'Off-Track Profs'

Like the rest of higher education, elite universities have grown increasingly reliant on non-tenure-track faculty members. Leaders of those institutions are frequently unaware of the role played by adjuncts or how they have come to make up a larger share of the teaching force. The causes for this shift -- while related to money -- go far beyond the savings from hiring off the tenure track, and the blame may need to be shared by senior professors and graduate student unions.

May 27, 2009

Like the rest of higher education, elite universities have grown increasingly reliant on non-tenure-track faculty members. Leaders of those institutions are frequently unaware of the role played by adjuncts or how they have come to make up a larger share of the teaching force. The causes for this shift -- while related to money -- go far beyond the savings from hiring off the tenure track, and the blame may need to be shared by senior professors and graduate student unions. At the most celebrated institutions of higher education in the United States, the teaching quality of the adjuncts is many times better than that of those on the tenure tack.

These are among the conclusions of Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education, being released this week by the MIT Press. Amid the growing literature of research about adjuncts, this book is different in some key ways that are likely to make some of it controversial, and may also make it influential. The focus of the book is on elite research universities, ten of which gave data and access to senior administrators so that the authors (themselves administrators) could examine the issues.

While the book is consistent with many of the recent studies of adjuncts in documenting their growing use and many cases of abuse, the tone is notably different, as are some conclusions. While the book sees the treatment of adjuncts as a real issue both for the adjuncts and their institutions, it suggests that there is much blame to share -- and that this situation did not arise from the actions of administrators looking to cut costs. And while much of the research about adjuncts has come from unions or groups sympathetic to unions, this book is decidedly not.

For all of those reasons, the book may find an audience with senior administrators. Among those endorsing the book in a blurb: Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, who praises the work by saying: "This is not a muckraking book by outsiders who don't understand the academy; it is a serious analysis by respected administrators. It does not seek to return to some long-lost golden age."

The study was based on examining the Universities of California at Berkeley, Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Michigan, Virginia and Washington; Cornell, Duke and Northwestern Universities; Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Washington University in St. Louis. The book's authors, John G. Cross and Edie N. Goldenberg, worked together at Michigan as administrators in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. (Cross has since become a vice president at Bloomfield College.)

Their interest in the topic started from personal experience. They were heavily focused on measures to improved undergraduate education and considered hiring crucial to that. Yet they noticed that the numbers of adjunct faculty members being used in the college was going up even though this was growth "we never consciously decided to make." That led to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to start to explore the trends at other top research universities. The authors acknowledge that these institutions are not typical of American higher education or of the use of adjuncts (community colleges by far are the most reliant on those off the tenure track). And in some respects, the adjuncts they studied have it better than those at many other institutions -- with greater odds of having health insurance and/or office space than is frequently the case elsewhere. But the authors note the role of leading research universities as agenda setters for many universities and their key role in graduate education.

One of the first things they found was that at these universities, which have well respected institutional research offices and collect massive amounts of data, there was little agreement on what constitutes a non-tenure-track faculty member or knowledge of how many there are. They found a "bewildering array of job titles" (they include 21 on a partial list and they don't even count graduate students, as others do), which they said helps prevent understanding of this key part of the academic workforce.

Not a single university had available for the study a count of teaching by students taught, so the question of what percentage are taught by adjuncts -- a key question to many -- was unclear without further work.

Using their own definitions and data provided by the universities, Cross and Goldenberg were able to document an increasing use of adjuncts at elite universities -- even though many experts have assumed this was not necessarily the case in that sector. The authors examined data for engineering and arts and sciences colleges, the two largest undergraduate divisions of these universities. Between 1995 and 2005, they found that hiring off the tenure track increased in engineering colleges, but so did hiring on the tenure track, so while there are more off-track professors, their proportion has not changed.

In arts and sciences at these universities, however, they found that while hiring on the tenure track was level, the average college went from a full-time equivalent cohort of 150 adjuncts to 204.

This leads the authors to ask why. And here, they criticize "flawed assumptions" that they say make many critics of higher education assume that this type of growth reflects a desire by administrators to save money because they know they can.

They go through university by university (without naming institutions in most cases) and describe a range of reasons, some of them ones that academics might find laudable, that top universities have hired more adjuncts. They note departments, for example, where humanities professors, worried about the job market for their new doctorates, worked to create theoretically temporary positions to help their new graduates, only to see those jobs become semi-permanent without any sign of improvement in the job market. They write about college administrators, feeling pressure to experiment with hires in non-traditional fields, seeing adjunct appointments as a way they can do so -- while a tenure track or nothing choice might have led many to select nothing.

They note that some graduate student unions have placed limits on the hours a graduate student can work and negotiated increases in the pay for graduate students who teach. In some cases, this makes it more affordable to hire an adjunct, who may be stuck in a low-pay position indefinitely than a graduate student. (The book notes that graduate students were of course more willing in the past to put up with low pay when they were assured of tenure-track jobs later, and that the prospect of spending their careers as adjuncts hardly motivates them to accept lousy economic treatment while they are working on their doctorates.)

At the same time, the book also notes the role of tenure-track faculty -- and especially of the desire to recruit "star" professors -- in increasing reliance on adjuncts. The universities in the study reported using teaching loads (as in low teaching loads) as a key tool in attracting those they are seeking to recruit, and that the professors generally want time with graduate students. If departments aren't growing, the way administrations have been able to do this is by adding more adjuncts.

In social science fields at the universities studied, the course load for many tenured professors has fallen from four to three a year. And the book notes that as colleges have faced criticism that they are inhumane and unrealistic in expectations for junior professors on the tenure track, many have reduced their teaching loads significantly.

Some departments are even rigging the numbers, so that it appears that those who are tenured or tenure-track are doing more teaching than they really are. The book describes departments listing "a fiction" of "administrative courses" that aren't really courses, or of listing "seminars" that involve top professors meeting with students (but with no course preparation) or of classes listed as being taught by a professor but actually taught by a postdoc. All of these situations add to the demand for adjuncts, the authors write.

While the rationales vary, the authors stress that they found that most universities never considered the direction their hiring was headed at senior levels. Such trends don't get attention from boards of trustees or senior administrators. And while boards and senior officials may exercise tight control over certain relevant issues -- such as the creation of new tenure-track slots -- at leading universities, much more autonomy is given on other issues.

On the issue of cost, the authors wrote that the impact is most apparent not in the creation of adjunct positions, which usually isn't done to save money. Cost is a factor in moving away from adjuncts, they write. Whatever rationale has been given for the creation of the slot off the tenure-track, officials see a high cost to either converting the slot to one on the tenure track or eliminating the job, they write.

Another challenge that the authors say the use of adjuncts create for elite universities is an uncomfortable reality: those off the tenure track -- with lesser working conditions and less money -- are frequently better teachers.

Using data from Michigan, broken out by departments and by lower/upper division status, the authors find that non-tenure track instructors consistently receive better ratings than do those on the tenure track whenever data were sufficient to study. The ratings below are on a 5-point scale, with 5 as the best score. But the authors note that because most students at Michigan give professors ratings in the 3 to 5 range, the gaps here are even larger. (n/a indicates that there were not enough evaluations to make a statistically valid figure.)

Average Student Rankings of University of Michigan Instructors

  Tenure-Track Non-Tenure-Track Teaching Assistant
Lower-division courses      
--Chemistry 3.63 4.06 4.02
--Economics 3.82 4.41 3.88
--English 4.30 4.63 4.17
--Philosophy 4.08 n/a 4.05
--Physics 4.13 4.31 3.82
--Psychology 4.46 n/a 4.03
Upper-division courses      
--Chemistry 3.88 4.09 4.05
--Economics 4.04 4.64 4.00
--English 4.46 4.76 4.09
--Philosophy 4.27 n/a 4.03
--Physics 4.14 n/a n/a
--Psychology 4.41 4.65 4.18

The authors note that despite the clear track record of adjuncts as teachers, they are not only blocked from getting on the tenure track by its emphasis on research they don't have time to do, but they must face a relative lack of job security and a range of limits -- some substantive and some petty. The universities in the study have a range of policies on adjuncts' role in governance, both at the campus and departmental levels. The authors write that this situation threatens the tradition of shared governance, which assumes common values and a common commitment to an institution, and of academic freedom, which depends on job security. With adjuncts and tenure-track faculty having different rights and perspectives, the situation is ripe either for unionization or centralization of authority, and the authors don't want either course.

In keeping with the overall tone of the book, it ends with a series of recommendations that are as much calls for deliberation as calls to arms, and the recommendations generally do not cast blame. But they do suggest universities have work to do. The authors recommend:

  • Developing information systems that would at the very least make hiring trends clear, and enable better informed decision making.
  • Reviewing campus governance systems to determine whether there is a sufficient role that reflects the work of those off the tenure track.
  • Reconsidering the way colleges compete for top faculty members so that fewer are given pledges that keep them out of the classroom.
  • Questioning whether "business models" are the most appropriate way for colleges to make decisions.
  • Making the treatment of part-time faculty members something that is thought out and appropriate, not hit or miss.

This approach, the authors write, would involve the kind of deliberation and discussion that was not present as the status quo developed. This approach "would be to decide on the necessary roles on campus that are best filled by non-tenure-track faculty and to determine the number of non-tenure-track hires needed to fill those roles, to plan for that number, and to treat the hires as valued members of the academic community."


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