They say that tenure is designed to protect academic freedom. That is mostly true, but it is also used for for other purposes by faculty and other parties. Let’s do a rundown of how tenure gets used.
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.
Academia has an adjunct problem. Most of the verbiage on this topic (that I see, at least) focuses on the plight of adjunct faculty. I agree that this matters, a lot. But, this isn’t the bottom line for the people who are the designated focus of the teaching institutions: the students.
At the top of my list of worries about adjunctification are educational quality and making sure that we do the best for our students.
I am not suggesting that the quality of classroom instruction by adjuncts is better or worse than their tenure-track colleagues. The problem for students isn’t connected to quality in the classroom. It’s about what happens — or doesn’t happen — outside the classroom.
Take, for example:
There lots of explicit or implicit job expectations of tenure-track faculty, which are not expected of contingent faculty, including
- Academic advising
Research with students
Sponsorship of student organizations
Development of new curricula
Meanwhile, in some universities, adjuncts don’t even have a shared office space.
Nobody expects adjuncts to do the same kind of service, research and student mentorship activities that are part of the role of full-time tenure-track faculty. Tenure-track faculty are expected to interact with the same population of students throughout their undergraduate careers, especially in smaller institutions, which often sell themselves based on the close professional relationships betweens students and faculty.
In my own department, we have been dealing with one dilemma tied to the fact that we don’t have enough tenure-line faculty to teach our courses. Next semester we will, collectively, have more reassigned time for service and student mentorship that we have had in recent memory. This is great for a number of reasons, but it also means that for some courses that we normally teach ourselves, we’ll have to use non-tenure-track instructors.
Which kinds of courses are we supposed to give up ourselves and assign to adjuncts?
Here are the options:
- Our introductory for-majors courses. We have a 3-semester intro sequence, and each of these is taught by a single tenure-track faculty member. This has been great because the all students get to know these faculty in the department by going through their course (aside from some transfer students). Though I don’t own any of these courses, I chat a lot with my colleagues who do teach these courses to identify students who could join my lab. These courses are foundational for the rest of the major, and we need to be sure that there is consistency in its instruction so that students are well prepared for the upper division. Having a rotating set of instructors in this course wouldn’t be good.
Upper-division speciality courses. We happen to have plenty of adjunct instructors who are qualified to teach most of these classes well. Would it be better to have the tenure-track faculty stay in the majors intro courses and leave some specialty courses to adjuncts?
Graduate courses. Our courses for the graduate program should, in theory, be taught by research-active faculty. However, there are so few of us that we are also needed for other parts of the curriculum. Teaching the graduate courses in a seminar format, with smaller class sizes, is lighter on the schedule than an introductory majors course, and keeping this course in the schedule can free up even more time for other activities. However, this would keep faculty from getting to know as many undergraduates.
Our non-majors courses lecture and labs. Like many other departments, we have pretty much already abandoned the hope of teaching these. I have taught a few sections of these courses in recent years. My rationale was that these courses which have a large proportion of Liberal Studies majors (those preparing become K-8 teachers), and teacher preparation is a priority of mine.
We aren’t punishing any of our students by having them work with our adjuncts, but when students are taught by our adjuncts that means we are less able to provide them with opportunities and interactions outside the classroom. These interactions are often what makes college valuable. So, which courses do we, as tenure-track faculty, give up?
This is a hard call. We have managed to make sure that all the lectures, if not the labs, of our introductory majors courses are taught by tenure-track faculty. This helps us build a community in our department, in which the faculty who run the department are personally familiar with the students going through the major. It would be a step backward if we divested ourselves from our majors at this early stage. On the other hand, it would be great if research-active faculty continue the speciality courses in the upper division and to graduate students. Moreover, this could be an important part of continuing to support students conducting research in our labs.
For example, I’ve been the instructor of the graduate biostatistics course for several years now. This means that, for better or worse (mostly worse), I’m the statistics guy who the students contact (and sometimes ignore) when they are designing experiments and analyzing their results. If our biostatistics course was taught by an adjunct, these students wouldn’t have that adjunct available around the department to discuss experimental design and analysis. While I don’t think I need to serve as a statistical consultant too often, I think being available for these kinds of conversation is a part of my job that I shouldn’t be giving up. If I didn’t teach this class, the students wouldn’t even be aware that I am available in this capacity.
There isn’t a good answer to this problem, but it’s one that we’re facing. I’m really curious about how other departments of different types of decided which classes are kept by tenure-track faculty, and which ones end up being taught by adjuncts on a long-term basis. When these decisions are made, what is the currency behind the decision? Faculty scheduling, available faculty expertise, student familiarity with faculty?
Sometimes I hear questions like, “Why is academic freedom so important? Why should university professors should have total control over what they teach?”
Let me answer those questions with a cautionary tale.
Last semester, a shortage of academic freedom in one department at my university caused what can only be characterized as a tragic boondoggle. This is causing an entire cohort of students to graduate one year late.
Over fifty Biology majors were enrolled in the second semester of General Chemistry. An adjunct lecturer planned and taught this course. The tenure-track faculty in Chemistry implemented their own common internal exam to be administered to all General Chemistry students. The instructor was not privy to the contents of this exam while she was teaching this course. Consequently, over the entire semester, the lectures and homework assignments did not correspond to the material that the students were tested on at the end of the course.
The students, who had been performing well throughout the semester, were blindsided with an exam that looked nothing like they had been studying for the whole semester. This class historically has a pass rate exceeding 80%. Last semester, however, more than 80% of the students failed. The instructor of record for this course, who taught the whole semester, did not apparently have authority over the grading of the exams, nor final authority over the grades that she was directed to submit to the university. This sounds outrageous, but also sounds like the only sensible explanation for what transpired.
Most of these students clearly did not deserve to fail. They did not deserve an exam that did not reflect the content of the course itself. They deserved an instructor who has the authority to control the grades assigned in the course.
The chair of the department is not making any accommodation for the students who got screwed over in her department. The chair claims that the students simply weren’t prepared for the exam. I don’t dispute that fact, but in this circumstance the lack of student preparation is the fault of the Chemistry department, not the students. The students fulfilled the academic expectations of the instructor, but that had no connection to their grade. That is flat-out unethical.
The consequences of this F go well beyond this single course. None of the students can retake the course this semester, because those sections were filled by those who passed preceding course in the sequence.
The soonest these victims can retake the course is one year after they were originally enrolled, but now we have twice as many students trying to take this course and the Chemistry Department refused to offer any additional sections to its victims from last semester.
This course is a prerequisite to Organic Chemistry, which is a prerequisite for other courses. Nearly all of our majors in this section – more than fifty students – are now going to graduate at least one year later than they had planned.
What’s the worst part of all this? It happened two months ago, and as far as I can tell, the only people who aware and troubled are the ones who have no power to change anything.
If any of our students had families donating large sums of money to the school, this situation would have been resolved lickety-split. If anybody with authority in Chemistry actually cared about the students, this would have been fixed before the semester ended. If department had any confidence in their trained contingent faculty, then this unjust situation wouldn’t have emerged.
The students can file a grade grievance, but that won’t fix the problem. It takes at least a year for that process to go through the system. (I served once as a “preliminary investigator” for a grade grievance claim, and the incident happened three semesters earlier.)
You might ask, “Aren’t common exams an effective way to make sure that there is consistency in grading when section are taught by different instructors?” The answer to that question is yes. However, that consistency has a price. In this case, the price is reasonable academic progress for scores of students. Keep in mind that most of our students work long hours in addition to a full class load, and also have substantial family concerns at home. Being in school is a great challenge, and we just made made the climb to graduation even steeper.
The required use of common exams deprives instructors of the academic freedom to evaluate their own students.
If similar events had taken place in any of the three private institutions in which I’ve taught (as adjunct, visiting, and tenure-track), this disgrace would be unthinkable and scandalous. There would be mass protest. But at this disadvantaged university, it’s just one more injustice.
At this point, I’m not even sure if our administrators are aware of this incident. I have a huge amount of confidence in the Dean and the President, who I imagine would do everything they can to resolve this situation, insofar as it is possible. The fact that this problem wasn’t a howling and yelling crisis at their doorstep at the end of last semester is a sad testament to the fact that our students are just accustomed to being disempowered, and they just roll with being wronged. It’s our job, as faculty, to prevent these wrongs from at the outset. That starts with giving all instructors that academic freedom over their own workload.
If any instructor is good enough to be hired as to teach for the university, then they’re good enough to be trusted by the university to carry out their job independently. Any department that lacks the faith that its own instructors can teach appropriately has huge problems that can’t be fixed by imposing a top-down exam.
As a postscript, I should note that common exams are not always a disaster, though I think they are inadvisable. In grad school, I used to teach three sections in a class that had more than 40 sections. All of the TAs gave the same exam, and we had little control over this exam. We didn’t even get to see it until a few days before we taught, because it was a practicum set up at the last moment. I see the need for consistency among sections taught by graduate students with little to not teaching experience. I don’t see the need, however, for this particular solution.
How the heck was I supposed to know what to teach when I didn’t know the basis on which students were going to be evaluated? This was obviously a problem for students. (I also lacked the experience and professionalism to deal with this situation effectively.) This was mostly an annoyance, though, and the students did just fine in the end as best as I can recall. The lab was not overly detailed, and the exams weren’t overly idiosyncratic. As a novice instructor, I found the system to be unfair to both myself and the students. If instructors are teaching a course, they should be able to construct or choose their own evaluation. If for some reason that doesn’t happen, at the very least the faculty need to know exactly what is in exams before the start of the semester.
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.