Contingency Plan: Outsourcing Education

More than half of all college instructors are now part-time adjuncts, with low pay and no job security. Is the two-tier faculty system harming students, too?

Karen Gregory is still puzzled by the events of "the day the syllabus went crazy," as she calls it.

The Queens College instructor, searching for something to spark discussion on the first day of her Introduction to Labor Studies class in January, settled on adding a statement to her syllabus. It read, in part: "Adjuncts are not regular members of the faculty; we are paid an hourly rate for time spent in the classroom. We are not paid to advise students, grade papers, or prepare materials or lectures for class. . . . To ensure that we remain conscious of the adjunctification of CUNY, we ask that you do not call us 'Professor.'"

Gregory didn't expect much reaction—she'd actually lifted the paragraph, she explains, from one written by the City University of New York Adjunct Project for National Campus Equity Week in 2007. "That paragraph that's on the syllabus has been floating around different syllabi for almost five years," she says. "So honestly, when I saw it, I thought, oh, that's perfect for my module on academic labor."

Queens College instructor Karen Gregory asked her students not to call her "professor."
Caleb Ferguson
Queens College instructor Karen Gregory asked her students not to call her "professor."
Cameron K. Lewis

Yet after a Twitter frenzy and subsequent article in Inside Higher Ed, Gregory became a poster child for the battle against the "adjunctification" of American universities.

Even for someone dimly aware that institutions of higher education have been scaling back on hiring tenured professors in favor of piling on part-time temps, the actual figures are eye-opening. According to the American Federation of Teachers' Higher Education Data Center, just over half of all college instructors are now part-timers: adjuncts hired on a course-by-course basis to fill out the teaching roster. Another 15 to 20 percent are "contract" professors, who are full-time but must seek new employment each time their term of service runs out. (In academic lingo, the two are often lumped together as "contingent" faculty.) Add in graduate-student–taught classes, and barely a quarter of today's college teaching staff is made up of faculty in full-time, tenure-track positions.

That's a dramatic change from a generation ago, a trend that shows no sign of letting up. "It's almost really a question now, and has been for a while, whether we can move to an all-contingent workforce," says John Curtis, director of research for the American Association of University Professors and an active member of the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, which has been studying the shift to adjuncts since its founding in 1997.

The full-time professorship isn't quite dead at places like New York University and Columbia University: A little more than half of Columbia's instructional staff is either tenure-track or full-time contract faculty, with most of the rest made up of grad students; at NYU, a hiring surge of contract staff has the full-time faculty share almost up to 50 percent, though there are still a staggering 5,500 adjuncts wandering the campus in any given year. But at many colleges, especially public universities that have been hit with budget cuts, the all-adjunct moment has virtually arrived. CUNY's Lehman College, Medgar Evers College, and City Tech, for instance, are all over 60 percent adjuncts, while community college numbers run even higher—both Borough of Manhattan and LaGuardia are more than two-thirds adjunct-taught.

New York, in fact, is primed to be a hotbed of temp faculty. "If you're a small community college in Iowa, it's not like your labor pool is such that you can just turn your faculty over on a dime," says AFT Director of Higher Education Craig Smith. "Whereas if you're in New York City, you have a seemingly unending pool of contingent faculty."

"This has been going on for about 40 years, this steady erosion of professional working conditions for faculty," says Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a new coalition to promote equity for part-time college instructors. "When people start to realize that it's students and the quality of education that are directly affected, maybe they'll start to pay attention."

And there's the key question: If the days of college professorship as a steady, tenure-protected career are over, who's going to be hurt?

Anyone who hopes for a career in academia, certainly, had best prepare for a two-tier job market, where a lucky few will land full-time work with benefits and job security, while the rest will have to settle for what Curtis calls "academic piecework." The disparity in pay alone can be huge: According to the Adjunct Project, a crowdsourced database of adjunct salaries hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, freelance teachers earn an average of just under $3,000 for a typical three-credit course, with some instructors—those teaching easily filled subjects like English in non-union states, for example—earning as little as $1,000. For an adjunct carrying a typical four-class course load, the national average pay would mean an annual salary of under $25,000—typically with no benefits or job security. (The Chronicle raised a stir last year when it profiled a history adjunct in Arizona who had to supplement her income with food stamps.) By comparison, the average salary for full-time professors in 2012 was $82,556, according to an American Association of University Professors survey.

More than that, though, adjuncts often face working conditions that will be familiar to anyone who's experienced the joys of temping. Maisto, a longtime English composition adjunct in Ohio, says one of the biggest problems reported by adjuncts is "back-to-school hiring," where teachers are brought in only weeks or even days before classes start. "The class can be canceled at the last minute for low enrollment, or because you're bumped by a full-time faculty member who wants a class. It's a very precarious situation."

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