won out on the third. He was aided by a state legislature that has defunded education (including higher education) over the years. This has been compounded by a great increase in enrollment without the addition of new faculty.

      We have had departmental discussions about declaring an impacted major, which a few others in our system have done. However, declaring impaction introduces a whole other set of issues and the biggest victims would be our students. If we declared impaction that would mean that we wouldn’t be able to access and advise our majors (they wouldn’t be in the system) until they passed whatever impaction threshold we set. However, our majors really need advising if they are going to be enrolled in the right courses, and we can’t advise them in the early stages if we are impacted. Moreover, the mission of our institution is to serve the underserved. By declaring impaction and putting a wall up (for the higher performing students on tests or coursework) we are going against our own mission.

      The focal point of our activism is to lobby for more state spending on education, better funding for our particular campus, and improvements (or at least the prevention of losses) in the collective bargaining agreement. Our non-tenure-track lecturers are doing relatively well, but the individual adjuncts who haven’t landed a lecturer position are in the standard boat that other adjuncts are in. We also are pushing hard for the hiring of new tenure-track faculty lines. We are hiring two people this year, which will reduce the proportion of adjunct-taught courses.

      • Yeah, I definitely understand the concerns about not wanting to screw over the students.

        It sounds like your activism is bearing some fruits, if you are hiring new tenure-track people. It also sounds like being able to get more of the adjuncts into the lecturer boat would be helpful, and maybe less costly than tenure-line hires for a university reluctant to do tenure-line hires for financial reasons.

        I do think involving students (perhaps starting with a naturally sympathetic group of students, like if your campus has a student labor solidarity group or a general liberal-politics group) could be useful – most undergrads don’t know anything about adjunctification or other faculty labor issues, and might be supportive if they did.

  11. Great post, very interesting. I often wonder about the lack of available tenure track jobs out there, and whether this may be a function of older faculty who remain in their positions well beyond typical retirement age. Of course, why not remain in your position? While it may not be true in all circumstances in my experience (n=2, I am still a student) it seems as if older faculty members have a reduced teaching load, and therefore have more time for other pursuits be it departmental service, research, or whatnot. Further, research need not be physically demanding (especially if you are able to maintain a small army of students, haha) so if it is something you enjoy (and presumably you do if you are an academic at a research institution) there is no real incentive to stop when you hit 65.

    But do you have any thoughts, although this may not be the proper forum, if the lack of tenure lines at many institutions may be addressed by instituting a “heavily suggested” retirement age for faculty? Or is this just a remarkably naive question from a young guy who doesn’t know any better? (I admit I do not fully understand how “distinguished prof” or “prof emeritus” works exactly, nor do I fully understand university budgeting)

    • ‘I often wonder about the lack of available tenure track jobs out there, and whether this may be a function of older faculty who remain in their positions well beyond typical retirement age.”

      While some of the tightness of the current tenure-track job market may be due to delayed retirements, that can’t explain the phenomenon that Terry is discussing. It isn’t like old professors are just sitting around; they still teach! The fact that there aren’t enough tenure track faculty to teach the number of students is because a) many times, when a tenured faculty member retires, rather than hiring a new tenure-track professor, the position is left unfilled, and the teaching duties are given over to low-paid fixed-term instructors / adjuncts, and b) student enrollments were increased w/o adding new tenure track lines, with the departments expected to use low-paid fixed-term instructors / adjuncts to handle the larger loads.

      In the current climate, it is very common that when an older tenured faculty member retires, the department will not be permitted to hire a new tenure-track faculty member, and will instead have its budget cut and be expected to make do with adjunct labor… A wave of retirements (always expected, but never occurring) would temporarily improve the job market (since *some* of the positions would be filled w/ tenure-track faculty), but simultaneously reduce the total real number of tenure-track positions. It would therefore make the situation that Terry describes worse, not better.

  12. So long as adjuncts willingly sign up to teach for peanuts, why should anyone else interfer?

    • Let me paraphrase your question: “Just because an industry is capable of exploiting its labor pool to the point that full-time employees are living in abject poverty, why should we get in the way?”

      I think that question was answered by Teddy Roosevelt.

  13. Advocate for multi-year contracts with full benefits and something equal or at least very close to assistant professor pay levels for adjuncts. And try to make such contracts renewable upon review and satisfactory TCEs, etc. Also provide a path for continuing adjunct contracts to shift to become tenure-track in a certain number of years (3? or 4?). And if such things are not done, do not get in the way of work stoppages or even strikes by adjunct faculty, and join them by staging similar stoppages or strikes in support. This is not easy, and it won’t happen at some universities and colleges unless such actions are taken.

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