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.
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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.
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.
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:
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.
- 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.
- Whose stewardship of their universities is somehow almost uniformly worse than what was accomplished by amateur professors who’d rather not have been asked.
- Please read with the voice of Cate Blanchett intoning, “but another ring was made.”
- 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.’
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A one-semester VAP is just an adjunct.
- 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.
- Or at least, some kind of special consideration for the position, the ‘inside track’ as it were.