Avenues for Change Adjuncts Can Believe In

It's time to shift the way contingent faculty members -- and their tenure-track colleagues -- think about their work and how to improve their treatment, writes Steve Street.

January 19, 2009

Everyone fears retrenchment during a recession, but the current recession also risks re- entrenching the abuse of contingent faculty members -- those working off the tenure track -- in American higher education.

This comes just as the issue has begun to receive serious attention. The American Association of University Professors devoted its November/DecemberAcademe to the issue and recently issued policies on extending academic-freedom guarantees beyond tenure. The American Federation of Teachers, whose Faculty and College Excellence (FACE) campaign puts contingency front and center, last month released the results of its commissioned study and recommendations under the title “Reversing the Course”; even non-academic media like U.S. News & World Report, which in November estimated nationwide salary inequity between contingent and tenure-line faculty at an average of $1,800/$8,000 per course, have sounded the alarm.

It’s the same bell that’s been ringing for the last three decades but with a new note of urgency, when contingents account for close to 70 percent of academic appointments instead of the 30 percent we did in 1975. But since December, contingents from CUNY to Missouri, from Utah to California State University, and no doubt at many unreported spots in between, have been receiving non-renewal notices or hearing rumors of same. We who have never had more than a contract term’s worth of security anyway now have even less time to await changes to the status quo, and some of us have no time left at all. The rest need a new approach, and the re-assessments and information-gathering at the national level just might offer two.

The Re-entrenchment Risk

The word in the state university system where I am is that during the last fiscal crisis, adjuncts were the first to go but also the first to be hired back piecemeal, likely trembling with gratitude, as funds were scrounged to cover courses one at a time. Some experts predict a similar pattern this year, as hiring freezes leave colleges unable to replace tenure-track professors who retire or leave, but bulging enrollments leave sections that need to be covered. Everything’s aggravated during a crisis, and this one illuminates the Janus aspect of contingents vis à vis their employers and many of their tenure-line peers: good enough in a pinch. As the Amherst Bulletin put it: “The number of part-time faculty is on the rise across higher education, as researchers warn that the plight of such teachers – who must split duties across campuses and jobs – can be bad for their institutions… In many cases, part-time faculty are tailor-made for rough economic times.”

That last is from an employer’s perspective, considering contingents’ low pay and easy potential termination. And the “Adjuncts hurt education!” hue-and-cry with which studies like Dan Jacoby’s and Audrey Jaeger’s about part-time faculty’s ostensible effects on retention and continuance are already being qualified by circumstantial assessments like this university president’s answer to a query by The Business Press about the “impact of proposed enrollment cuts … in terms of using part-time lecturers instead of full-time instructors”: “A quality … faculty can be achieved by supplementing properly credentialed full-time faculty members with adjunct professors who have earned master’s and Ph.D. degrees….”

Sounds grand. But for contingent employees, whether employed from semester to semester or in two- or three-year contracts, every appointment is basically a dead-end job, even when one or more can be strung semester to semester with a department chair’s wink and a prayer until the onset of a financial crisis like this one leads to the sudden non-renewal of hundreds and hundreds of contingent faculty members.

It's Bad. It's Nationwide (with apologies to ZZ Top, whose music was at least honest).

In its national scope, contingency is like the recession itself, with an added pernicious effect reflective of contingency’s other paradoxical qualities. Just as contingents are generally considered faculty when they’re needed but not when they cost (in defense of a for-profit school's decision to disinvite part-time faculty to its Christmas party when the stock market tanked: “While adjunct faculty are an important part of our university, they are not part of our full time faculty”), and just as a distinguished record of contingent service on a C.V. tends to be considered valid only for more contingent service (one chair felt perfectly comfortable actually distributing in written form her blanket policy, when lines in her department opened up, that she would write no recommendation letters for serving part-time faculty for the new jobs, only for applications elsewhere), the national scope of contingency is used as a justification for refusing to address it. I’ve heard decision-makers in two separate institutions cite this very truth with a straight face. “Why should we stop abusing our contingents?” goes this rationale. “Other schools are abusing their contingent faculty, big-time, all over the country!”

And so must the solution be big-time and nationwide. We academics haven’t even been able to come to an agreement about whether or not contingency is actually a problem, as can be confirmed by a brief look at the online responses to any given article or letter-to-an-editor that mentions the issue. See, for example, responses to a recent letter in The Akron Beacon-Journal in defense of contingents at the University of Akron, whose associate vice president for human resources and employee relations recently compared – unfavorably -- hiring practices in higher education to Wal-Mart’s. We haven’t been able to solve our own contingency problem because it’s economically based and economically proliferated: Many of us have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, some because of a legitimate fear of eroding tenure. But many contingents, too, are living so close to the edge that a course or two fewer, much less a supervisor or administrator who might interpret suggestions for better work conditions as ingratitude, are in the “Everything’s Fine!” school.

Complexity Is As Complexity Does, but Fair Is Fair

The many kinds of contingents, contingent working conditions, and reasons for their use constitute another reason the problem’s been so slow to be addressed. See online responses to letters as well as to articles on contingency for what you’ll soon recognize as the dreary treadmill of objections and diffusions on every assertion made on this issue, even as to what contingency actually is: a stepping-stone for career-starters? Occasional employment of industry professionals? A nonsensical labor practice that exploits the fresh and the willing, under-rewards expertise, depreciates experience, and discourages students?

Of course, contingency has all these characteristics, none of which justifies unequal pay for equal work -- or, to put a finer point on the complexities, widely disparate compensation for equivalent work. The pay gap is well established, even considering the hackneyed, if valid, objection that because of their other responsibilities tenure-line faculty’s salaries can’t be simply divided by the number of courses they teach. Fine -- but that still doesn’t mean everything’s fine. Conversion formulas exist; harder to quantify are the effects of lifetime employment guarantees vs. short contract terms, institutional support for professional development vs. none, a clear promotion progression vs. no title change ever, etc. – as well as, conversely, committee work vs. none, scholarly and creative requirements vs. none, etc.

All these considerations and more, varying further with subject matter and type of institution – not to mention contingents with incomes from another source, those who adjunct for kicks or altruism or an academic feather in their caps and might do it for nothing -- provide the discrepancies, loopholes, and exceptions that have allowed the obvious inequities in contingent academic labor to proliferate unnoticed, like mitosis of the hidden thimble, unicycle, birthday cake, and zebra in the altered version of a picture in a child’s magazine.

Contingents do equivalent work. Get over it. We plan lessons, we meet classes, we devise assignments, we read papers and provide feedback, we assign grades, we meet with students (a hotly debated assertion, I know, when we don’t have offices or paid office hours, but the vocation is one of giving, another reason we’re easy to abuse), and I’ve never heard of an adjunct who wouldn’t go out of his or her way to accommodate an earnest request for help; we e-mail our students in the evenings and on weekends (two paragraphs above, I interrupted this to reply to an e-mail between semesters).

It's true that most tenure-line professors' students might be aged 21-24 compared to contingents’ 18-21, and true too that the tenure stream requires work that the adjunct track does not, though in the establishment of equity it might. But in the meantime that’s why we have two words, equal and equivalent. Even a non-academic can make that distinction, and even a non-academic can see how either one contrasts with inequity.

And for all the reasons above, just as with the financial industry and the American auto industry, it’s going to take non-academics to bail us out, not with money but with laws to make our employers establish equivalency in pay, security, benefits, and opportunity for professional development, along with equivalent responsibilities from us. Think of it as arbitration.

E-Mail the Transition Team and Other Teams

Whether you’re a contingent or concerned about contingency from another perspective, this is the first thing you can do. If you’re a contingent concerned about complaining about contingency, it’s perfect: online, no one can hear you trying to rock the boat. Go to Note especially the “Open for Questions” link (under the BLOG tab, though it has a variable window: as of the date of this writing, “Round Two” is up, for who knows how long, probably at most 1/20); it has an “Education” category, and you can enter a comment there.

Also see “Your Story” under the AMERICAN MOMENT tab. Other options might apply: on New Year’s Day, an invitation to write about individual goals appeared. For some reason my own message (“I want to see higher-ed faculty equity addressed at the national level”) never made it, that I could find, but the process is not too tricky; you have to register with an e-mail address and a name, nickname or pseudonym. Spread the word. I don’t know who besides other posters will actually be reading these, but the more often we can strike a note, the more likelihood it’ll be heard. I suggest working in one of these phrases or some combination of these terms: “academic contingency,” “higher-ed faculty inequity,” “academic labor inequity,” “part-timer….” Then, as the link says, share your story.

And contact the Higher Education Act extension implementation strategy teams. Nominations to these are open through January 23. See Doug Lederman’s lucid coverage of this complicated call for public input in setting federal policy (“Fighting the Last War (and the Next One)?”); note the reference to a previous call for public input that was answered by 250 citizens nationwide who helped form federal educational policy. Four of the five teams to be appointed have purviews beyond the scope of contingency (unless a policy can be forged to make addressing contingency inequity a condition of receiving federal monies, perhaps), but Team V is a catchall, for “other issues.”

As of now, the list of proposed Team V topics ranges from scholarships to campus safety, without a single mention of contingency or faculty inequity. Let’s change that. If you know anyone with the qualifications listed there, the concern and willingness to address contingency in a substantial way at last before more contingent lives are interrupted or stymied, please nominate him or her.

And keep an eye out – here, in other academic publications, and through unions and contingent activists in your area – for details on actions you can take during a Campus Equity Month (not just a week, as in previous years, what with our new urgency) this semester, to be designed to call nationwide attention to the fact that contingents are the New Faculty Majority, with some 60 percent of appointments made off the tenure track.

In the meantime, at least go to and put in your two cents’ worth. I’ve never found very convincing the line kids use who come to your door with cookies and a dream of Disneyland, but I often pull out my wallet anyway, so I’ll try it now: Won’t you please help me meet my goal?


Since 1980, Steve Street has taught writing and literature in over a dozen American colleges and universities in four states and abroad, never on a tenure track. His writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Cimarron Review, Palabra, Exquisite Corpse, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Missouri Review. He currently teaches at Buffalo State College of the State University of New York.


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