By now, it's hard to imagine than many people in academe haven't heard about how most adjuncts work for years at low pay, and under conditions that hinder their efforts to help students. So why hasn't the issue gotten more attention on a wider scale, and what will it take to achieve real change? Adjunct advocates and higher education experts are counting on a new, targeted focus on students and educational value, and gathering of more data about their employment, to force reform.
“It’s one of those situations where everybody says it’s an issue but the people who have the most influence and the most ability to do something about it are not acting on it,” said Gary Rhoades, professor of higher education at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education and director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education, a virtual think tank supported by faculty and labor groups. He called the adjunct issue a “widely acknowledged challenge” with deep, interwoven roots – many of which pit administrative prerogatives against labor concerns and educational outcomes.
For those few unfamiliar with the challenge, it’s not hard to describe. Research on adjunct working conditions paints a picture of inequality between them and their tenure-track counterparts. A 2010 survey of non-tenure-track faculty members by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce showed low median compensation rates for adjunct faculty, at $2,700 per three-credit course, with little, if any, compensation based on credentials and minimal support for work or professional development outside the classroom. (At four courses per semester, that's $21,600 annually, compared to starting tenure-track salaries that average $66,000, according to data from the American Association of University Professors .)
But adjunct faculty now make up the majority of the higher education work force. As recently as 1969, 78 percent of instructional staff comprised tenured or tenure-track professors, with adjunct faculty making up the rest, according to information from the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. By 2009, the figures had nearly flipped, with a third of faculty tenured or on the tenure track and two-thirds ineligible for tenure. Of those non-tenure-track positions, just 19 percent were full-time.
"To meet some [emerging] financial exigencies, it was decided that it was in everybody's best interest in the short term to drop the cost of academic labor," beginning in the 1980s, said Richard Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York. "But, of course, it became a lure or a drug that they couldn't wean themselves from."
There has long been a legitimate place for adjuncts in academe, said Adrianna Kezar, director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, a partnership between the USC’s Rossier School of Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Working professionals who moonlighted at institutions could bring practical expertise to instruction, in medical fields, for example. In other words, a lawyer or an artist teaching one course a semester brought key perspective to students, but never depended on the college or university for his or her livelihood or benefits. But adjunct employment has proliferated, with many would-be tenure-track Ph.D.s teaching multiple courses at multiple institutions, in some cases for decades without benefits or a long-term contract. (Although the classic adjunct model is still common, 75 percent of respondents to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce survey said they would definitely or likely accept a full-time, tenure-track position where they were teaching, were it offered. And in fields such as composition, many colleges and universities employ small armies of adjuncts, teaching the same courses year after year, without any job security.)
While adjuncts have been common at community colleges since the enrollment boom in the 1960s-70s, their numbers have surged at four-year undergraduate institutions during the last decade. Part of that is due to increased hiring of full-time, non-tenure-track faculty (by 2003, a majority of full-time hires were off the tenure track, according to the Delphi Project), which can be a good deal for some professors who want to focus on teaching, said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute at Cornell University. But conditions for adjuncts trying to “eke out a living” by teaching courses here and there – a phenomenon more commonly seen in urban areas than rural – are far worse, he said. “I feel for them.”
Economics -- namely decreasing state and federal funding -- and changing institutional priorities are driving the trend away from tenure-track hiring, as universities devote more resources to research (internal spending on research and development increased from 11 percent to 20 percent of private research university budgets from 1970 to 2000) and student services, and away from instruction and other costs, Ehrenberg said. According to his research, some student services are linked to higher retention rates, while the benefit of proximity to world-class researchers is an “open question.”
The funding trend away from instruction across higher education is also driven by prestige and revenue, Rhoades said. Increasingly, universities facing real or perceived financial worries are funding slick student services (upscale dorms, climbing walls and even lazy rivers are commonly cited examples) to attract more middle-class students who can pay full tuition. U.S. News and World Report rankings also are tied to expenditures per student, and institutions feeling pressured to show higher completion rates in similar rankings are increasingly appealing to middle-class students from long lines of college graduates.
Ehrenberg said the adjunct trend also could be related to changing mandatory retirement age laws, which until 1994 effectively allowed colleges to require retirement at age 70. Now, he said, as a tenured faculty member, "I can stay forever " – something that doesn’t always play well to tenure-granting administrators.
Too Big to Fix?
Another part of the adjunct problem is its scale. The “wholesale change of the faculty model," away from the tenure track, has over time been met with limited discussion across the academy, Kezar said, and now it’s deeply entrenched. “If there had been a discussion over the last 20 years that this trend was growing rapidly, there might have been more done to be thoughtful about the way it unfolded, rather than in the haphazard way that it did.”
Adjuncts also are a heterogeneous lot, with different backgrounds and teaching schedules, and few opportunities to congregate and build relationships on campus. As such, adjuncts don’t often know who all the other adjuncts are. There’s also the naming issue: adjuncts are known by many names, from simple to downright complicated, and there’s no general consensus on which is best. Adjuncts, contingent faculty, non-tenure-track faculty and perma-temp are some examples. Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy group for adjuncts, said that although the varied nomenclature can distract from the plight of adjuncts, it helps illustrate the problem.
Marisa Allison, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University, is struggling with the scattered nature of the adjunct work force in her efforts to help them. After following more than 20 women at the end of their doctoral programs for her dissertation research, as many struggled to finish their degrees, look for jobs and moonlight elsewhere as adjuncts in the region, Allison decided to help organize adjuncts into a central advocacy body on campus. But it’s hard to track down names and contacts for everyone, and her task is already complicated by the fact that Virginia is a right-to-work state.
And in the eyes of others, Allison said, adjuncts face a perception problem. “As a movement, you’re trying to convince people to go against things they deeply believe about higher education – that if you go to school and get higher degrees, your chances of success will be much higher.” In sociology speak, Allison added, “the ‘front stage’ of what is happening looks equitable. Student and parents don’t see the things that are unequal.”
Matt Williams, the vice president of the New Faculty Majority, agreed, calling lack of public awareness of the adjunct issue the biggest obstacle to fixing it. “Most Americans, I would venture to say, have this perception of college faculty as being highly paid individuals with a month break [in the winter] and the summer off.”
Debra Leigh Scott, a Pennsylvania adjunct who has been blogging as “The Homeless Adjunct”  for two years and is wrapping up a documentary film on adjuncts living in poverty, blamed what she called the changing narrative of higher education in part for apathy toward adjuncts. “For decades now, the idea of going to college in order to develop yourself intellectually, to widen your horizons by opening your mind, to learn critical thinking skills, etc. has disappeared and been supplanted by the ‘go to college to get a better job' narrative" that has made students less socially conscious -- even of the working conditions on their own campuses.
Waiting for Traction
Whatever the reason, adjuncts and their advocates said the issue isn’t getting the traction it deserves at the institutional level. Many faculty groups that were once seen as ignoring adjunct issues have made them central, and this month's meeting of the Modern Language Association featured numerous sessions on those off the tenure track. But groups like the MLA can't dictate how colleges hire and compensate instructors.
“People have tried for years to raise the issue as faculty without great success,” Maisto said. “Unfortunately, people don’t seem to be swayed by the social arguments and moral arguments that it’s wrong to exploit adjuncts in this way.”
Seeking a better way to get its message across, the New Faculty Majority has designated 2013 as “the year of the student,” said Maisto. Although it won’t abandon its ongoing efforts to connect adjuncts with other adjuncts on individual campuses and across the country, she said, “We know when students get involved, administrations listen.”
Ethan Miller, a senior at American University who helped advocate for adjuncts’ successful unionization last year, said many students “don’t have a clue” about the differences between tenure-track and non-tenure-track professors. But once informed, they can be powerful agents of change who are sympathetic to the quality-of-life issues that haven’t resonated with higher education over all. Consequently, Miller said American’s Student Worker Alliance outreach to students prior to the unionization vote focused on two things: pay – something that’s “easy to quantify” – and job security. Miller also said students are concerned about rising tuition costs and reject the idea that they care more about amenities than quality of education.
In addition to networking with student groups such as Miller's on different campuses, the New Faculty Majority also is engaging United Students Against Sweatshops, a national student labor organization fighting for workers' rights with chapters at more than 150 campuses, and the U.S. Student Association (whose president is a board member of the New Faculty Majority).
Students have historically been at the center of higher education reform on many issues, including the hiring of more female and minority faculty members, Kezar said, “because they can mobilize in ways that adjunct faculty can’t. They’re very vulnerable.”
New Faculty Majority is also trying to connect with parents, who often foot the bill for college, this year. Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution , who also writes about college costs and other issues on her blog  of the same name, has signed on to work with the group. She said in an e-mail that parents would be more outspoken against adjunct employment trends if they knew more about them.
“I think parents aren't outraged by the increased dependence on adjuncts because they don't know about their widespread use, much less about their proven impact on student learning,” said O’Shaughnessy, whose son is a college junior. “If parents did understand the issue, I think they would certainly support better treatment of adjunct faculty and they would endorse the hiring of more full-time faculty." The move to engage students and parents in the adjunct debate echoes efforts initiated in 2009  by the American Federation of Teachers to shed light on the plight of contingent faculty. Such efforts largely have been incorporated since into AFT-created college guides  available at high schools throughout the country, said Craig Smith, director of higher education for the federation. "Students wanted to know about college costs and student debt and what they're paying for in going to college, and these are all related problems," he said. "The assumption of what's driving those costs up is faculty costs, but that's not necessarily the case when you look at the data, and that's a conversation we wanted to have with students." AAUP data show that tuition increases have greatly outpaced faculty salary hikes spanning the last three decades.
And research suggests the over-reliance on adjuncts is negatively impacting student learning, regardless of how committed or skilled individual adjuncts may be.
Ehrenberg and other researchers  have found that when other factors are held constant, the increased use of adjuncts at four-year institutions is associated with lower freshman persistence and graduation rates. The same pattern has been found at two-year institutions, and higher rates of adjunct employment at such colleges have been linked to lower transfer rates to four-year institutions and lower completion rates for associate degrees.
Kezar's Delphi Project also links over-reliance on adjuncts to negative student outcomes . Due to widespread lack of routine hiring procedures and contract renewal processes for adjuncts, adjuncts are often hired at the last minute, leaving little time to prepare for the course (one year is the most common contract length across all institutions for full-time adjuncts; part-time adjuncts face even more contractual uncertainty). They also lack access to professional development, office space, instructional resources and staff support, compared to their tenure-track counterparts.
Of course, highlighting this issue is a kind of catch-22 for adjuncts, said Rhoades, who may not want to broadcast that their employment hurts students. But the issue isn’t really that adjuncts are bad teachers – just workers subjected to poor working conditions that are also students’ learning conditions.
Ehrenberg agreed, adding that some of those poor working conditions – such as a lack of working space to meet with students, or getting course schedules just days before the start of the semester – aren’t hard or expensive to fix.
Essentially, said Maisto, adjunct messaging has to focus on “putting quality of education back at the center of higher ed. It’s like we’ve forgotten what we’re here to do.”
The New Faculty Majority also is pushing to address the lack of solid data on adjunct professors at colleges and universities. The group is working with legislators, including Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, co-sponsor of the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, to insert more transparency in higher education by showing how specific programs and institutions compare in regard to cost and financial aid available; completion rates; debt; and employment and earnings outcomes (some data is currently available through the Integrated Post-Secondary Data System, but as aggregates that make it difficult to discern things such as the graduation rates of transfer students). Adjunct reporting requirements aren’t yet included in the bill, however. Wyden could not be reached for comment on the issue.
“Colleges and universities are not required to keep statistics on this and disclose them to the public, and when I think the public really understands what’s happening, there’ll be a huge response,” Maisto said. (Research suggests even deans could benefit from such reporting, as most underestimate the presence of adjuncts at their institutions. A 2012 survey of 148 members of the American Conference of Academic Deans by Kezar and colleagues showed most believed their campuses employed fewer or as many non-tenure-track faculty as peer institutions. Deans accurately reported the growing employment of adjuncts across academe, but most said that such professors should make up 40 percent or less of the faculty.)
There’s no magic bullet for solving the adjunct dilemma. One might assume that the answer is simply to hire more tenure-track professors. But Maisto and others said not all adjunct professors want to be on the tenure track, and a broad swing back toward tenure-track hiring could leave lots of adjuncts without work, as more full-time professors would mean less available work for part-time professors. But equal pay for equal work; increased job security; and more support from colleges and universities to do research, participate in professional development and meet with students,are central goals for adjuncts.
The New Faculty Majority also is hoping unionization successes across the Washington, D.C., area will lead to an eventual “metro union ,” which could inspire similar movements in other cities. Boris of Hunter College's Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions said unionization will be the principal driver of the adjunct movement, noting that due to union successes across Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education, which consists of four-year regional universities, no more than 20 percent of courses may be taught by those off the tenure track. "I think it's a foregone conclusion," he said of widespread adjunct unionization to force change. "Unions are the only bodies on campuses that are independent of the campus and don't have any legal attachment." And it's not just traditional teaching unions such as AFT that are embracing adjuncts; Boris said early unionization efforts in particular involved partnering with those from other sectors, such as the Teamsters union. (Indeed, the Washington, D.C., metro union movement is tied to the Service Employees International Union.)
But Keith Hoeller, co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association in Seattle, advocated for an "American Anti-Contingency Association," independent of existing unions and focused on eliminating the "two-track" system of adjunct and tenure-track faculty altogether. He pointed to Vancouver Community College in British Columbia -- where all faculty are on a single track and pay scale that rewards them equally for teaching and other duties -- as a model of success.
For Kezar, neither unionization nor tenure for all faculty is the answer. Rather, reform should be based on specific campus circumstances. Models for such reform already exist, she said, pointing to several detailed in her book Embracing Non-Tenure Track Faculty . At Villanova University, for example, non-tenure-track faculty have leveraged data collection and the institution’s social justice mission to achieve governance privileges and longer-term contracts, among other gains, without unionizing.
Still, some remain uncertain that widespread change is possible, and adjuncts have faced new challenges this academic year: in light of the Affordable Care Act, several colleges and universities have limited adjuncts' teaching hours  in order to avoid having to provide them with health care benefits or pay a fine for not doing so.
“The world is changing very rapidly, and with the growth of technology, it’s very hard to make any predictions,” said Ehrenberg. “But [I think that] there’s going to be an increased bifurcation in higher education, where the selective private research universities and public research universities and wealthy liberal arts colleges can stay in their own world and be able to maintain tenure-track faculty, but the financial reality is going to be very hard for everyone else.”