My family and I are once again located at our favorite summer marine biology research station (our “summer camp for biologists”) through mid-July. Not only is it a research facility, but the marine station also offers summer intensive courses in different areas of marine biology, mostly for graduate students but a few advanced undergrads and some postdocs participate too. I enjoy keeping in touch with the classes a little each summer, especially since I took several of them myself as a grad student, and I know many of the faculty who teach them. So as I went through the lab's main office I took some time to look over the class registers for the current summer term posted on the bulletin board, which show a picture of each student and the location from which s/he hails. In doing this you can’t help but be struck by the class sex ratios. Class 1: 9 women out of 10 students; Class 2: 9/14; Class 3: 4/6; Class 4: 4/8 (the last class is biomechanics, the most technical of the four). I took the first three of these classes 15 years ago (with many more men). But for the last couple years these ratios have been the norm. At this level, anyway, there are lots of women feeding into the field.
I was thinking about this as I read Scott Jaschik’s recent IHE news story “Adjuncts and Retention Rates." Adjunct positions make up another segment of academia in which you see a lot of women. The academic world as a whole is more diverse in many ways than it was even just 10-15 years ago (parents balancing family and career is one aspect of this diversity). Much of this diversity, though not for lack of qualification, does not make it into tenure-track lines. Coincidentally, over a similar time period non-traditional (adjunct, part-time, temporary, contingent, non-tenure track) positions have exploded in number – largely, it seems, as a result of institutions trying to save money in stressed economic times. If the explosion of these non-traditional positions could have evolved as a constructive mechanism to better accommodate shifts in needs of a more diverse academic populace instead of non-stable solutions to economic crunches, maybe we would have a different structure with desirable and feasible (read: respected, supported, secure, if not better paid) part-time and full-time alternatives to tenure track positions. The take home message of Scott’s article is that when adjuncts are treated better, students benefit in ways that behoove the institutions. It’s not simple, but I hold hope that academics and institutions can proactively and thoughtfully make changes in this unsettled period of academic history so that academic culture will better appreciate a broader complement of roles. There is a lot of reason to diversify tenure track positions, of course. But there is also a lot of room to improve the positions where much diversity currently exists.