“The End of Tenure? When Colleges Turn to Migrant Labor” -- New York Times editorial

Degrees of Shame compares adjunct faculty to migrant farmlaborers.

Mark Lehman: “If anybody finds out about it, they're shocked.”

Sarah Heath on the comparisons with migrant farm workers: “We're very poorly paid as adjunct professors. We do not, by and large, have access to health care. We tend to drive great distances, and work very, very long hours.”

Degrees of Shame:
Adjuncts and GAs organize

by Mike Budd

The scene is all too common, though probably invisible to many tenured and tenure-track faculty, not to mention people outside universities. It forms the opening of Barbara Wolf’s 1997 video, Degrees of Shame: Part-time Faculty: Migrant Workers of the Information Economy. In the tape, adjunct faculty members describe the degraded conditions under which they work. They are often hired at the last minute, even the day before classes start, on the phone, and many of them scramble to cobble together enough low-paying courses from several institutions within driving distance to barely make a living. The camera follows one adjunct as he commutes from one campus to the next, while in voice-over he describes his hectic daily routine and speaks of “the hopefully not-too-distant future” when he will find a tenure-track job and access to research grants.

Degrees of Shame compares part-time faculty to the migrant workers of Edward R. Murrow’s classic television documentary of 1960, Harvest of Shame, juxtaposing old black and white images of migrant workers, interviews in color with part-time faculty, and superimposed scrolling computer images of announcements for adjunct jobs. As one part-time faculty member puts it,

The comparisons are striking...We are very poorly paid, do not by and large have access to health care, except through a spouse, drive great distances and work long hours.

While careful to emphasize that these migrant faculty, often called “freeway flyers” because of their extensive commuting, are not as exploited as migrant manual laborers were and still are, Wolf and her faculty collaborators point to revealing parallels between the working poor and barely middle-class professors: they have low pay, no health or other benefits, no job security, inadequate or nonexistent office space, and they do piece work.

Though in thirty minutes Degrees of Shame has little time to probe the complex causes and implications of this situation, its comparison of those at the bottom of the economic ladder with supposedly elite professors powerfully demystifies academic labor and suggests the larger structural forces at work at all levels of a globalizing capitalist economy. The video’s strength lies in giving voice to exploited faculty workers, in evoking the experience of being a marginalized adjunct faculty member, and in articulating part-timers’ anger, frustration, and determination to change their situation.

The video takes us from a rapid description of the problem from those in the middle of it to the point where they are ready to act. An excellent organizing tool, it has been shown successfully at recent conferences of part-timers. Here I will contextualize the video, filling in what is missing. I will sketch the dimensions of the problem of contingent faculty and will explore its sources in large structural changes in higher education institutions and its connection to problems facing graduate assistants and tenure-track and tenured faculty. I will then conclude with ideas for organizing to combat these problems and a list of contacts and resources.1

Dimensions of a growing problem

There are now more than 1,100,000 higher education faculty and graduate assistants in the United States. From 1975 to 1993, all full-time faculty increased 25% to 545,706, tenured faculty increased 23% to 279,424, and graduate assistants increased 27% to 202,819. But part-time faculty increased 97% to 369,768, while full-time, non-tenure-track faculty increased increased 88% to 152,004.2

Full-time, non-tenure-track faculty include lecturers, instructors, and visiting professors. Significantly, their working conditions often resemble those of part-time faculty. In fact, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) suggests that many of them are the same people: “Their appointments may vary from full-time to part-time from semester to semester or year to year, depending on fluctuations in funding and enrollment.”3

To assess the working conditions of U.S. faculty and graduate assistants, we must combine the categories of part-time and full-time non-tenure-track faculty, who now constitute over 500,000 in number, at least 47% of the total.4 This percentage has been growing since the 60s. If we combine non-tenure-track faculty with graduate assistants, it becomes apparent that at more and more U.S. colleges and universities, at least half the courses – and often virtually all of the lower-division courses – are taught by these contingent faculty.

Now adjuncts, lecturers, and graduate teaching assistants often teach as well as tenured or tenure-track faculty.5 But the point is that tenured and tenure-track professors, the only faculty with (mostly) adequate pay, research support, health and other benefits, some job security, and accompanying academic freedom, are being steadily replaced by faculty who have far worse working conditions.

A final statistic make this clear. Despite the increases in all categories cited above, and a 43% increase in the total number of faculty and graduate assistants, untenured tenure-track faculty actually decreased by 9%, to 114,278, from 1975 to 1993.6 In this 18-year period, in a growing higher-education system, about 12,000 job opportunities for new, untenured faculty disappeared. At the same time, the system generated approximately 182,000 new part-time positions and 71,000 new full-time non-tenure-track positions, for a total of more than 253,000 new non-tenure-track positions.7 These numbers suggest that tenured faculty not only comprise a dwindling percentage of the instructional staff, but this group will likely begin soon to dwindle in absolute numbers as well. The situation has certainly not improved during the 90s, with an overproduction of PhDs and other factors leading to a desperate faculty job market in many fields, but especially in the humanities. In 1996-97, according to a Modern Languages Association survey, 33.7% of new PhDs in English found tenure-track positions, compared to 45.9% in 1993-94.8

We see a clear and pervasive pattern: Administrators hire part-time faculty at the last minute to cover enrollment increases with added courses; they also, under short- or long-term financial pressures, effectively convert relatively expensive tenure-track positions into cheap, fungible, and exploitable non-tenure-track positions in the name of “flexibility.” Adjunct positions pay much less than a tenure-track faculty member would receive for teaching the same course. The amount per 3-credit course varies from less than $1000 to more than $5000, but the norm seems to be around $1500 to $2000.9 So by hiring several part-time faculty for the salary and benefits cost of one tenure-track faculty member, chairs and deans multiply the number of courses and student credit hours generated, thereby keeping their bosses happy and responding to student demand. The incentives are so great and the logic so inescapable that even administrators who object to the practice find themselves forced into it.

In many cases these non-tenure-track jobs, mostly part-time, and the people in them continue indefinitely, becoming part of the institutional employment structure.10 Thus grows an “invisible faculty” of second- and third-class academic citizens, many seeking tenure-track jobs but unable to find them, teaching as many as 18 courses in a year at different schools.11 This burgeoning faculty underclass is composed disproportionately of women, who “constitute about 42% of the part-time faculty compared to 27% of full-time faculty.”12 In addition to the exploitation of non-tenure-track faculty, the declining percentage of tenure-track faculty creates other problems. Some tenure-track faculty ignore, are embarrassed by, or look down on underemployed colleagues, identifying the part-timers with those many unsuccessful candidates they beat out in the tough competition for a tenure-track job.

Although “there’s a constant temptation to avoid working hard because you’re simply participating in your own exploitation,” according to New York part-timer Patrick Young,13 even the most overworked adjuncts usually demonstrate professionalism and high standards. It’s not the victims we should blame here, but a complex of social and economic forces. It’s seldom the direct quality of classroom teaching that suffers when tenure-track faculty are replaced with part-timers. It’s the fragile and all-important institutional continuity and identity emerging from the everyday matrix of teaching, research, advising, office conferences, and shared governance. All these can only be constituted by the working practices of secure and independent faculty as academic citizens.

Advising, governance, and service loads increase for tenure-track faculty as the work becomes divided among a smaller number of people. Excessive reliance on part-time faculty produces more isolated and atomized faculty and students. A dynamic, cohesive college or university requires faculty with the time and resources to keep their teaching and research current, to generate as well as disseminate knowledge, to create an institutional whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The first big wave of part-time hiring took place between 1972 and 1977 during the first major budget crisis for the contemporary higher-education system. When the 60s seller’s market became the 70s buyer’s market, a reserve army of un- and underemployed professors began to form. At the same time, performance expectations for tenure-track hiring, promotion, and tenure started to rise. Administrators and faculty committees had always paid lip service to good teaching, but now quantified student evaluations became mandatory, and good teaching as defined by student evaluations became more often necessary for success. More important, second- and third-rank colleges and universities began to expect junior faculty to publish, sometimes while teaching 6 or 8 courses a year.14 While these higher expectations have, on balance, probably improved both teaching and research, they have, especially in combination with the rise in part-time and non-tenure-track faculty, helped erode faculty participation in institutional governance.

The professionalization of both faculty and administrators since the 70s and the greater separation of their roles have put more and more decision-making power in the hands of administrators unaccountable to faculty, often by default. Incentives for tenured and tenure-track faculty to publish and not to do committee work (service) tend to diminish their commitment to a democratic workplace; at the same time that such service and committee work is shared among a diminishing proportion of all faculty. It is not only part-time faculty who are increasingly treated as employees rather than stakeholders in the institution; and when faculty complain about committees and meetings, they might consider the potential for workplace democracy in faculty governance, to be lost if it isn’t used. Beyond the quality of the participation of tenure-track faculty, though, the basic conditions for faculty governance become impossible when half the faculty cannot participate because they are casualized, semester-to-semester employees. And the health of faculty governance is not a high priority among top administrators, to whom assertive or inquisitive faculty committees often seem an annoyance.

Finally, the overuse of non-tenure-track faculty erodes the tenure system and thus academic freedom. Those who attack tenure directly, prompted by neoliberal economics and conservative attacks on tenured radicals, have lost most of the battles, but as I have shown they are winning the war. Despite administrative assurances that tenure is redundant because employment law provides similar protections, without tenure you must fight to get your job back after you’re fired. And non-tenure-track faculty essentially get fired and rehired every semester or year; their lack of even the possibility of tenure cannot help but generate timidity and conformity. But only by looking at the stratifications of the academic workforce can we understand tenure’s context and the faulty premises behind the attacks on it.


The problems described above are not evenly distributed throughout U.S. higher education today. They are concentrated in the lower strata of a system in which, as elsewhere, the rich are getting richer and most of the poor, working and middle classes are getting poorer or just holding on. In addition, part-time and full-time non-tenure-track faculty are themselves quite heterogeneous and subject to complex hierarchies.

At the bottom of the higher-education hierarchy are the community colleges with some 40% of the students and 32% of the faculty.15 The biggest growth in higher education has come here, mostly in vocational programs. Significantly, most of these institutions are built on part-time appointments, which constituted some 65% of their faculty jobs in 1993.16 Some community colleges in Vermont have 100% part-timers, and several in California come close; here, a core of administrators and sometimes a few faculty as managers function as the only full-time academic staff. The ratio of students to full-time faculty at two-year colleges is 52:1 while the overall student-faculty ratio is 19:1.17 Although community-college faculty have become perhaps the best-organized of the faculty workforce, as with most four-year schools their bargaining units seldom include part-time faculty.

For four-year schools, the more important research becomes to the schools’ mission, the less it depends on part-time faculty. The school’s research emphasis comes with doctoral programs employing large numbers of graduate assistants. Part-time faculty comprise 30% at comprehensive universities, 24% at doctoral granting institutions, and 16% at research universities.18 (Graduate assistants often face exploitation, too, and I will return to them.) The public four-year schools, mostly large state colleges and universities, enroll 42% of all students. Their ratio of students to full-time faculty is 21:1 while their overall student-faculty ratio 16:1. Of the private colleges and universities that enroll the remaining 18% of students, only the elite liberal arts colleges and research universities have small numbers of part-time faculty.19 So the excessive use of part-time and non-tenure-track faculty, concentrated largely in community colleges and non-elite public colleges and universities, contributes to a widening class divide in educational opportunities and a negative redistribution of academic resources. This occurs not because of any deficiencies among the faculty themselves, but because of the degradation of the work environment accompanying the casualization and fragmentation of the faculty work force.

But what is excessive use of part-time and non-tenure-track faculty? Such faculty teach for a variety of reasons. Many are not seeking tenure-track jobs. Judith M. Gappa and David W. Leslie, who adopt a largely administrative-managerial approach, find four types of part-time faculty. “Specialists, experts and professionals” are the group for whom the category of adjunct professor was legitimately invented, since they usually bring specialized and applied knowledge to the classroom; universities cannot ordinarily afford to hire a full-time faculty member in such fields. They generally maintain full-time careers elsewhere and teach because they enjoy it. Likewise “career-enders” are at or near retirement, not usually from faculty jobs, and “freelancers” combine several kinds of jobs, only one of which is part-time teaching. “Aspiring academics,” on the other hand, mostly seek tenure-track positions but cannot find them.20 While Gappa and Leslie minimize the problem, estimating that the latter category includes only a small proportion of part-time faculty, their own and other studies show that almost 50% of part-timers seek full-time faculty employment.21

Considering that part-time faculty now total around 400,000, we can estimate the number of underemployed part-timers at around 200,000. This fastest-growing category of faculty, though it includes some without terminal degrees, does not include others with doctorates who have given up looking for academic jobs. Thus it indicates a rising un- and underemployment rate of at least 10 to 20%. Since this situation has worsened steadily for nearly 30 years, it is no longer temporary but structural; it is at least a semi-permanent part of the institutional system.


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