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."

It's that precariousness, say adjunct activists, that threatens to degrade the college experience even for students who have no plans for a career in academia. "A lot of adjuncts give their full attention, their time, and enjoy teaching, and the courses are taught well," Gregory readily acknowledges. What's missing, she says, is the institutional support. "You're not part of the college. I don't have an office." Adjuncts can't build ongoing connections to their students, engage them in research projects, or write effective recommendation letters. Gregory says her students ask, "Wait, you might not be here next semester? Why not? I like you."

"It's really the students who are getting fucked by all of this," says Alyson Spurgas, a CUNY Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate in sociology who serves as one of the coordinators of the CUNY Adjunct Project. "We're not actually paid to do any work outside of the classroom. We're certainly not paid to write them recommendation letters." And even if she were to write recommendations on her own time, she warns her students, "it's not going to do you any good, because I'm not a tenured full professor."

Given that a college degree itself is little guarantee of a good job these days—something driven home by recent reports of companies demanding a B.A. from applicants for positions as receptionists and file clerks—these networking connections can make the difference between a leg up on a career and an expensive piece of paper. And at cash-strapped public universities like CUNY, a financially secure professor who's invested enough to put time and effort into a promising student can mean the difference between success and falling through the cracks. As Maisto puts it: "The most vulnerable students tend to get taught by the least supported faculty. And if that doesn't bother people, it should."

University administrators, naturally, beg to differ. Asked about soaring adjunct rates by State Assembly Member Deborah Glick at a February hearing, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein blamed a flood of new students for creating a bottomless maw for new faculty that can't be met without either more money or more part-timers: "When you have a big increase in population of students, you need a massive infusion of dollars to keep the teaching balance in terms of full-time faculty."

At private schools with less dramatic cost pressures, the rise of contingent faculty is explained as a natural progression to more flexible kinds of teaching. NYU Vice Chancellor for Strategic Planning Dick Foley says that his school's surge in full-time contract faculty—which has swamped a smaller increase in the adjunct population—is due to a combination of factors, from the growth of lower-level classes like science labs and "great books" courses that don't require full professors, to an influx of civilians, such as practicing artists or musicians, moonlighting as professors at NYU's professional schools. A Columbia spokesperson likewise cites an increased reliance on professionals who "have not followed a traditional academic career path" as one reason for its surge in contract faculty.

Foley agrees that leaving students in the hands of part-time instructors isn't ideal: "Part-time adjuncts weren't around all day—they were part-time. So for there to be that rich student experience, for students to have plenty of access to faculty outside of class as well as inside of class, we felt we needed to increase the relative contributions of contract faculty versus part-timers."

So far, the student backlash that adjunct advocates have been waiting for hasn't quite arrived—perhaps because, like the proverbial frog in the boiling water, it's been so gradual that the average college student has never known anything different. Outside the student center at Brooklyn College (58.1 percent adjuncts, 35.1 percent tenure-track faculty), for example, nearly every student seems aware of the effects of adjunctification. Some say almost their entire college career has been spent with part-time instructors. So long as the quality of the teaching is good, though—and virtually all say that their courses taught by adjuncts have been high quality—they're inclined to take it in stride, with only a few grumbles. Lauren Durante, a senior speech pathology student, notes that her department has so few experienced professors available that upper-level courses have been forced to establish waiting lists, where students are only admitted based on seniority and GPA: "There are very limited seats."

In hopes of sparking more student revolt (or at least awareness), adjunct advocates have turned their attention to raising the contingent-faculty profile among college students and applicants. Since most college guides ignore adjunct–to–full-time ratios—or use figures provided by the schools themselves rather than official National Center for Education Statistics data—AFT has launched a Just Ask guide on its website (soon to be a phone app as well), and sent out printed guides to high school counselors across the nation.

"Everyone is focused on the cost of college," says the New Faculty Majority's Maisto. "We're trying to help them see that it's also about the value of what they're getting for whatever they pay. And the fact that in many cases, one could argue that there's a little bit of fraud going on, when students pay the same tuition for very well-supported faculty and other faculty who are being presented with these sorts of institutional obstacles, from lack of pay to lack of offices."

All agree, though, that without student pushback, the trend toward a two-tier faculty system will only intensify. "There's a gap that mirrors the wealth gap in this country," says the labor studies scholar Gregory. "There are the celebrity faculty with the names, and people want to hire them because they raise the currency of the degree. And then they still need people in a classroom, so who is that going to be? Even if it's not people in a classroom—it's a computer screen—that's still a product that the university thinks it's providing."

Universities may prefer contingent faculty for other reasons, too. A non-permanent faculty is less likely to raise a stink about the direction that administrators are taking, Maisto notes. (Last year, in fact, the AAUP called for contingent faculty to be included in university governance activities.)

"I think everyone believes there's a breaking point—you really can only go up to a certain moment where it becomes impossible to do the work of an institution," says the AFT's Smith. "We'd say we're past that. But when you look at, say, community colleges where you're talking about 17 percent of the faculty being on the tenure track or tenured, you have to wonder where the breaking point is."

Show Pages