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The Adjunctification of Gen Ed

What does colleges’ and universities’ reliance on non-tenure-stream faculty tell us about their commitment to educational quality?

January 12, 2021
 
 

I owe a debt of thanks to George T. Karnezis, who made a sage observation in response to my review of Derek Bok’s Higher Expectations: if colleges and universities are serious about lower-division instruction, why do they relegate the responsibility for fostering the qualities and capacities Bok insists demand attention largely to instructors outside the tenure system -- to adjunct, part-time and contingent faculty, as well as lecturers, professors of the practice, visiting scholars, postdocs and graduate students?

These are the very individuals who have been most affected by adjunctification and who have the lowest academic status. In too many instances, nontenured faculty experience a laundry list of indignities: low pay, little job security, limited time for research and a lack of protections against “just-in-time” hiring and at-will nonreappointment.

Higher ed has created a separate teaching track (at the lower-division level), which is something Bok explicitly calls for -- but without mechanisms to ensure quality: a rigorous and competitive hiring process, ongoing professional development, regular peer feedback and evaluation, and valid and reliable measures of student learning.

Colleges and universities’ increasing reliance on non-tenure-track instructors is no longer a dirty secret. Thanks to scholars like Joe Berry, Herb Childress, Adrianna Kezar and Kim Tolley, and union organizers and activists like the New Faculty Majority and the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, we have a better understanding of the consequences of adjunctification: the deprofessionalization of large segments of the professoriate, a diminishment in the quality of lower-division education and weakened protections for academic freedom.

The problem is not a new one. We now know that reliance on adjuncts surged beginning in the 1970s and began to arouse a response in the 1980s. Indeed, the first AAUP statement on contingent faculty appeared in 1980, calling out the contradiction between institutional and professional ideals and the grim realities of adjunct life.

Childress, in my view, is certainly correct when he argues that higher education’s increasing reliance on adjuncts should not be understood simply in terms of administrative greed and faculty indifference. The issue is far more complex, and reflects broader shifts in the economy, or what business professor David Wells calls “the fissured workplace”: the increasing reliance on contingency, outsourcing, subcontracting, partnering and franchising as ways to increase administrative flexibility, cut costs and, in many instances, produce a more tractable labor force.

As Childress explains, broader shifts in the higher education landscape made contingency a fact of academic life:

1. An oversupply of prospective faculty members

A large supply of Ph.D.s and M.A.s has created a reserve army of potential adjuncts that can be easily drawn upon.

2. Shifting student demographics and increases in government compliance requirements, resulting in an increase in nonfaculty support staff

While many nonprofessional positions are increasingly outsourced, nonteaching professional staff has grown rapidly, as colleges and universities hire increasing numbers of specialists in career services, contracting, diversity and inclusion, financial aid, teaching and learning centers, and student affairs.

3. Fluctuating enrollments, which makes staffing flexibility very attractive

As institutional enrollment ebbs and flows, and as demand for particular majors shifts, a contingent labor force makes it easier for institutions to adapt.

4. The transformation of lower-division classes into commodities

As more students acquire gen ed credits in high school and community college, introductory-level courses become increasingly uniform in content, encouraging a belief that these classes need not be taught by tenured faculty.

5. Shifts in institutional spending priorities

Growth areas in campus budgets include athletics and recreational facilities, benefits, development, executive-level salaries, financial aid, information technology, research centers, and student support services, but not instruction.

6. Stagnating or declining per capita state expenditures

Financial constraints lead institutions to cut costs wherever possible and invest resources in development and potential sources of new revenue, including professional master’s and other online programs.

A heightened emphasis on cost cutting, a search for new sources of revenue and a desire to increase programmatic flexibility have combined to encourage a reliance on contingent faculty.

As Jason Brenna and Phil Magness persuasively argue, significantly improving the lot of adjuncts -- which should certainly be a priority -- inevitably involves disagreeable trade-offs. Colleges and universities face significant financial constraints in giving adjuncts a better deal, and shifting to part-time instructors to full-time status would necessarily reduce the total number of adjuncts, while likely limiting the resources that could be expended elsewhere, for example, on financial aid. This shift might also potentially limit campuses’ ability to draw upon practicing professionals who can bring real-world experience into the classroom.

Certain remedies strike me as likely to improve the situation, resulting in wage increases, better benefits, greater participation in governance and curriculum decisions, strengthened language on academic freedom, and an "adjunct-to-full-time" process. These include:

  • Moral and political pressure

    The mistreatment and exploitation of adjuncts is increasingly viewed as intolerably inconsistent with the tenured faculties’ conception of the professoriate: as individuals who combine teaching with research and who receive a stable income and possess academic freedom.

  • Organizing

    At many campuses, unions and unionization drives have resulted in noticeable improvements in wages, benefits, working conditions, employment guarantees, participation in campus governance and access to travel and research funds and professional development opportunities.

  • Public Recognition

    The higher education press and initiatives like the Delphi Award, presented by USC’s Pullias Center, increasing recognize innovative programs to support non-tenure-track faculty, helping to raise the bar at all institutions.

  • Accreditation

    Accrediting agencies need to hold institutions accountable for ensuring that their classes are taught by well-qualified professionals who have access to appropriate working conditions and support.

Of course, modest improvements in adjunct well-being might well have the ironic effect of further institutionalizing a two-tiered faculty.

Let me conclude by saying that our concern for adjuncts should extend even more broadly to encompass other nontenured professionals, including directors of disabilities, learning, pre-professional, and teaching centers; instructional designers and educational technologies; academic advisers; student affairs specialists; and many others -- who not only constituted the most rapidly growing number of campus employees, but who, increasingly are made up of our very own Ph.D.s.

The moral challenge we face is not a Manichean contest pitting villainous administrators and trustees against an exploited workforce or a privileged professoriate versus an academic proletariat, but a much more profound conflict involving competing institutional priorities, market forces, vested interests and professional ideals.

The status quo isn’t sustainable, but resolving this challenge will not be easy, especially in a context of highly constrained resources. But there is one principle that should inform any resolution: we need to treat all academic employees as the skilled professionals they are.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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