Breadth of Adjunct Use and Abuse

December 3, 2008

The use of adjuncts is well known among academics, but many believe that these instructors are utilized primarily in certain areas (such as the humanities) or certain types of institutions (such as community colleges). But a report being released today by the American Federation of Teachers suggests that the breadth and depth of adjunct use is greater than many realize -- such that they are teaching a majority of public college and university courses, and are a major force in a wide range of disciplines.

The report -- "Reversing Course: The Troubled State of Academic Staffing and a Path Forward" -- is designed to publicize the extent of adjunct use with a mind toward encouraging more colleges to either improve the pay they offer adjuncts or shift more of their positions to the tenure track. Along those lines, the AFT is releasing a new tool that allows colleges to calculate the costs of changing staffing policies. The goal is to show that modest changes may be possible — even in tight budget years like this one — and that over time, such changes could have a meaningful impact on the makeup of faculties and the compensation of adjuncts.

It has been too easy for administrators to ignore the issue of adjunct use as something other than widespread, and this study "debunks" that view by focusing not only on numbers of individuals, but courses taught, said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the AFT union at the City University of New York, at a briefing on the report. Part timers are being used nationwide "in all disciplines" and in many cases at "completely non-professional salaries," Bowen said.

"Most people don't know the situation," said Lawrence N. Gold, director of higher education at the AFT. He acknowledged that there will be no immediate shift from relying on adjuncts to creating tenure-track positions. But he said that, if more of the public comes to understand what has happened to public higher education, progress can be made. The AFT and other faculty groups have argued that while many adjunct instructors are great classroom teachers, their working conditions -- such as lack of office hours, being cut off from curricular decisions, being forced to move from campus to campus -- result in a reduced quality of education, and erode the job security vital for academic freedom.

The report was prepared for the AFT by John B. Lee, whose consulting and research business JBL Associates has done previous studies for the union. Lee primarily used data from the Education Department's National Study of Postsecondary Faculty. In many cases, however, Lee grouped data in new ways.

One key change -- which Lee says is important to get a sense of the extent of teaching by non-tenure-track faculty -- was his decision to include graduate students as adjuncts if they are responsible for managing a course. So graduate students who serve as teaching assistants under the supervision of a professor are not counted, and their courses are not counted as being taught by adjuncts. But courses led entirely by graduate students are.

The focus of the report is on public institutions, including community colleges, where adjunct use is particularly high (although the use of graduate students is not). But the report shows that public four-year colleges and research universities are also making widespread use of adjuncts. Across public research institutions, for example, the report finds that full-time, tenured or tenure-track faculty members make up only 41 percent of instructional staff, while full-time non-tenure-track make up 20 percent, part-time faculty members off the tenure track make up 20 percent, and graduate employees are another 19 percent.

The AFT study comes at a time of increased attention among academic groups on the use of non-tenure-track faculty members. At the annual meeting of college human resources leaders in October, one senior member of the field stunned colleagues by denouncing the way adjuncts are treated and calling for major reforms. A few colleges -- such as Elon University -- have undertaken campaigns to increase the percentage of their courses taught by tenure-track professors. But in many other cases, long campaigns by adjuncts to improve their pay and benefits have been rejected. Next week, the Modern Language Association will release a report also documenting the accelerating trend of reliance on part-timers for teaching college courses.

In the case of the AFT report, here are some of the key data.

Percentage of Undergraduate Courses at Public Colleges and Universities Taught by Contingent Instructors

Discipline Community Colleges Four-Year Colleges Research Universities
Business 50.4% 31.3% 39.4%
Education 77.0% 42.5% 48.9%
Engineering/computer science 49.6% 38.0% 29.6%
Fine arts 56.8% 47.9% 41.6%
Health science 55.4% 32.6% 56.1%
Human services 71.6% 46.3% 54.0%
Humanities 60.2% 41.0% 44.6%
Life sciences 45.0% 26.7% 28.2%
Natural/physical sciences 57.6% 36.6% 34.9%
Social sciences 51.6% 34.7% 38.5%
Vocational education 54.5% 49.6% 53.2%
Total 57.5% 38.4% 41.8%

The report says that there are many reasons to be concerned about these numbers. A primary focus is on the limited ability of adjunct professors to fully participate in campus life and be available to students. But another reason cited is that adjuncts are not paid appropriately.

Comparisons between tenure-track and non-tenure-track instructors are difficult, the report acknowledges, because many tenured or tenure-track faculty members have specific responsibilities outside of teaching, while most adjuncts are hired to teach only. This gap in responsibilities is especially notable at research universities, the report says. However, it says that the pay gap -- if measuring salary divided by courses taught -- is unacceptably large, even when factoring in mission differences.

Across sectors, the study finds that full-time faculty members are paid on average four times what a part-time faculty member is paid per course. Even with job differences, "it is not reasonable to suggest that contingent faculty members, particularly part-time/adjunct faculty members, deserve to be paid at the disproportionately low wages they currently earn for the valuable service they provide."

Salary comparisons follow. The "other salary" category includes pay for teaching in the summer, administrative responsibilities, coaching, etc.

Average Salary Per Course, by Job Status, Public Higher Education in 2003-4

Faculty Status Basic Annual Salary Other Salary Salary Per Course
Community college      
--Full time, tenured or tenure track $58,645 $5,814 $7,722
--Full time, non-tenure track $40,117 $2,625 $6,098
--Part time $8,855 $727 $2,486
Public four-year college      
--Full time, tenured or tenure track $64,435 $4,585 $10,731
--Full time, non-tenure track $41,033 $3,010 $7,299
--Part time $9,550 $860 $2,645
Public research university      
--Full time, tenured or tenure track $78,409 $6,765 $20,253
--Full time, non-tenure track $46,974 $3,475 $9,776
--Part time $14,228 $1,159 $4,245

The goal of the AFT report is to prompt colleges to reconsider their use of and treatment of adjuncts. Specifically, along the principles of an AFT campaign called Faculty and College Excellence (or FACE), the main goals are to have 75 percent of undergraduate courses taught by full-time, tenure-track faculty members and to have part timers or adjuncts receive pro rata pay and benefits.

The tool allows colleges to put in data on their current staffing patterns and to then find the costs associated with increasing the share of courses taught by those on the tenure track or improving adjunct pay or some combination. Gold noted that the tool may help, even in tough economic times, by demonstrating that progress along these lines is possible. The costs of fully embracing FACE goals in a year might be daunting, but perhaps not some forward movement, he suggested.

"It's time for us to frame the discussion appropriately," he said. "We're taking a long term, incremental approach."

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