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Academic precariat

August 24, 2012

Pullias Center for Higher Education, The Changing Faculty and Student Success, “National Trends for Faculty Composition Over Time,” p. 1

As faculty around the United States get ready for the first classes of the fall semester, myself included, it’s worth remembering that over two-thirds of the people teaching those classes will be adjunct faculty with part-time and/or insecure employment.

I’m fortunate to have tenure, but adjunct faculty teach nearly half the courses in my department. My wife has periodically taught part-time at UC Davis, and my dad has been an adjunct professor for over thirty years at the University of San Francisco and other universities in the Bay Area. While writing my dissertation, I also taught part-time at USF, UCD, Golden Gate University, and Sacramento State.

Non-tenure-track faculty have long been called “adjuncts,” which sounds increasingly odd, given that universities today couldn’t function without them. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “Adjunct Professor” as “a junior, temporary, or casual academic position.” That hardly captures the situation of most adjuncts today.

As Jonathan Rees points out, “most students and their parents don’t know anything about adjunct faculty members, nor do they understand the difference between adjuncts, lecturers and tenure-track faculty. After all, everyone tends to call whoever is at the front of the classroom ‘professor’.”

The average percentage of faculty with contingent appointments varies among different types of institutions: at public two-year colleges (community colleges), it’s over eighty percent, while at public research universities it’s about 50 percent.

Pullias Center for Higher Education, The Changing Faculty and Student Success, “Variation in the Composition of Faculty by Sector,” p. 2.

A report released yesterday by the Center for the Future of Higher Education, “Who is Professor ‘Staff,’ and how can this person teach so many classes?”, highlights the difficulties created by “just-in-time” hiring practices, when contingent faculty receive their appointments just a few weeks before the start of the semester, as they often do. Among other things, adjuncts generally don’t get paid until they start teaching, so they aren’t paid for prep time before the semester starts. Adjuncts often have limited access to support services such as sample course syllabi, clerical support, copying, telephones, computers, and office space. As the report rightly notes,

It is only the extraordinary effort, personal resources, and professional dedication of contingent faculty that allows them to overcome the obstacles to quality education that derive directly from their employment status.

In June the Coalition on the Academic Workforce released a study on the working conditions of contingent faculty, “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members,” summarized in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Based on a survey of nearly 20,000 non-tenure-track faculty, the report found that teaching was the primary occupation for a large majority of respondents, but two-thirds received an annual income of less than $45,000. Over half received less than $35,000.

Other findings include:

  • the median pay of contingent faculty is about $2,700 per course;
  • for most contingent faculty, length of service does not lead to higher pay;
  • less than one-fourth of contingent faculty receive health benefits from their universities;
  • contingent faculty represented by unions tend to have better pay, benefits, and working conditions.

So far most universities have done little to address the profound implications of the emerging academic precariat for the future of higher education. But the issue seems to be getting more attention than before. It’s clear that promoting quality education depends on major improvements in the working conditions of contingent faculty.

One approach (discussed here) is to change university accreditation standards so that they take account of institutional support for contingent faculty. Another approach is to urge prospective students and their parents to consider the working conditions of adjuncts when choosing a college.

The Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC has a website on The Changing Faculty and Student Success with links to relevant reports, projects, and advocacy organizations.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Friedman permalink
    August 24, 2012 5:13 PM

    I liked the term that Mark used, academic precariat. It is an interesting and enlightening concept.

    Moreover, the increasing use of part-time faculty, the adjunct professors, is part of a larger trend in America where economic risks are transferred from the state or the corporate entity onto individuals.

    If demand for university instruction goes down, it is relatively easy to lay off the adjunct professors, no job security. Likewise, individual retirement accounts contrasted to guarantee pensions put the individual at the risks of larger market forces over which they have no control. Replacing Medicare with vouchers places the risks of higher medical costs on senior citizens with fixed incomes rather than on society and government.

    Our society has also experienced in the private sector the decline of unions which in the past provided job security, pensions, and benefits.

    While the ability to shift risks to the individual is a benefit to the state and corporations, it takes a toll on families and social stability. Profits are placed before community.

    One very distressing fact. No matter whether the Republicans are the Democrats are the victors in 2012, this trend will continue. It will happen faster if the Republican should win, somewhat slower if the Democrats are triumphant but the same outcome will occur no matter which party is triumphant.

  2. August 31, 2012 7:58 AM

    It’s funny–as anxieties inevitably arise with the start of a new semester, this particular issue seems to be on everyone’s mind in academia. Professional and financial precarity is the big, scary elephant in the room in any department meeting in universities across North America, and so it makes sense that that elephant stumbles into much of the discussion at this time of year, when anxieties and insecurities are already in abundance.

    This past week I’ve found myself reading a few interesting pieces on the subject: Karen M. Cardozo’s recent publication in Modern Language Studies (“Contemplating Contingency: Toward a Post-Tenure Politics”), which attempts to capture the potential positives contingency might bring to higher ed (especially the “ed” part) and Audrey Watters’ recent post at (“The Real Reason I Dropped out of a PhD Program), which provides a scathing, no-bull**** account of the horrible impact contingency can have on one’s life and health.

    Thanks for the post, and for sharing your sources. Like Bob, I also hadn’t heard the term “academic precariat” before, and being pointed towards the New Faculty Majority blog is a big help!

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