Collections: Academic Ranks Explained Or What On Earth Is an Adjunct?

This week we’re going to take a detour into understanding the structure of academia, in particular the different kinds of ‘professors’ and their academic ranks in the American system, with a particular focus on ‘non-tenure track’ faculty (which is to say, as we’ll see, ‘most teaching faculty.’) This is intended as the first in a series of posts mixed into the normal diet over the next few months looking at the structure of the modern American university from the inside. The fact is that while quite a lot of people go to college, few students acquire much of any sense of how their college or university is structured, and so there is a tendency for a lot of folks to believe they know how academia works who don’t, in the same way that most people who eat at fast food restaurants cannot, in fact, operate their kitchens.

My own experience of course has been as a student, then a graduate student (worker), then as adjunct faculty at three different Big State Universities. Less so in this post, but more so in later posts I’ll also be drawing on the experiences of my better half a bit, as she’s been an administrative staff member for several academic departments and one research program across two Big State Universities and so has a lot of visibility into the bureaucratic structures involved. As you might guess with that background, I am going to be particularly focused on Big State Universities, but I actually think that is good – compared to the Ivies or Small Liberal Arts Colleges, Big State Universities make up the largest single chunk of 4-year-degree institutions and indeed grant a simple majority of 4-year degrees, so the Big State University is by raw dint of numbers both the median and modal higher education experience for folks who achieve a four year degree.

We are in particular going to focus on non-tenure track (NTT) faculty for two reasons. First, because while NTT make up the simple majority of student-facing teaching faculty, universities go to considerable length to obscure this fact leaving many students incorrectly assuming their professors are largely tenure-track when at many institutions they may not be. And second because I’m a NTT faculty member (who, like most NTT, would like to be on the tenure track for reasons which will become obvious below) and I wanted to explain all of this in one permanent place in part so I can point back to it, in particular because while NTT faculty members are the most common they are also the least understood by the public. But we’ll still talk a little bit about the tenured ranks too.

And as always, if you want to support my public writing on historical topics, you can help both by sharing what I write (for I rely on word of mouth for my audience) and by supporting me on Patreon. This blog is reader supported; for reasons that will become clear when we come to talk about adjuncts, I receive no research or writing support from the universities I teach for and so this project serves to fund both my public writing (here and elsewhere) and my research work as well. If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings, assuming there is still a Twitter by the time this post goes live.

From the Bibliothèque nationale de France, an illustrated page from the Chants royaux sur la Conception, couronnés au puy de Rouen de 1519 à 1528, folio 27v, showing the faculty of the University of Paris. While we won’t go deeply into the history of the university here, it is a good reminder that the university began as a collection of scholars, it was a college in the sense of a gathering of colleagues. As we will see, the present changes in the structure of academic positions has corroded this sense of the university.

The Structure of a University

We need to start by outlining the structure of the university and all of its employees. Universities are very big. Even many small liberal arts colleges will have several hundred (if not many hundreds) of employees and large state universities have thousands; UNC-Chapel Hill has 19,743 undergraduates and 12,961 total staff members, for instance. I should note that while there are many small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) in the USA, the enormous size of large, public R1s1 means that collectively they make up more than half of the US university system by both faculty and students, so this is a case in which the big schools have become typical because they are so big to swamp everything else. That said, smaller institutions matter and what I am going to say here should apply broadly; I will note where conditions differ for different kinds of institutions.

So let’s start dividing all of those employees down so we know what we’re dealing with. We can start by splitting the university into faculty and staff (with student-workers as a third group we’ll not discuss this week); faculty teach and do research whereas staff are all of the supporting administrators and workers that make the university function. We’re not going to talk much about staff, but briefly we can divide them quickly into four big groups: leadership (chancellors, deans, and assistant deans of various kinds; of old these used to be professors pulled into leadership temporarily but these days these are professional managers),2 department staff (who work within academic departments handling the scheduling, paperwork and other essential support services), university staff (who staff the university-wide bureaucracies like the registrar or bursar) and finally what I’ll call – somewhat imprecisely – facilities staff (a wide category covering all of the folks who do a lot of the physical work that keeps a university running; repair, grounds-keeping, janitorial tasks, running dining areas, etc. etc.). All of these people are important, but this week’s post isn’t about them; I break them up here so that when I do mention them, you understand who I mean.

Faculty are divided as well into two large groups: tenure track and non-tenure track. Tenure-track jobs are what most people are familiar with, at least in a vague way. The tenure track was supposed to be (and pre-aughts, was) the ‘standard’ career path for an academic at a university. That’s the system everyone knows, if they know a system. But another system was made.3 And that brings us to non-tenure track positions, both permanent and temporary, full-time and (fake) part-time (which are often actually full time), which will consume most of this post. We’re going to break these up primarily between full-time non-tenured or teaching track positions and notionally ‘part time’ or adjunct appointments, but there are a few other types thrown in there. Crucially, this other system makes up the majority of university teachers, around 67% and rising.

Breakdown of faculty positions by type across all institutions of higher learning in the United States, via the AAUP.

On the Tenure Track

But before we dive into the range of non-tenure track positions which make up the majority of college professors today, we should talk about the tenure track because, again, this is how the system is supposed to work and also generally how the public imagines the system does work (even though it really doesn’t anymore). So let’s first look at that, how the system is supposed to work.

A tenure-track position begins with a national (or international) search and a fairly long hiring process (form job-posting to job-offer usually takes around 6-8 months). A newly hired professor is an assistant professor, which means they are on the tenure track but do not yet have tenure. Instead, after about five to six years, they’ll go up for tenure review, where a committee of faculty int heir department along with some external reviewers will look at all of the work the professor has done since their appointment and either recommend them for tenure or not; the university leadership structure typically has a role in confirming a grant of tenure but this is generally a rubber-stamp role. By far the most important part of tenure review at large universities is research; this is the part of the system that is ‘publish or perish.’4 Untenured tenure-track faculty (so, assistant professors) represent roughly 9% of all faculty members in the United States, according to the AAUP.

A professor that passes tenure review becomes an associate professor, which confers tenure (making it difficult to fire them) as well as a bump in pay. After another few years, they can go up for review again for promotion to the next rank, simply professor (often termed ‘full professor’ for clarity), which comes with another bump in pay. This second transition is different from the first though; whereas the review from assistant to associate professor is an ‘up or out’ moment (you either get tenure and stay or get rejected for tenure and leave the department), some professors can and do remain associate professors forever. Finally, a handful of professors who really distinguish themselves may wind up with an endowed chair and we tend to call these folks distinguished professors, though their actual job title will usually be something like “the so-and-so Professor/Chair of this-and-that” where the ‘so-and-so’ is the name of the donor that endowed the money being used for the distinguished professorship. Tenured professors represent roughly 24% of all university professors according to the AAUP, meaning that the total slice of tenured or tenure-eligable professors in higher education is just 33% – one third.

Let me say that again: only one third of all faculty work the way all of you think all faculty works. Just one third. This is a big part of what I mean when I say that the United States’ university system is being pillaged without the public knowing; if you told most people ‘only one third of college instructors are actually professors, most of your little Johnny’s classes are taught by non-professors now,’ they’d be shocked! But that’s the current situation.5

Tenure-track professors generally teach a fixed course-load, expressed in most cases as a load over semesters, so a “2/2” (pronounced ‘two-two’) load is four courses a year (two in each semester). Tenure-track faculties at research-focused universities (which are all of the flagship state schools) generally teach a 2/2 load; mixed research/teaching schools (your third-string state schools and less well-funded private schools) often have 3/3 loads. Teaching-focused institutions may have 4/4 or 5/5 teaching loads (or more) and of course fractional loads (like a 2/3 etc.) do exist, but are less common.

In addition to teaching, tenure-track faculty are expected to publish research and do ‘service.’ We’ll talk in another post more about these demands (indeed, we’ve talked about research already), but they deserve a few words here. The amount of research demanded varies by the level of institution; at an R1 the general expectation for a faculty member going for tenure in a humanities department is that their book is out6 and they have a good number of articles and other publications besides. At less research-focused universities, you might see instead that tenure is set at a certain number of articles and the book is instead at the jump to full professor.

Meanwhile ‘service’ refers to all of the non-teaching roles faculty fill in a department. The university is predicated on self-governing departments of academics (‘colleges’ in the literal sense of an association of colleagues) and so departments are effectively run by committees and faculty appointed to do various key roles: student advising, graduate admissions committees, hiring committees, committees on teaching, and of course department chair (and possibly vice or assistant chairs) who steers the department. Of course faculty are assisted in those roles by the department staff who handle much of the paperwork, compliance and book-keeping. Some, but by no means all, of these service jobs come with a ‘course release’ which is to say the faculty member teaches less in order to do the extra service, but there is an expectation of a certain amount of service work always being part of the workload mix.7

Finally, the more important service positions are often restricted to either associate or full professors – you have to get tenure first before you get a particularly loud voice in the running of the department. Nevertheless, even assistant professors are going to be ‘in the room’ when decisions about courses, resource allocation, scheduling, and so on are made, which matters quite a lot. Moreover, because even assistant professors are expected to become permanent members of the department, their interests tend to be considered because, well, frankly, the tenured professors have to live with them for the next few decades, so you might as well be friends. This fact is really important for understanding why departments can be so callous to anyone not on the tenure-track (and why tenure-track faculty can be so oblivious to how callous they are being), because NTT faculty are usually not in the room when decisions are made.

Which brings us to:

On the Teaching Track

We should start our look at the range of NTT teaching positions by again breaking these down into categories. Unlike the tenure-track, where there is a clear progression of positions each with a standard title, NTT positions are a confused jumble, often by design, with very different positions often sharing job titles. A ‘teaching assistant professor,’ for instance, may well be a permanent member of the department, or someone on a five-year non-renewable appointment, or someone around for just a single semester, paid by-the-course as an ‘outside’ contractor. One is left to strongly suspect in many cases that this confusion is intentional, with universities and departments using job titles as a means to obfuscate just how much of their teachers are not permanent faculty (note, for instance that almost no one advertises jobs with the word ‘adjunct’ in the job title anymore).

So instead I want to break down these positions by conditions of employment. On that basis, we can break down appointments into four basic types. There are permanent, salaried non-tenured full-time teaching positions which we’ll call teaching track faculty. Then there are non-permanent but full-time long-term non-renewable versions of these positions which we’ll call visiting assistant professors or VAPs (though the terminology around them is variable). Next there is the rarest bird in this category, professors of practice, where a professional in a field also teaches that field part time for a university. Finally, there are short-term ‘part-time’ positions, which we’ll refer to as adjunct appointments.

We can start our look at non-tenure track professors with professors of practice, generally the rarest sort of NTT faculty and also the one that universities would like to talk about the most. A professorship of practice is generally a non-tenure-track appointment created for individuals successful in the non-academic field so that they can teach in in that field (often despite lacking the normally required degree, like a PhD). So for instance, a civil engineer might also teach part time as a professor of practice or do so after retirement. As the American Association of University Professors notes, professors of practice are the most likely of all NTT professors to have terms of employment (pay, benefits, teaching load) which approximate the conditions of tenure-track faculty (but without tenure or generally a strong or meaningful voice in the running of their department). In particular, professors of practice often have long-term contracts (say, 5-years) which are presumptively renewable, in contrast to much shorter term contracts for most other sorts of NTT faculty.

That said, the big thing to know about these sorts of faculty is that while universities love to present the typical adjunct as this sort of thing, the practicing dentist teaching a course or two on the side at the local dental school, in practice they are a tiny minority of professors, probably much less than 10% in fields where they are common and almost entirely absent in many fields (like history, for instance).

Substantially more common are effectively permanent ‘teaching track’ (also sometimes called ‘professional’ track) faculty. Because a common title for these positions is teaching assistant professor they are sometimes collectively called ‘TAPs’ (matching the VAPs below). Teaching track faculty generally aren’t eligible for tenure, generally get paid less than their tenure-track faculty (but are paid on a full time, salaried basis, separating them from adjuncts; at some institutions they come quite close to salaries of tenure-track faculty, at others they might be paid around half as much), generally teach more courses and typically do not play a meaningful role in the governance of their department (since those roles are largely reserved for tenured or at least tenure-line faculty), though they may be expected to do some kind of departmental service. Unlike professors of practice, teaching track faculty today almost always have PhDs in their field; the days in which this sort of appointment could be obtained by someone with an MA are effectively over (and indeed, have been for about two decades). The thing that defines these positions collectively is that they are full-time but non-tenure-track.

These positions often go by a bewildering set of names. Perhaps the most common is to take the traditional assistant/associate/full professor ladder and attach the word ‘teaching’ to the front of them to make ‘teaching assistant/associate/full professor,’ but as that phrasing has become more common, it also gets used to paper over what are clearly adjunct appointments. Likewise, teaching assistant professors are sometimes ‘disguised’ as professors of practice in their job titles (leading to the curiosity of ‘professors of practice’ whose ‘practice’ is ‘having a PhD in their field and a traditional academic background).

I should note, because I’ve seen students (and regular people) befuddled by this before, but when I say that teaching track faculty are not eligible for tenure, I really mean not eligible under effectively any circumstances. Because tenure-track searches are functionally always external and because it is (and this is going to be a trend) extremely rare to consider internal candidates seriously in those searches, a teaching track faculty member’s contribution to a department isn’t going to matter because that department is extremely unlikely to consider them for a TT hire. This is compounded by the fact that at large universities the culture of the tenure track faculty strongly holds that tenure-line decisions are based on research and not on teaching, so even for another department, achievements in teaching are unlikely to matter very much. Consequently, there is functionally nothing a teaching track faculty member can do within the scope of their actual job duties to try to move from one track to the other. Indeed, even spectacular performance, things like winning the student-voted best teacher award three years out of four, for the entire university, won’t do it. I have never once ever heard of a department hiring a teaching-track faculty member to the tenure track for any reason, from teaching to scholarly excellence. I’m sure it has happened somewhere, when the planets were aligned under a blue moon, but it is rare in the sense of ‘most departments will never do this once.’

And we should also note here visiting assistant professorships, also known as VAPs. In practice, VAPs generally work like a time-limited form of a teaching-track appointment in terms of the conditions of employment, but they are often held by early career scholars who are still on the job market, whereas faculty with permanent teaching track appointments have often exited the job market and intend to stay long-term where they are.

Once again, the terminology here is tricky; what I mean by VAPs in this category are term-limited, full-time appointments (so, say, ‘full time for two/three/five years without an expectation of renewal,’ though some VAPs might be renewed). On the one hand, many positions with VAP as the job title are actually adjunct positions (discussed below). On the other hand it is also frequent in the humanities for many post-docs (‘postdoctoral research fellow/associate’) to actually be VAPs in disguise. You can tell because the idea of a post-doc is that it is supposed to involve relatively little teaching and lots of research, which is why the word ‘research’ is in the full name, but it is now common to see ‘post-docs’ that involve full (2/2 or 3/3) teaching loads, at which point they’re hardly post-docs; they are just VAPs with a fancy name. Meanwhile I have also seen a trend for second-tier institutions (which may or may not be phasing out tenure) to ‘trim’ the ‘V’ off of a VAP, calling it an ‘assistant professorship’ – a lie exposed as soon as you see ‘non-tenure track’ or ‘non-renewable’ (or both) in the job posting.

Note that actual post-doctoral research fellowships are far, far more common in the STEM fields than in the humanities. We’re not going to deal much with that system here, but in brief, in many STEM fields, time as a post-doc researcher is effectively required before one can get on the tenure-track. Post-docs of this sort thus in theory are a kind of apprenticeship system, although my understanding is that the expectation here is that this ‘apprentice’ stage involves a lot of winnowing and burn out. By contrast in the humanities actual research post-docs mostly serve as gilded lily-pads for PhD students coming out of elite institutions, enabling them to burnish their CV while staying on the job market;8 there aren’t anything close to enough of these sorts of post-docs – indeed, even if one includes ‘teaching’ post-docs, there are not enough – in the humanities for a meaningful fraction of even PhDs of the top ten programs to go through one. Such post-docs in the humanities are actually more selective than tenure-track jobs (and indeed, I have come far closer to landing the latter than I have ever come to being even seriously considered for the former).

So to recap, you have permanent full-time teaching appointments (teaching track) and temporary full-time teaching appointments (VAPs), along with professors of practice, making up the normal full-time non-tenure-track appointments. Collectively, these full time non-tenure-track positions make up about 20% of all faculty appointments and their percentage has been rising over time. In particular these kinds of appointments tend to be common at the top-tier of universities: R1 (top-level research) universities are generally 50% tenure-track, 23% non-tenure-track and 27% adjunct, whereas colleges and universities offering only master’s degrees (so we’re moving down the university funding ladder) are 32% tenure-track, 15% non-tenure-track and 54% adjunct, while colleges that only offer associates degrees are 18% tenure-track, 17% non-tenure-track and 65% adjunct. As you can see, as one marches down the university prestige ladder, both tenure-track and teaching-track fade to an ever larger and larger share of adjuncts.

Data from the AAUP, numbers don’t all add up to 100 because they rounded. If you are wondering why baccalaureate colleges seem to buck the trend, it is because there are a lot of small, well-funded private schools (SLACs) in that category which sit much closer to the R1/R2s in prestige and thus have similar hiring.

And all of that at last leads us to:


It is by this point quite rare, actually, for most universities to include the word ‘adjunct’ in a job title; it used to be much more common. But as the adjunctification of academia became a real and visible problem, universities have responded not by addressing the problem, but by disguising it. Consequently adjunct appointments have a bewildering array of names and titles which in practice in my experience make functionally no different in terms of the kind of appointment.

So for our purposes, an adjunct appointment is a ‘part time’ limited term teaching appointment. In particular what makes adjunct appointments different is that adjuncts teach on short-term contracts which pay them per-course taught, like an outside contractor, rather than a salary. This arrangement is convenient for universities because it means adjuncts do not need to be fired, they can merely be not-renewed, a point that came up in the recent Hamline controversy. It is also convenient for departments because it allows them to trim their adjunct work force as necessary to the particular teaching needs of the moment. In this sense, the adjunctification of higher education is effectively the gig economy, applied to university professors.

Because hiring lots of adjuncts is a practice already in ill-repute, the tendency is to disguise these positions in terms of job title. While ‘adjunct instructor/lecturer/professor’ used to be the common titles, today they are increasingly rare. Instead in my own experience I’ve seen what are clearly adjunct positions described as ‘instructor,’ ‘visiting instructor,’ ‘visiting lecturer,’ ‘teaching assistant professor,’ ‘professor-in-residence,’ ‘visiting assistant professor’9 and even some ‘post-doctoral fellows.’ Those titles allow universities to hide their adjuncts among their actual VAPs, TAPs and post-docs

The working conditions for nearly all adjuncts are shamefully bad, which is why universities and departments go to such lengths to disguise the nature of those appointments. While all non-tenure-track academics have limited job security, adjuncts have effectively none, since they need to negotiate new contracts every semester or every academic year. This job security question is an important one because academics are, of course, supposed to talk about difficult subjects and say difficult things; one is left with the strong sense that university leadership prefers adjuncts because they lack the sort of protections that make academic freedom work.

At the same time, adjuncts are paid awfully. As noted, adjuncts aren’t paid a salary but rather contracted on a per-course basis – they are effectively freelancers (and if you are thinking ‘freelance teacher’ sounds like a terrible idea, well, it is) – and the per-course payments are typically extremely low. The average per-course pay is around $3,556, though that conceals a lot of variation, with some adjuncts paid closer to $8-10,000 and many, many more paid less than $2,000 per course offered. At a 2/2 load, an adjunct being paid that way would be paid a total of $14,224 per year, without benefits, compared to a tenure-track professor who might be paid $60-75,000 (in the humanities, more in STEM or business) with benefits to teach the same amount.

Now I want to note something, which is that these appointments are often ‘part time’ in name only. Most universities carefully calculate FTE so that an adjunct can teach as much as their regular faculty while still remaining under the 0.75FTE legal standard for ‘full time.’10 In practice, many adjuncts are thus forced to string together multiple different adjunct appointments, or appointments with extremely heavy teaching loads, with each university using the ‘part time’ nature of the work as an excuse not to offer things like family leave or health benefits which would be required by law if an adjunct was a ‘full time’ employee. The result is a system which encourages adjuncts to invest as little time as possible into each class they teach (with deleterious effects to the quality of education), while at the same time relentlessly burning them out. It’s an awful system for student and teacher alike.

Now you may ask why anyone would take a job like that with poor pay (for a job that requires a PhD!), no job security and no benefits. And of course the answer is ‘because they have no other choice;’ leaving academia, even temporarily for a non-academic job is generally a career death sentence, so as the academic job market contracts, it creates a supply of adjuncts looking to stay in the game. That said those adjuncts are looking to stay in the game for hiring at other institutions; just as no department hires their own teaching track faculty for tenure track positions, it is vanishingly rare for any department to hire their own adjuncts for the permanent, tenure-track version of that adjunct’s position. Indeed, while I know several colleagues who have been (verbally) promised this 11 by a department, I do not know anyone who has ever been hired this way.

The proliferation of adjunct instructors is, however, clearly bad for higher education. The higher education model is predicated on the notion of the scholar-teacher who is engaged in at least some level of research (the amount varies by institution, from research heavy R1s to teaching heavy SLACs and community colleges) and teaching on the premise – correct, I would argue – that those two tasks enrich each other. Teaching a topic stimulates research thoughts on it, while a research agenda keeps the teacher up to date and current on the state of knowledge in a field. But an adjunct instructor is not paid to do any research and may well not have the time to do so.

(A convenient time to remind you all that my writing both here and also my research writing, is paid for by…you, dear reader, should you opt to support me on Patreon.)

Moreover, most adjuncts in order to make ends meet have to stack multiple heavy course-loads due to the shamefully low pay they receive, and so while many adjuncts are dedicated teachers they are rarely able to give each class the time it needs. That is compounded by the fact that the short-term nature of adjuncts means they have little freedom in what they teach, since getting a new course ‘on the book’ takes time and is thus impossible for an adjunct with short-term appointments. I have been repeatedly asked by students when I would teach a course on Greek or Roman warfare and the answer is ‘never’ despite tremendous student demand because I am never in an appointment long enough to propose and get approval for the course to be on the catalog, as opposed to tenure-track faculty who generally have far, far greater freedom to shape their course offerings.

Consequently, adjunctification is a blight on academia, reducing the quality of research and teaching our universities produce, degrading the student experience and betraying the fundamental reason why the public funds these institutions in the first place. So it will be no surprise that it is a growing phenomenon. In 1985, TT-faculty made up a simple majority – 53% – of all faculty appointments, while adjuncts made up only 33%, with that 33% frequently consisting of instructors without PhDs or PhDs quickly transitioning to tenure-line jobs. Today, TT-faculty make up just 33% of all faculty, while adjuncts make up 48%. Adjuncts are by far the most common type of university ‘professor,’ more than doubling the next largest category (tenured professors at 24%).

As noted above, the slice of the faculty that are adjuncts varies by type of institution, from around 30-40% at PhD-granting institutions to above 60% at associate’s colleges. But the fact is, even departments at top-tier R1 publics often rely on adjuncts to fill teaching gaps which should and in the past would have been filled by a tenure-track hire.


So to recap, there are three major types of faculty: tenure-line faculty (including tenured and tenure-track faculty), permanent ‘teaching track’ non-tenured faculty and adjuncts. Of these, the size of the last group has absolutely exploded. The job of ‘professor’ as the public imagines it, has functionally ceased to exist in much of higher education, and where it survives, it is ailing. One thing to note in the chart above is how tenured academics also far outnumber tenure-track academics, as universities cut new tenure hires (replacing them with adjuncts) and just wait for the last tenured professors to retire.

There are some (all too) easy implications folks tend to want to take form this information which I think we first need to dispel. The first of these is that the hiring situation in academia is the result of ‘elite overproduction.’ What I hope you can see in the data above is that it isn’t that the demand for higher education teaching has gone away, but rather than the conditions under which it is done are changing. University leadership have exploited the creation of an academic caste system to create a class of academic serf, allowing them to redirect funding (and spiraling tuition money), often towards their own pet projects. But the total number of teachers you need at this level is not declining. This is not ‘elite overproduction’ but the gig economy run amok in a work environment that used to work much better for both teachers and students (and now works well primarily for university trustees and chancellors).

Second, this is not – or at least has not in the past been – a red-team/blue-team issue. Adjunctificaiton does not, in my own experience and discussions with colleagues, seem to vary meaningfully between red states and blue states. Blue states have been aggressive in cutting public higher education funding just as much as red states and continue to do so. Without a doubt, the assault on tenure in Florida and Texas will make this problem worse but only worse by a degree, which is itself a dreadful statement on the state of academia.

But there are some important implications to talk about here which also speak to the question of ‘what is to be done?’

The first thing to note is that the rise of the adjunctified labor market has served to fairly obviously weaken the positions and protections of the shrinking tenured minority. One reason entire states are now thinking of abolishing tenure (in order to sustain a politically motivated assault on their own higher education systems) is because they know given the shape of the job market nationally that replacing tenured professors with adjuncts or teaching-track faculty will be easy and cheap. Consequently, the scourge of adjunctification negatively impacts the tenured and tenure-track of our disciplines as well.

However, by and large the tenured and tenure-track members of most disciplines, including mine are complicit in the system of adjunctification, despite vocally despising it. This is not a statement I enjoy writing, but I think it is unfortunately true. The issue here is the one thing that the TT-faculty still control in all of this, which is who gets hired, particularly for tenure-line jobs. Remember, hiring is done by a committee of faculty members in a department! One response to adjunctification would have been to cling to solidarity within the field, insisting that adjuncts ought to get full consideration for tenure-line jobs (both in their departments and in other departments), that tenured academics should of course support labor actions by NTT-faculty, and that departments should, as much as possible, refuse to rely on adjunct labor and instead at least insist on hiring permanent teaching-track faculty (and then be willing to tenure-line appoint them if they excel).

At least in my fields (Classics and History) departments have done effectively none of this. Instead, the norm remains a caste system: some lucky PhDs receive tenure-track jobs almost immediately on graduation and never spend any time in the adjunct/teaching-track treadmill, while other, equally capable, academics who miss those early hires are left in an academic underclass where the very fact that they have to work as adjunct or teaching-track makes their own departments as well as others unwilling to give them fair consideration for permanent, tenure-track appointments. And of course no department says they’re doing this, but how else does one explain a hiring system where experience manifestly hurts applicants, as you can see here:

Chart of hires by time from PhD via the AHA jobs report. Note that this chart was generated for 2021, a year in which the placement rate for graduates was well under 30%, so we may be absolutely certain that there are many highly qualified candidates two, three or four years (and more) out from their PhD.

That caste system, whereby one is either anointed a Brahmin or condemned to live a Shudra at academic ‘birth,’ in turn makes it very easy for tenured academics to ignore calls for solidarity with their non-tenure-track ‘colleagues.’ One of the things that was notable, for instance, about the recent (this year!) Rutgers strike was that it was one of the first times ever that tenure-line faculty actually stood in solidarity with striking NTT-faculty or graduate students. I was at UNC as an adjunct for the UNC graduate student strike of December, 2018 and my sense was certainly that the majority of faculty were more concerned for the impact that the strike might have on students getting their grades in a timely manner than they were in the poor working conditions of graduate students.

It is my hope that the Rutgers strike is a vision of the future, that at long last, with the tenure-destroying barbarians at the gates, the tenure-track members of our fields, who have far more power in this system, have realized that their tolerance of an academic caste system has sold university leadership the rope with which it plans to strangle tenure.

So what should be done? I think the crucial first step is to break down the academic caste system by shifting hiring standards; as noted this is one thing TT-faculty control. Instead of hiring ABDs and very recent graduates of elite colleges, TT-faculty should demonstrate that we are one field by focusing hiring on promising scholars currently teaching as adjuncts of teaching-track faculty, placing value on experience and a proven track record of scholarship rather than on pedigree. Departments that fail to do this, quite frankly, should be shamed in their fields. It should be as disreputable for a department to hire a fresh graduate when there are so many more experienced candidates as it is for departments to hire their own graduate students.

Moreover, departments need to offer more than a token resistance to pressure to fill out enrollments by stocking up on adjunct or underpaid teaching-track appointments. I am not, for what it is worth, entirely against the idea of a ‘teaching-track’; some academics really like teaching and rather don’t like research much and there should be a space for them. That said, these positions should still be eligible for tenure and promotion, and in nearly all universities, they are not. Indeed, my own preference would be that they be paid and tenured on the same schedule as traditional ‘research-track’ tenure-line appointments, just with different expectations for achieving tenure (more teaching, more advising, perhaps more service, less research). Is it a risk for departments to refuse to hire underpaid, untenured academic serfs? Absolutely. Doing the right thing is often risky, it brings personal consequences. That’s why we value it so much; professors with tenure who are extremely hard to fire should at least be able to summon this tiny amount of courage. Those who cannot are not worthy of the tenure protections they clearly never intend to use.

Finally, TT-faculty should operate under the presumption that they will support pressure by NTT-faculty and graduate students for improved working conditions. The default position should be support and TT-faculty need to place that position ahead of the supposed need of students not to be troubled overmuch by the exploitation of an academic underclass. The students will be fine, but your NTT-colleagues and graduate students need your help.

And what about for the public? As we’ve noted, the increasing prevalence of adjuncts in higher education has a negative impact on the scholarship and teaching universities produce. Now if private schools want to offer an inferior product, that’s their choice, but there is no reason the public should tolerate the pillaging of public institutions built with taxpayer money. State governments have near total control over public institutions and can exercise it, conditioning funding on the creation of tenure-line appointments to replace adjunct appointments and requiring a higher proportion of university funds be directed into instructional budgets and away from administration or student amenities. This is a result public outcry could produce, one which might also help to curb spiraling tuition costs (and the connected student debt problem) and it should happen.

What the public deserves out of its state-funded institutions of higher education is a faculty of scholar-educators who both push the bounds of human knowledge and communicate their expertise to both students and the broader public. That mission is not possible with precarious, untenured appointments, it is not possible with the largest group of instructors overloaded with teaching at extremely low wages, it is not possible without tenure to protect academics who say unpopular things. It is not lost on me that at the moment the system is moving in the wrong direction, with some states and institutions preparing to abandon tenure entirely and others effectively phasing it out by adjunctifying their entire teaching faculty.

But it does not have to keep moving that way and for both the good of students and the public, it ought not continue moving that way. The public ought to demand that their higher education dollars are used for their intended purpose and that intended purpose includes professors. Not visiting lecturers, not adjunct instructors, not professors of practice who aren’t, colleges of professors who are colleagues of each other rather than arranged in an academic caste system which benefits university leadership and no one else.

  1. R1 is a term from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which classifies colleges and universities by the degrees they grant and how research oriented they are. An ‘R1’ classification indicates the highest level of research focus; nearly all of the large flagship state schools are R1 institutions.
  2. Whose stewardship of their universities is somehow almost uniformly worse than what was accomplished by amateur professors who’d rather not have been asked.
  3. Please read with the voice of Cate Blanchett intoning, “but another ring was made.”
  4. A phrase that I am sick to death of hearing, but it seems to be functionally the only thing most people in the public know about academia and also the thing that select members of the public seem to think we need repeated to us at every possible opportunity, as if we’re not aware. It’s useless in any case, in history at least. Which hiring numbers being what they are now, by far the most common career path is in fact, ‘publish and then perish.’
  5. In fact, COVID made these numbers look better than they had in the years previously, not because universities hired more tenure-line professors (they didn’t), but because they fired a lot of non-tenure line professors due to COVID, taking advantage of their lack of job protection.
  6. In yesteryear, a book simply forthcoming was good enough. These days, that might not even be good enough to get hired as this entire system breaks down. By the end of 2022, I had actually qualified for tenure at the institutions which did not hire me in 2020; I still do not have a tenure track job.
  7. So for instance being department chair often comes with a course release, but being on a committee or serving as an undergraduate or graduate advisor often doesn’t.
  8. If you haven’t picked this up already, the way the academic career track in the humanities is structured around prestige and pedigree means that at every stage, it is designed to give greater time and resources to the ‘winners’ of the previous round so that winners keep winning regardless of ability (until they turn out to be disappointing assistant professors). Graduates (at the BA level) of elite schools are preferred for graduate admission at the best graduate programs, where they do less teaching and get more research time and funding. Their degrees from those elite schools in turn provide a direct prestige advantage when applying for post-docs and other opportunities, as well as for jobs (so that a candidate from a less prestigious program would have to out-publish a prestige candidate while having less time and fewer resources). Defenders of this system point to the greater research output of these sort of applicants and pointedly ignore the fact that their research output is greater because they were given far greater resources and time at each stage of their academic career. In any truly competitive or serious field, this kind of pedigree-selection would be ripe for a Moneyball-style disruption, but academic hiring is, to be frank, not conducted seriously. A program that did want to get a bunch of capable teacher-scholars cheaply would be advised to focus exclusively on the exceptional products of non-top-five programs, but academic traditionalism forbids this sort of approach.
  9. A one-semester VAP is just an adjunct.
  10. The excuse they use is that they aren’t paying for an adjunct’s research, service or other activities, which is true, they’re not, though they will happily take credit for it. But of course to remain competitive on the job market, one has to engage in substantial research, so while the university isn’t paying for it, it is still required. If you are picking up that adjunct appointments are morally dubious, that’s because they are.
  11. Or at least, some kind of special consideration for the position, the ‘inside track’ as it were.

233 thoughts on “Collections: Academic Ranks Explained Or What On Earth Is an Adjunct?

  1. One thing I hope Brett will mention in this series, although it’s been written about in plenty of other places is we in Anglophone North America (I’m speaking as an American working on a PhD in Ontario) don’t really know what university is for, especially at the bachelor’s degree. Ever since a bachelor’s degree became required signaling for any white-collar job (and in many fields the master’s is there too these days), for many students the priority became getting the degree, rather than getting a quality education. In this context, spending tuition and state funding on things like facilities rather than faculty makes sense. Many students are culturally forced to go to college, so their priority is to go to a place that will be pleasant to spend four years, not to maximize their education. Similarly, if universities functionally serve as non-summer camps to corral maturing young adults, it’s ok for states to skimp on funding (especially the education), while simultaneously passing the cost onto the students post-graduation through debt.

    So because the students will come no matter what (and the quality of their education is secondary to getting the degree at all), universities need to skimp on education costs, and direct funding into departments with the highest enrolment. Adjuncts are cheaper.

    We had a scary case involving even more cost-cutting at my university, where the contract instructors (i.e. Adjuncts – PhD grads or late-stage candidates hired by the semester or year to teach specific classes at starvation wages) went on strike. One of the critical issues was that CIs didn’t control the IP they produced for their classes, the university did (in contrast, TT faculty own the IP of their materials). Because most classes were taught online and asychronously during COVID, the concern is that the university could offer classes and not even hire CIs to teach them – they could just provide the recorded lectures to the students and hire a TA to do the grading. It’s a frightening look at what university education could become, to the detriment of the students and the fields.

    1. “for many students the priority became getting the degree, rather than getting a quality education.”

      How could they tell if they were getting a quality education? How do you tell if the education from one university is better or worse than that from another?

      1. If education was a priority, something like US News & World Report would prioritize education in their metrics. Obviously measuring something like “education quality” is hard, but proxies exist (% of faculty getting top marks in student evals, for example) which could be used. But because education quality isn’t what drives applications beyond a cursory interest, schools aren’t ranked based on it.

        1. Student evaluations are a terrible way to assess the quality of education.

          “How successful are your graduates” (for whatever metric of success you choose, which is its own thorny problem) isn’t a good measure of educational quality either, because the quality of students coming into different institutions is different (in America at any rate: my understanding is that in other countries like Germany this is much less of an issue).

          1. For the lower level courses, how well prepared they are for the higher level courses would work.

      2. Professors get good or bad ratings from students and then the subsequent professors discover their education in that class was bad or good in exact inverse of the ratings.

        1. The assumption here is that students disproportionately give strongly positive ratings to professors who give easy, “empty calories” courses.
          This is not true. I speak from direct experience, as a recipient of student reviews and one who has spoken with other professors who those some of those same students in their classes.

          1. I am basing mine on the reports of professors whose students had taken an introductory course from one of two professors

        2. Ten years ago I was able to examine 12 years of results of professor ratings by the students in my Faculty (Chemistry) and my conclusions were (quoting by memory…):
          -Several years are needed to have a fair idea of the quality of a person teaching.
          -Students are quite consistent in their marking from one year to the other.
          -Most of the people has a short range of punctuation.
          -The same professor can have different rating in different subjects.
          -People with a high rating can have a “bad” year.
          -People with a low rating rarely have a “god” year.
          -The ratings are higher for female professors and people teaching lab practice.
          -Rating distribution is bimodal: a medium to high rating population with most of the people and a tail, easily detected, of low ratings.

          IMHO, student’s survey can be a good and reliable tool for the evaluation of teaching people.

          1. None of those address the issue of “lousy teacher with easy grades gets the high rating.”

          2. The bias associated with “lousy profs…” is difficult to eliminate.
            Students separate the quality of teaching from other aspects. I have seen professors with high ratings in “hard” subjects (passing rates below 60%) and bad ratings in “soft” subjects (passing rates greater than 90%).
            And students can penalise some cases: A professor with really good ratings had a low one and, when asked, she told me she had have a disagreement with students on the matter of punctuality.
            But my Faculty was a small one in Europe. I don’t know how things are in the States.

    2. Not sure how much genuine explanatory power it has, but I’m also partial to the idea that whether or not they realize it, many upper-middle-class Americans fetishize “the campus experience” because it’s the only stage of their lives when it’s socioculturally acceptable to live and work in a walkable/pleasant human-scale built environment with meaningful street life full of spontaneous human interaction and so on per Jane Jacobs, as opposed to the proverbial paved-paradise parking lots and little boxes on the hillside.

      Which obviously has nothing per se to do with the student union having a Cheesecake Factory or how many climbing walls are at the campus gym, but these people need some way of explaining to themselves why exactly they like their college campus so much compared to the dreary suburban noplaces in which they were raised and to which they’ll return once they have white-collar jobs of their own, and liking a place because they perceive it as expensive or “premium” is more consistent with their ideological priors than liking it because it clashes with soulless and unfulfilling built environments they’ve accepted as embodying the capital-A/D American Dream.

      1. College is also the only stage in their life where you can live in an environment where it is socially acceptable to keep the undesirables out.

        People tried to build dorms for adults, it always crashes and burns because many people who flock to cheap housing are not the people who middle class Americans want to be living in close proximity to.

        1. Sure, although I’d reframe the premise a bit: university campus land use and postwar suburban land use are both partly aimed at “keeping the undesirables out,” it’s just that the campus accomplishes this by placing public amenities in the hands of a single institution that’s allowed to grant and revoke access on a selective/discriminatory basis (a.k.a. “admissions”) whereas the default method for American-style postwar suburbs is to basically abolish the public sphere altogether, making entire areas into unlivable dead zones for anyone who can’t afford their own inferior siloed-off private versions of amenities that might otherwise be provided more efficiently and at better quality on a shared basis.

          The thing is, even someone who (for instance) would get rid of all public benches rather than risk the sight of an unhoused person sleeping on one, is generally still able to perceive on a gut level that public amenities are good and having them makes an area more pleasant to exist in.

      2. Maybe, but there’s also the fact that it’s a time when you’re at kind of a sweet spot where you don’t really have a lot of responsibility and you do have a lot of free time, you’re unsupervised, you’re young and around a lot of other young people, and you have money.

        1. That’s probably part of it, although when I was an undergraduate (albeit not at a US university) we all had plenty of work to do. I still loved the experience, though, for the reasons Skinner and CowardlyPig mention.

    3. Pathetic state of affairs indeed. Somewhere this vicious cycle needs to be broken: either the tenured faculty take a stand against degrading their own PhD colleagues by paying them so little and treating them like dirt, or there should be a hue and cry from the state government grilling the university administrators as to where exactly is all the exorbitant tuition and student loan money going when their most important employees are being treated so miserably. The problem is the general public is not at all aware of all this inside plumbing of the university system. I think you should publish a condensed version of this in local newspapers and increase the awareness so they will put some pressure on both the universities and politicians to fix this. I felt deeply uncomfortable reading that they are paying someone $2000 to teach a class, which is probably below minimum wage requirements even.

  2. > a research agenda keeps the teacher up to date and current on the state of knowledge in a field

    Everyone pays lip service to this but I don’t see how anyone can take it seriously on reflection. Sure it’s better, other things equal, for a teacher to be familiar with the most recent research. But how much better exactly? Say we compare an undergrad studying history at an R1 university in 2000 with a similar student in 2020. Assuming neither of them is headed for academia, how much less of… whatever benefit we take a history BA to have… did the 2000 student get due to missing out on 20 more years of development in the field? It can’t be 20% less. Or 10%, or even 5%… Similarly I’d expect that less than 5% of what Prof. Devereaux covers in class actually bears on his research agenda. The benefit of having a practicing researcher teaching your average 200-level survey of, I dunno, premodern East Asian history is greater than zero, but it’s marginal at best.

    What Prof. Devereaux clearly understands, but doesn’t quite admit, is that in reality the combination of research and teaching isn’t about synergy; it’s about compromise. Academics by and large would rather spend more time pursuing their research agendas but society by and large would rather they spent more time teaching. We end up with a balance where the income from teaching (both private tuition and public funding) gets used to subsidize research. I totally agree that the situation of adjuncts doing most of the teaching but getting little money, and full professors getting most of the money but doing little teaching, is unfair and amounts to a caste structure within the academy. But there’s no need to pretend that it makes the quality of education worse as well. In fact specialization of teachers vs researchers in higher education is long overdue. It’s just that teaching ought to be the better compensated work.

    1. I think this is much less true if part of what you get out of the teaching is about the methods and dispositions that go with research. “How do we find answers to questions” is probably one of the most relevant things that that someone who doesn’t got on to get an advanced degree will learn from a history class or major (much more so than specific history facts/content, which, if you have that skill, you can look up!). Having your teacher be someone who is hands on with research in an ongoing manner seems important for that.

    2. Everyone pays lip service to this but I don’t see how anyone can take it seriously on reflection. Sure it’s better, other things equal, for a teacher to be familiar with the most recent research. But how much better exactly?

      Depends on the subfield in question, I’d say. In areas like (bits of) the hard sciences or archaeology, where genuinely new information gets discovered fairly often, you’d definitely want your teachers to be abreast of these developments, at least at the higher levels of teaching. In areas like, say, literature or philosophy, where the body of material being studied is more or less fixed, the latest research simply means the latest academic fashions, which are no more likely to be correct than the previous academic fashions. You could prepare a perfectly good intro to, say, medieval philosophy without reading anything written after 1960.

    3. There *are* a few things I teach that are both technical and elementary, and for those courses, I don’t hit the journals each time I teach them. But I have an intro-ish course right now that includes a big chunk of world history and I absolutely stay current on relevant scholarship. Part of my responsibility to students is to distil the state of the art and the differences can be much more than marginal. For example the ability to read DNA in human bones and sequence it is changing how we think about human migration in quite fundamental ways. A lot of key work in environmental history is happening now. I have the luxury of doing this reading (and it’s a joy!) because I’m tenured and don’t have an oppressive course load.

      People who teach research methods courses ought to be practicing researchers. And so forth.

    4. I do political science, not history, and am just wrapping up a parties course. A course from 2000 — or, more relevantly, a course where the instructor was unaware of research post-2000, would miss:

      *Why is polarization rising?
      *Is it polarization or sorting?
      *Is congressional polarization because of turnover or adaptation?
      *Is congressional polarization because gerrymandering?
      *At least one of the current best guesses about how people acquire party identification
      *How we can tell that parties are important in Congress as opposed to people just voting their own preferences (the “why we would ask this” is from the mid 90s)
      *Whole sets of variables/data types we use to talk about these issues
      *How we can tell that functionally nonpartisan (as opposed to formally nonpartisan but not really) government is a disaster
      *What was the current best guess for how presidential nominations worked and what went wrong with it
      *Practically everything we know about party networks as distinct from formal organizations

      Obviously things can be different in your example of history but I expect they’ve been pretty busy too.

      1. “How we can tell that functionally nonpartisan (as opposed to formally nonpartisan but not really) government is a disaster”

        Would you mind expanding on this bit, please, or providing links to someone else’s explanation? When you say “government”, do you mean civil servants, legislators or what? I can guess at an argument for nonpartisan legislative chambers being bad (because you couldn’t reliably pass bills that are important for keeping the business of government running, e.g. budgets, due to having far too many people who need bribing relative to people who will reliably vote for or against the executive, and because it would be difficult to have a coherent legislative agenda if the coalitions were different for every issue), but I don’t know of compelling evidence that the costs outweigh the benefits (such as being able to make progress on issues where there is a clear majority in favour of compromise, instead of having Party B automatically oppose anything Party A does, preventing meaningful discussion and promoting Blues-and-Greens *stasis*). I can’t really see why having a nonpartisan civil service would be a bad thing; I’m a civil servant and we take our political independence very seriously. I’m also not sure what happened between 2000 and 2020 that would provide clear evidence of either of those being bad. Which country had a partisan legislature or civil service, lost the partisanship and suffered thereby? And how do we know that loss of partisanship was the key problem?

    5. If in labour economics, you would miss the entire new literature on monopsony power and minimum wages. You would miss the entire new literature on New Keynesian macroeconomic models. You would miss the entire new literature on institutional economics in development and its extension, political economy (in terms of modelling and game theory) and cultural economics. You would miss enormous advances in econometrics.

      Even in classics and Roman history, the idea that Caesar wasn’t thrown off his praetorship in 62 BC was first presented, as far as I can tell, in 2017; the idea that Pompey was made sole consul as a political compromise and not – as in Plutarch – to forestall a dictatorship was first made in 2016. If going back to 1960, you would miss the entire new literature of “Roman democracy” that started in the 1980s.

      The idea that fields do not move is a fiction. There was this annoyingly stupid post recently on a talk page where someone claimed that nobody publishes new translations of classical texts anymore. It’s easy to disprove: just look through the BMCR archives.

    6. I agree that teaching-research synergy is dramatically overplayed by many academics. And an important facet of that (which I think several of the responses to the parent comment get wrong) is that doing publishable academic research these days usually involves an excruciatingly narrow focus. Having a good handle on research trends in a field broadly (which I think can have a modestly positive impact on undergrad education) is only loosely coupled to the super-narrow expertise needed to get publications.


    Solidarity to you comrade! Honestly as someone who has spent the better part of a decade in education in one form or another I feel fairly confident in my belief that higher education needs to be entirely restructured. Like everything you have said is 100% spot on, but it is also embedded in the larger problem of society dis-investing in working class people.

    College used to be a place for education and broadening horizons, but as the idea of a working class middle class has vanished it has instead become a lifeboat for young people desperate to attain a living standard in any way similar to their parents. This has led to a massive influx of people into higher education that, quite frankly don’t belong there. I don’t mean this in a classist or exclusionary sense, they are certainly smart enough and talented enough for the work, but instead that they are there not because they want to learn and be part of academia but because they want job training or a certificate to a good job. Many people I have talked to in my classes, if they had their druthers, wouldn’t be there but feel forced to. I see this in myself, I went back to school for a Biology degree, after getting a history degree, not because I really wanted to but because I NEEDED to to get a job. Now I work a somewhat decent job in biotech using NONE of the knowledge I learned in my education, but I needed the paper that said I did a biology.

    Ideally in a better future higher education would be available to all for the betterment of themselves, not because it was a hoop they needed to jump to in order to attain their daily bread.

    We need significant change in out society and we all need to work together to make a better future.

  4. I’m not sure this “adjunctification” problem happens everywhere. In my department (one of the best of the mid-level UC schools), my understanding is that

    * they have a tenure system for teaching faculty
    * such faculty are second-class citizens in a few ways
    * the adjunct-equivalent positions are not normally used–pretty much only in cases of someone also being funded for research, or the spouse of a research faculty
    * teaching needs are filled by a small army of postdocs (teaching [1] and research postdocs) and a large army of graduate students
    * as such, “adjunctification” isn’t really an issue

    Most of this is according to my (admittedly very tenured) advisor.

    Somehow, the situation feels a bit different because my area, Mathematics, is a STEM. The job market is very competitive, and people complain about it all the time, e.g. multiple postdocs before tenure-track is the rule, not the exception. But based on reading this blog, it sounds like nothing like History. People who “lose out” in the Mathematics version of the publish-or-perish game get to pick between working at a tiny university/community college, or switching careers to tech/finance/actuarial jobs and making boatloads of money.

    [1] I would generally refer to what is here termed a “VAP” as a “teaching postdoc” when describing what it “actually is” as opposed to the obfuscation done by the university.

  5. I appreciate the insights into the academic market, though I don’t think you make a compelling case for more tenure track positions benefitting students/universities, personally.

    I disagree with the notion we need government intervention to push for more tenure track positions. Why not let the schools decide? Many schools are able to increase their TT faculty if they do choose right? If so, then ones that think it will improve the experience can do so and their more compelling product will attract students/funding.

    If this fails to offset the increased costs though, perhaps it indicates more expensive tenure track positions are not valued by the customers (students)? I sympathize with the difficult job market but think schools should be left to their own devices when deciding what makes sense for them.

    1. “Why not let the schools decide?” avoids the central question: who are the deciders? It’s not the students (who by definition do not yet know much); it’s not the adjuncts who make up an increasing proportion of the faculty; it’s not the tenure-track faculty, nor even the tenured staff. It’s the administrators, whose interest is securing a larger part of the funds flowing to the institutions.

      1. Also, importantly, I think the focus here is state schools, which are paid for by the government, and government intervention is absolutely appropriate! Especially since they’re not being run for profit, but instead to achieve broader goals for society and the economy.

  6. Personally, I don’t think any action should be made to preserve tenure–it’s a dying system and it’s being coopted by politicians, and asking the government to intervene will *ensure* that cooption accelerates. Even a politician somehow decides to buck the trend and enshrines a minimum level of tenure, you’re also only giving the administration tools needed for other politicians

    1. …to gut the whole system.

      What *can* work is labor organizing. In addition to TTs supporting picket lines, they should also join them to learn about the current labor movement and how it benefits them as well as NTTs. If NTTs are all in a union and the union is strong, they also benefit since they have a better bargaining hand when it comes to *their* contracts.

      Didn’t realiize the second part didn’t post until now, whoops.

  7. This is a great breakdown of the types of faculty positions and the garbage fire that is adjunctifaction. When you discuss staff positions, you left out a key group: research staff. This includes librarians, archivists, lab techs, lab managers, high performance computing groups and all the other support roles in a university where PhD level training is either required or highly desirable. This is also where you will find your campuses “alt-ac” folks. People with PhDs who work full-time in the academy but not in faculty roles

    1. All positions that tend to be not that much better compensated than adjunct faculty positions (the major plusses being the possibility of university staff benefits and marginally better job security from one semester to the next) and a good chunk of them will be filled by some combination of grad students taking extra part-time shifts, grad school dropouts in the process of building up courage to enter the non-academic workforce, partners/spouses of tenured faculty members (especially if they first met as grad students), and new graduates considering whether or not to apply for grad school (and often choosing not to).

      The last of which is a very reasonable suggestion for anyone on the fence about grad school: instead, try targeting some of these research support positions adjacent to the kinds of departments/labs you’d be interested in, and see whether a year or two of grunt work in the sausage factory is enough to turn you into a vegetarian.

  8. “It’s not elite overproduction, it’s {a more complicated way to say ‘elite overproduction’}” rings a little hollow here.

    1. I don’t know if “elite overproduction” has some subtle meaning that I’m missing, but it’s a brute fact that in most fields there are far more people earning PhDs than there are jobs opening up for which that degree is a good fit. Universities could change their hiring practices to have more secure jobs (tenured or otherwise), but that step on its own doesn’t move the needle much (at all?) on the total number of people employed. From a labor market perspective there should be far fewer PhD students than there are.

  9. You might enjoy listening to this recording (with lyrics) of Mireille Mathieu singing La Marseillaise. It’s a fine song to sing while in a revolutionary mood.

  10. The article seems to be focused on how universities ought to handle their faculty, rather than an assessment of the incentives and pressures that the various actors face (which explains why they do what they do).

    It’s not surprising that there is specialization in faculty, with some specializing in teaching and some in research. There’s no particular reason to expect the people who are best at one (under any particular criteria) to be the best at the other (under any particular criteria). From the way that everybody is acting, it appears that universities optimize for the star power of researchers, leading to a winner-take-all situation, and optimize for minimum pay for a corps of adequately good teachers, leading to a race-to-the-bottom situation.

    One aspect of this that is rarely mentioned is that if non-tenure-track professors are elevated to tenure-track, that won’t increase the department’s total compensation budget. So while it would much increase the pay of teachers, it would much decrease the pay of researchers. Probably followed by the researchers attempting relocate to other universities. (There is a professor in Boston who occasionally writes op-eds on the plight of adjuncts, but he has explicitly said that he expects universities to have a magic pot of money that can be used to increase adjunct pay without decreasing tenure-track pay.)

    While I’m not sure there is “elite overproduction” (whatever that is), there certainly is overproduction of PhDs. From the numbers I’ve seen about half of PhDs never get an academic job. Of the ones that do, about 10% will get tenure-track jobs, and of those, about 50% will get tenure. Presumably everybody enters a PhD program intending to become a tenured professor but only 1/40 of them will succeed at that. (Interestingly, your numbers suggest that there are roughly the right number of untenured-tenure-track professors to maintain the number of tenured professors, assuming that about 50% of those going for tenure get it.) (Athletes are subject to a similar market, with far more aspirants than will ever earn a living at it, but (1) the athletes seem to understand this going in, and (2) while being a PhD is a low-status position, being a college athlete is a high-status position.)

    The only two points where people don’t seem to be behaving according to the incentives that apply to them are (1) the drastically excess number of people entering PhD programs, and (2) the number of adjuncts who have applied for tenure-track jobs and not gotten them, signaling that their future in academia is bleak, but nonetheless they do not immediately start hunting for non-academic work.

    It seems like the answer to (2) is “leaving academia, even temporarily for a non-academic job is generally a career death sentence”. But of course, the adjunct’s academic career is already dead; but they seem to be incapable considering any other line of work as a “career”. (Though I’ve seen research suggesting that PhDs who leave academia do reasonably well in the job market.)

    I suspect that the relevant dimension is “prestige and pedigree”, and that adjuncts are steeped in the concept of academia as being the only adequately prestigious employment, no matter how badly it is paid. In any case, a full exploration of the dynamics of prestige in academia would be most interesting.

    1. Two other occupations where you have an excess of aspirants for a track to a high-prestige position are drug dealer and actor. Most drug dealers still live with their mothers, it’s so ill-paid at the bottom, and the abuses actors put up with from directors as they hang on from bit part to bit part are notorious.

      To be sure, arrest record may limit the dealers’ flexibility.

    2. There is a difference, correctly spelled out in the article, between adjuncts and the NTT teaching staff. The adjunct position can function like the post doc position in STEM, a place to live for a few years while you job hunt. My own mother did that, at the age of 45, for a few years before landing her tenure track position.

      Teaching staff don’t have that option, generally.

    3. Here’s one possible explanation: There is a discussion at regarding the perceived shortage of marriageable men in the young, college educated population of major cities. “Lola Montez 2” says “Ive talked to actual woman (as a woman myself) if they would rather marry an adjunct college professor who earned $30K a year OR a very successful plumber who earned $180K a year. To a woman, they all picked the professor! (so much for the hypergamy theory).” If that observation is generally true, it might be that the dating situation for a male adjunct might be very good (even if he has to avoid dating students at the university he teaches at). For a guy in his 20s that could be a significant amelioration of the poverty of the job.

      That hypothesis might be testable. Is the sex ratio of adjuncts considerably more male-rich than the sex ratio of PhD recipients? For a lot of fields, more women get PhDs than men, so if there are more male adjuncts in those fields, it would indicate some sort of selection. It is true that men are more willing to do high-risk/high-gain activities, which would also increase their fraction.

  11. I don’t think you address clearly enough how different STEM and humanities departments work. Your exposition is very humanities focused, and doesn’t reflect at all how most STEM departments work. For example, don’t know if your numbers are correct, but if it is true that only 1/3 of professors are tenure track, then that paints a very bleak picture for the humanities, because in STEM departments the vast majority are tenure track. At a major research university it’s just not a thing to have adjunct professors floating around in the Phsyics department.

    Outside of STEM departments, it’s going to be hard to make people care. You and I love learning for learning, but that ship has sailed for most with the widening wealth gap. Finishing school for rich elites is over. The idea that a kid can study what they want and then have a materially stable life is over. I wish it was the other way, but it’s not. It’s America in 2023 and America universally doesn’t care.

  12. “What I hope you can see in the data above is that it isn’t that the demand for higher education teaching has gone away…but the total number of teachers you need at this level is not declining. This is not ‘elite overproduction’”

    So…you’re saying that because demand hasn’t changed, the problem can’t be an increase in supply?

    That’s…not how this works. Of *course* the problem is oversupply. If there weren’t enough qualified candidates to fill available positions, the candidates would have much greater bargaining power. But with so many people wanting cushy professorships, the positions have gotten much less cushy. That’s basic supply-and-demand economics: The greater the supply, the lower the cost, if demand remains fixed.

  13. It still boggles my mind the fact that in the USA publicly funded Universities charge exorbitant amounts of tuition. Where I live Public Universities have to have half of their Student positions free of charge, and for the other half tuition is around 5000$ a year. True, amneties are crap but despite the under-funding graduates and PhDs from my country have absolutely no problem competing successfully on the job market of any country including the USA and some of them might have snatched without a problem some of those tenure track positions you talk about.

    1. It’s about how the US has chosen to subsidize college tuition. We’ve done it via guaranteed student loans, which drive up the price of tuition.

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