Respecting the time and needs of adjuncts


Almost every university in the US has succumbed to financial pressures and employs a relatively high proportion of adjunct instructors. Typically, adjuncts are highly trained professionals with a graduate degree, but don’t get the compensation or professional courtesy that they deserve.

Universities have given up on the notion that all faculty should have job security. Instead, now institutions are measuring “tenure density” as a measure of how many faculty are fully paid and fully respected.

I don’t teach most of the units that are a part of my contractual teaching load (which is 24 units per year, no joke), because that time is reassigned to a variety of other tasks. That means I am a party to the injustices experienced by contingent faculty. Adjuncts who absorb my teaching load allow me to research, administer projects, mentor students, and other stuff.

Most university administrators say they want to increase tenure density, but doing so takes a lot of money. In my university, we keep getting more and more students, but aren’t getting more money from the state. (That’s an overgeneralization but not much of one). So the books get balanced by hiring more contingent faculty. This widespread phenomenon is fully obvious to anybody who is on the business end of higher education in the US.

The professoriate has evolved into a two-class system. A tale of two universities. Tenure-track faculty get paid more, usually have better benefits, much greater job security, better professional support. And you know, an actual office. And many other fundamental things that adjuncts are not provided*.

It is often pointed out very quickly that adjuncts are also not expected to provide things that tenure-track faculty are expected to do. There are no research expectations, no need to mentor students in extracurricular research, no need to pull in grants, and no need to be involved with committees, university governance, or any other kind of service.

If you’re an adjunct reading this, I imagine you’ve already drafted a mental rebuttal: “It’s not expected of me to do service or research or get grants, but if I have any interest in improving my lot in this institution or in academia in general then I still need to do those things!” Am I right?

It’s naive, and ignorant of the adjunct experience, to justify low compensation with low expectations. It’s fiscally convenient for the university, of course, and the adjunctification ship has sailed. It’s time to recognize that long-term contingent faculty are a part of our ranks and to respect them and grant them the rights and respect they deserve.

I think everybody is on board with the idea that it’s unfair to expect adjuncts to conduct work that is uncompensated. Beyond the minimal office hours required with the their teaching assignments, and their actual courses, it would be unfair to expect anything more from contingent faculty when they are not getting paid for it. I make a point of never expecting anything more of contingent lecturers because it’s not their job.

I do this, but I see it’s also a problem. I am reinforcing the academic caste system because I’m not involving our adjuncts in the life of the institution. Some of whom have been working there for about as long as I have.

I think it’s a Catch-22. (If you’re not familiar with the reference, it’s basically a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of situation.) Adjuncts are exploited by being excluded from the life of the university, or are exploited by being asked to be involved in the life of the university.

I suppose we could make it clear that participation and involvement beyond instructional matters is welcome and accepted, but not required, but I’m not sure how that really flies. That’s what is happening at my university. I think most tenure-line faculty are actually committed to doing what they can to limit the marginalization of adjunct faculty.

We’ve done some tangible things. Contingent faculty can now vote in departmental elections for the chair, and other departmental business. All kind of university committees are open to non-tenure track faculty. There are a couple slots in the university senate specifically for non-tenure track faculty. Campus awards are open to all faculty.

I am of two minds on this. On one hand, I think it’s totally fine — and great in many reasons — that non-tenure-track faculty have voices and votes in the university senate. We need to strengthen that voice. But, on the other hand, the people who are doing that service aren’t getting paid for it. I’m my departmental senate rep, and it’s not a small investment of my time. (Though investment might not be the right word, because an investment should be drawing some interest. But it wouldn’t be nice to call it a time suck, even though that’s probably a fairer assessment.) By spending my time on senate, I’m fulfilling my university service obligation. It’s part of my contract.

In theory, it’s because of time on senate that I’m getting paid more than our contingent faculty. And also research. But then again, a bunch of faculty in our university aren’t actively doing research. And some who aren’t doing research also aren’t doing much service either. But they’re getting paid a lot more than the contingent faculty who are doing the same — or more — work.

I do think that I’m providing more value-added things to the university, in the grant overhead and scholarship and student training, than I would be if I was just teaching. I also think that people who are teaching full-time and doing well at it are just as important to the mission of the institution. I don’t want to exacerbate the inequities, but I don’t want to have unfair expectations.

The financial bottom line is that university administrations are never going to be buying the cow when they can get the milk on the cheap. Adjuncts who are teaching a full course load are rarely offered real positions when universities know they can continue to exploit their labor pool.

What is more fair to these valued colleagues of ours, and how do we increase their involvement in the life of the institution without taking further advantage of them? While the faculty can strive for inclusion, since the administration won’t have our backs in providing the resources for real inclusivity are we just becoming the exploiters?

I think the answer to this question is to listen to our contingent faculty. If people want a greater role in the life of the university, we need to be open to this, because nowadays the campus belongs to contingent faculty as much as — if not more than — the permanent faculty. We need to work to dissolve the poor working conditions and disrespect experienced by the academic underclass, by valuing their work, and not just with words. We need to be fair. In this case, what is fair? That’s a hard question. That why we need to ask, and hear what they say. At my university, there’s interest in increasing involvement in all aspects of the university. I personally can’t imagine wanting to invest heavily in an institution that wouldn’t want to invest in me, notwithstanding the needs of our students. But this isn’t about me, it’s about our contingent faculty and their interests in a professional role in campus and serving our students.


*I think my university — and the CSU system in general — is better than most. Our union has fought for at least a not-outrageously-low level of compensation, and more importantly contingent faculty get full benefits so long as they are teaching two classes, which many are. And these benefits are nothing to sneeze at. So we don’t take advantage of our adjuncts as much as they are taken advantage of by some other institutions. Of course, the income disparity with tenure-track faculty is pretty big. And there is the possibility that you won’t get work the next semester, though employees with experience do have some protections.

5 thoughts on “Respecting the time and needs of adjuncts

  1. I’m curious how many Adjunct Professors view teaching/instructing in this capacity as their long-term career goal. How many Adjuncts hope to ultimately move into tenure-track positions, have research programs, etc. but take Adjunct positions ‘temporarily’ in order to keep a hand in the game while otherwise unemployed? I am in the latter group (read as: informal, unfunded, self-appointed research post-doc). After serving as an Adjunct for one semester, I committed to not doing that again (if humanly possible) for some of the reasons you mentioned above. I rely on one-on-one interactions with students in part to teach courses effectively– some of the most important interactions happen during ‘office hours’. Having little-to-no presence (def. no office) in a department makes effective teaching tough. Some of these Adjunct positions should be reserved for retired professors who do not mind coming out of retirement to teach a class– Adjunct positions seem wildly inappropriate for early career research/teaching professors. This is no pity party, just my personal interest!

    • I think, way way back in the day, adjunct courses were taught by visiting faculty to take advantage of their expertise. For example, when I was in college, when I took Intro to Judaism it was taught by the rabbi from West LA who was a major leader/scholar in Judaism. He wasn’t using this opportunity to somehow push his career forward, and didn’t need the money. I only had one other adjunct in my time at a small liberal arts college – and that was when the professor was on sabbatical.

      Now, 25 years later, that same institution relies heavily on adjunct labor. And these adjuncts are people with recent PhDs who are often teaching multiple classes, and it’s unlikely that they’ll ever get hired full-time by this college.

      I do think that unless an academic is okay with a career based on short-term appointments with low pay and marginalization, that teaching as an adjunct for more than a year probably isn’t a good trajectory. But I also see how a lot of people end up choosing this route, because they don’t have/see/perceive other options. When you gotta pay the bills and you have a fresh PhD and you didn’t spend your time in grad school developing other credible career options, then this is an available choice.

      It’s in the financial interest of universities to not prepare their doctoral students for the job market, because they’d be depriving themselves of a cheap labor pool if their students were able to land lucrative jobs outside universities.

  2. Can you provide an example of the disparity between salary for a “full-time” adjunct and a tenure-track at the same university? $30k vs $90k?

    • At my university, adjuncts get paid about 5k per course. Per year, “full” is probably 8 annually, the base load of TT faculty. TT Faculty salaries vary per discipline and are available on a publicly searchable database. Tenure track outside business and CS major nowhere near 90k. Maybe 2/3 to 4/5 of that.

  3. Here are some instructional stats at my small, teaching-focused institution: 90-95 tenure-track professors, 15-20 full time lecturers, and 150-160 adjunct faculty (which teach an average of about 1.5 courses each a semester). Professors and lecturers (which both get decent benefits and relatively low-ish to acceptable pay) teach a 3/3 load (labs count as 0.5) and typically 1-2 year contracts (until tenured for the professors). I think the majority of lecturer and faculty contracts are renewed, but I don’t have a good handle on the average duration that adjuncts stick around for. I’m still new, but as far as I can tell, adjuncts get a semester job offer, no benefits, and the night-teaching assignments.

    Our new provost just floated a proposal to increase the teaching load of new lecturer hires to 4/4 and to review the teaching load of current lecturers to see if they’d be interested in increasing their teaching load, with additional compensation. The stated reason for this change is to reduce our reliance on adjunct instruction.

    The response by the faculty was almost overwhelmingly negative for this proposal as they were “concerned about declines in the student experience” if lecturers were stretched too thin (while not officially in their job expectation, many lecturers contribute in advising and other service).

    I didn’t say anything at the faculty meeting (still kinda nervous about that), but I’m pretty sure that I disagree with the consensus in the room. Obviously, more tenure track lines are better, but I’d take more full time teaching-focused lecturers with jobs that get benefits and at least some job security over one-semester hired guns.

    On the other hand, before coming here I taught as a year-long sabbatical-replacement at a pretty selective SLAC, which had a 3/2 load where labs counted as a full course. AS stated above, at my current institution, labs count as 0.5 course the full time load for professors and lecturers is 3/3. It’s been more teaching for me in my first year than I have done in the past and it’s been a learning curve, so it’s tough for me to say that our lecturers should be teaching 33% more. At the same time, 4/4 is not unheard of for teaching-intensive institutions.

    But if preps are properly limited, I think full time jobs with benefits are better than part time gigs with no benefits. Am I out of line here? What do the other faculty know that I don’t?

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