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.
227 thoughts on “Collections: Academic Ranks Explained Or What On Earth Is an Adjunct?”
While action at the tenure track level would certainly be best, we’ve seen more success at the teaching-track level. The most notable instance is at the University of California, where the teaching-track faculty union agreement has granted significantly more stability than what’s described above for temporary instructors at UC. It still doesn’t mean that the early-career instructors are guaranteed a path to security of employment, but it is better.
Some details here:
Actual contract here:
Thanks for this post, Bret. I thought it might be useful for you, and perhaps other readers, to compare how this plays out in a different country.
In Australia, our institutions are substantially different – yet many of the same underlying trends exist. Here, the academic ladder is divided between faculty of varying rank (Professor > Assoc. Professor > Senior Lecturer > Lecturer > Associate Lecturer) *and* varying work conditions. The tenure equivalent here is the “40:40:20” model – 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service. These roles are typically at the Lecturer rank or above. There’s no distinction between tenure-track and tenure: all of these jobs are permanent roles. I think this might partly relate to how job security protections is generally higher here than in the U.S.
In addition to these 40:40:20 roles, there are a growing number of full-time permanent teaching staff that we call “Education-focused roles.” EFRs have varying workloads across institutions, but a typical model is 70-80% teaching, 0-20% research, and 10-30% service. The “research” component is aimed at “keeping up with the material.” For both kinds of roles, the actual workload of teaching is often far greater than the nominal 40% allocation, absorbing time intended for other purposes (or breaking into evenings + weekends).
Similar to the US, EFRs make up a larger proportion of faculty at less prestigious universities. It is rare for EFRs to be employed at anything higher than the Lecturer or Assoc. Lecturer position – but, if they are, they are paid the same as their 40:40:20 counterparts. Transition rights from EFR to 40:40:20 can sometimes exist, but often under quite byzantine and laborious processes – or only after so long a time that a candidate’s research profile will have decayed.
Our ‘adjunct’ equivalent comes in the form of casual tutors and lecturers. These are semester-to-semester contracts, virtually without exception, and include both current PhD students and PhD graduates. Unlike the US, we don’t have a widespread system of grad students who teach classes tied to their research degrees. (This exists, but it is quite uncommon.) Pay for casuals occurs per hour of course delivery (e.g. $200 for a lecture x 13 lectures = $2600, plus $100 for a tutorial x 12 tutorials = $1200). The first hour of delivery per module is paid more than subsequent hours, which is meant to reflect preparation time. Casual teaching staff are left floating in the wind, with limited to nil connection to their departments.
The trend, overall, has been towards a greater reliance on casuals over the last twenty to thirty years, alongside increases in EFRs. At my institution, for example, 40:40:20 roles have remained static over the last twenty years in absolute numbers and declined as a proportion of all teaching staff. About half of all teaching staff now are casuals. Expanding enrolments have been absorbed by teaching-focused and casual roles, while “research superstars” (i.e. the privileged or, rarely, the lucky) have had research-only roles carved out for them.
One of the largest differences between the US and the Australia is the way in which we negotiate our employment conditions. In the early 1990s, the various university unions + associations amalgamated into a single union (the National Tertiary Education Union) which covers all faculty and staff (to use your terms). While the interests of the tenured-equivalents predominated within this system, it does have greater prospects for breaking through the arbitrary differences between the different rungs on the academic ladder. Especially since, for example, wages paid to teaching-focused and tenured roles are set on the same schedule, and casual pay is tied back to that schedule as well (though we are highly prone to misallocation and exploitation).
In Australia, bargaining over employment occurs for the whole university across all job types (occasionally this is divided between two agreements that cover faculty and staff separately). While this can mean that the objectives of casuals etc are abandoned once the aims of the tenured are secured, I think it has led to greater unity than you have in the US. My present institution is coming to the close of two years of bargaining, with nine days of strike action in the mix, which secured the creation of a few hundred jobs tied to decasualisation (about 1/3 earmarked for current casuals: half of these earmarked roles are tenure-equivalent, half are education-focused).
Now – despite these earmarked roles – our departmental hiring practices are generally as bad as yours, if not worse. Prestigious candidates get hired above the experienced, and for us this often means candidates from the top American institutions. It’s less unheard of to be hired from casual to teaching-focused within a department, or even to 40:40:20 – I know of one case which had to be argued before the courts as a mandatory conversion from casual to tenured as a result of clauses in our workplace agreements. (Though I suppose the existence of a right for conversion places us well ahead of you, even if it is a sharply curtailed right.)
Great comment and very thorough. I wish I believed in the NTEU as a mechanism for preventing sessionalisation though. In my experience, the NTEU is entirely controlled by general staff who are happy to sell out any and all priorities on the academic side for a 0.5% pay rise.
There are substantial variations between universities, both in terms of the composition of membership and levels of union activity. In some cases, general staff members are outnumbered by professorial members, and the opposite happens – professional staff concerns around job security and workloads are shafted in favour of academic issues. The central challenge is linking together the concerns of all university employees, academic and professional, permanent and casual.
I worked as a lab manager at a community college for five years where the biology department did in fact hire their own adjuncts to TT positions. (3 for 3–two retirements, one new position under a new president.)
It caused what I called “adjunct musical chairs” where every search would cause at least one adjunct applicant to give up and look for a different way forward.
I suspect that community colleges often function differently. At my CC, we often hire adjuncts from within. I was hired this way- I had finished my postdoc in earth sciences and was working as a part time technician and was teaching 2 courses at a local CC. The professor in my field happened to retire that semester and I was encouraged to apply for his position.
I think because CCs are so teaching focused, it makes sense to hire someone whose teaching is a known quantity.
Is the quality of teaching higher at community colleges than at four year institution for equivalent courses?
Quality varies widely. Here in the suburbs of Washington DC, our community colleges include quite a few industry leaders who just like teaching. Your math instructor might be the CTO of a technology firm or a high-ranking bureaucrat. We have nearby R1s where the teaching isn’t as good.
My anecdotal experience suggests that for intro math and physics it is. I’ve had several of my more gifted science focused students take intro to physics at our flagship state university and drop it because it was taught by a new professor who had never taught before and was totally incomprehensible and disorganized. They then took the same class at our CC and found it much better.
The intro earth science course I teach at my CC has sections capped at 35 students and so I can use a lot of active learning techniques, discussion, interrogation of real data. The same course at the flagship university is a large lecture taught by a team of professors, with sections taught by grad students (who may or may not have experience or training in teaching).
This is just my (very STEM) perspective.
My parents both graduated from Ohio State University (one of the largest, and formerly the largest) universities in the U.S. They have been told that these days, many students are encouraged to take some of their introductory classes at the local Columbus State community college. Not only are classes much cheaper, you will indeed have classes in the ~25 student range as opposed to ~400 student lecture halls, ensuring a much higher quality and personalization of education.
A question from someone who didn’t go through the US university system, to what extent is the US tenure track intrinsically a good idea, and to what extent does it just compensate for the generally awful situation of US employment – “at will” employment contracts, etc?
I’m curious if everyone in the system were simply employed on normal European working contracts (just pick any country, for the sake of argument – and by normal I mean not specific to academia, just a typical salaried employment contract) and had reasonable job security, then would there be a need for tenured professors at all?
The situation in the USA sounds dreadful, and you have my sincere sympathies for needing to live it. I actually have little idea what it’s like in the UK or mainland Europe any more, no doubt the UK will be picking up the worst bits of the American system as soon as possible….
From my personal experience (I’m a PhD student in Sweden), the US tenure track system is mostly making up for a lack of traditional employment rights. Over here, the closest equivalent to “tenure” is just having a permanent contract, since once one has a permanent contract it is very difficult to be fired in general.
(Admittedly, the strong worker protections do mean that there are active efforts to dodge them for “non-tenured” positions, e.g. to dodge worker protection laws (typically there is only so long you can spend in a temporary position before you have to be offered it as a permanent one) PhD students are hired on renewing yearly contracts rather than a contract that covers the whole expected study period.)
This excellent post did get me to sign up to support you on Patreon, which I should have done long ago. Good luck!
I just want to chime in that, in *practice*, the academic system Bret describes is a million times worse than US employment *in general*.
I’ve worked in at-will white collar jobs my entire life. I can leave any time I want and I can be laid off any time they want.
In practice, this has resulted in a single layoff event, following legal battles within the company that led to a massive restructuring in the middle of the 2008 crash. My job has been a million times more secure than the experience Bret describes for adjuncts for the practical reason that in a healthy market hiring skilled labor is expensive and not immediately interchangeable, and most companies realize that.
I’m split on whether the level of tenure protection we have is a requirement for academic freedom or not (I think that a liquid job market provides many of the same benefits — I feel free at my job *because I know I can find an equivalent one quickly*) — BUT the alternative does not have to be the kind of hellscape described here.
The number 2 thing TT faculty could do (which Bret does not mention here) is be open to hiring people who have a PHD but worked outside of academia for a year! If universities could lose all of these adjuncts to a job teaching HS history or English (with benefits and better pay), or hell, “writing a blog about Orc Logistics,” without sacrificing their entire change of the academic career they spend most of a decade pursuing, then they’d never get away with this level of mistreatment.
My position is similar: a well-paid professional with a doctorate (in law). I have never had anything resembling tenure, but have never lacked for work or felt trapped in a job. Based on my experience, I would dispute Bret’s claim that the problem is not overproduction of elites. Employers, even academic ones, are not dictators. If there is genuine shortage of qualified employees, they have to offer decent pay and working conditions. That they don’t have to do so in academia (at least in humanities) is simply a consequence of the industry producing more Ph.D.’s than the number of jobs.
Except that demand for phd’s in these fields has remained largely static while demand for courses in these fields has actually gone up, as Bret has pointed out in this and previous posts. So overproduction can’t be the issue here, it just so happens that employers typically have way more power than employees in the US. I’d also point out that your experience as a lawyer is very different from the experience of an eccademic. The difficulty of getting into law school followed by the requirement of passing the bar means that, in practice, the number of work ready attorneys is restricted. So we have the benefit of being made scarce by our own system, driving up our value.
In essence, unless if your field of expertise is scarce in the market or you have a strong union the employer will always have disproportionate power over you.
Saying that there is a restricted supply of lawyers but not of Ph.D.’s is the same as saying that there is an oversupply of Ph.D.’s.
>We show that the reproduction rate in academia is very high. For example, in engineering, a professor in the US graduates 7.8 new PhDs during his/her whole career on average, and only one of these graduates can replace the professor’s position. This implies that in a steady state, only 12.8% of PhD graduates can attain academic positions in the USA. The key insight is that the system in many places is saturated, far beyond capacity to absorb new PhDs in academia at the rates that they are being produced. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25642132/
Producing almost eight times as many qualified applicants as you have places seems like a texbook case of “overproduction” to me.
(And I know the stat refers to engineering, but everything I’ve seen about US academia indicates that the situation in other fields is similar.)
The article you linked misses one important fact, presumably because all of its authors are the products of elite research universities who work at elite research universities, but not all professors *have* graduate students, even on the tenure track. SLACs, Master’s Universities, second and third tier-state schools, community colleges all employ professors (though many are increasingly adjunctified) but have no doctoral graduate programs. I can’t see the entire article text, but that figure of c. 8 graduate students strikes me as a correct average for professors with graduate students at R1s. Which is not a majority of professors.
If you’d prefer, we could compare the number of PhDs being awarded with the number of positions available, in which case the mismatch is smaller, but still pretty huge:
“Notably, for the first time in 41 years, the number of jobs advertised with the AHA fell below half the number of Ph.D.s conferred in the previous year. Approximately 1,183 new Ph.D.s were conferred in history in the 2013-14 academic year,” says the report on the jobs data, written by Robert B. Townsend, who oversees the Washington office of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Humanities Indicators Project, and Julia Brookins, special projects coordinator at the AHA. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/05/report-finds-poor-job-market-history-phds
I think most people, if asked whether making twice as much of a product as there is demand for counts as overproduction, would answer in the affirmative.
The issue here is that the ‘demand’ is a product of policy choices. If you look at the graph of history hiring, you find that it dropped off a cliff in 2008, but 2008 wasn’t some watershed year in university enrollments. It was a year where many state governments chose to drastically cut higher education funding (which was never restored even after the economy recovered).
So I think the mistake being made here is to assume that we’re seeing some organic ‘demand’ for history dictated by the market, when in fact we’re seeing the result of policy choices. Think of it this way: our society orders historians the way we order artillery shells. The government sets a strategy and then builds to the strategy. The government could set a different strategy and indeed when it comes to artillery shells the government has recently realized it wasn’t making or stockpiling nearly enough. I’d argue it is well past time for our policy makers to realize as well that the substantial reduction and adjunctification of historians is an error in policy.
Overproduction caused by government policy is still overproduction. To carry on with the artillery shells analogy, if the government says it’s only going to buy half as many shells as before from your factory but you keep making the same amount, you’re now overproducing shells (unless you can find another buyer for your excess shells, I suppose, but going by what you say of the state of US academia that doesn’t appear to be the case here).
I think you’re missing a pretty critical point. It is that all of the universities are operating the way he describes, which makes the academic sector function as a monopsony.
Using a simplistic free-market picture for anything is going to lead to into nonsense-land, and especially dramatically when it comes to the labor market. But academia is even worse than most contexts.
Given a choice between the claim that 146 R1 universities are operating a cartel with no one cheating, and the claim that 146 institutions are obeying the law of one price that characterizes competitive markets, it would take extraordinary evidence to convince me of the existence of a conspiracy so immense.
Yeah, another white collar worker (Accountant) here. I’ve seen layoffs, but they don’t usually happen as often as many detractors of “At will” status like to believe.
For one, terminating someone for shallow or insufficient reasons can allow them to collect unemployment, and doing this repeatedly will make unemployment insurance increasingly more expensive. Second, terminating someone without sufficient cause has a strong possibility of decreasing morale in the office. There’s nothing like seeing a coworker terminated for nonsensical reasons to make other (potentially more valuable) employees decide to jump ship before they’re facing the firing squad themselves.
Bret’s situation here of academia does sound horrific.
As an outsider, it seams obvious to me that a difference between the private sector and academia is that the private sector cares about the quality of the product they produce – if only because not doing so will cost money over the long term. So it needs a quality work force
Academia apparently does not value the people teaching students, which leads to the supposition that they do not value the quality of instruction – it is not a priority for those running the institutions.
The administration focus is on empire building – expanding the physical plant and staff levels. While the tenured faculty is focussed on research and their own status.
Which creates a bit of a con. The public supports higher education both directly via public funds, and indirectly by encouraging as many young people as possible to attend, because the instruction provided to young adults is seen as important and valuable. And the primary purpose of colleges and universities. A perception actively encouraged by those institutions. Even as their actions reveal that they themselves do not believes so.
“the private sector cares about the quality of the product they produce”. This assumes a strong link between quality and sales. The point of ‘prices’ is that they mediate – hence the proliferation of Dollar General stores in low-income areas. There is also profit – if one can make more, by whatever means (and ‘externalities’ are numerous and pervasive) at a lower quality point, then the market will go that way. The evidence that charter schools are higher quality is weak at best – but they are certainly more profitable.
More – certain ‘qualities’ are not captured by price. One appeal of charter schools is segregation – a quality desired by many; open debate is another valuable quality, on current form not desired by many.
Interesting point: The Administrative and Academic sectors or a university are at odds and have very different goals, ironically of which “Give better education to students” isn’t one for either of them.
Public schools are extremely profitable for their employees and the politicians whose campaigns they donate to. making something run by the state does not magically make the people who work there any less self interested than anywhere else.
Tenure is more about academic freedom than “just” being job security (and, cynically, part of the reason why it takes several years to grant is to try to make sure the candidate doesn’t have any overly controversial opinions). You just couldn’t have a practical guarantee of academic freedom without protecting people from being fired for other reasons, otherwise they would just, well, fire people with unpopular opinions for other reasons. That’s why people got up in arms about the Hamline incident – it was clearly a violation of academic freedom, even though the instructor wasn’t tenured and had no legal guarantee of being employed for another semester.
Even countries with strong employment protection often have additional laws or rules protecting academic freedom. In Germany academic freedom is constitutionally protected, even though professors at public universities are civil servants and almost impossible to fire anyway. In France and the UK it’s protected by statutory instead of constitutional law (and do note that UK universities had tenure until it was abolished by Maggie Thatcher in 1988).
This is the state of academic freedom in Germany:
There was some lame criticism in “Süddeutsche Zeitung” (Prantl) but mostly nobody cares about academic freedom in Germany.
Looking at the article, it appears that the good doctor received pushback for her position on Ukraine, which is not out of keeping with academic freedom–in fact, freedom to critique is foundational to the concept. It also appears that she was removed from her position due to plagiarism.
Now, it might be that they went after her for plagiarism due to her stance on Ukraine, but it is rather difficult to see how this is an open-and-shut case of suppressing dissident thought.
One may argue, that the part where freedom to express different opinions is not worth that much if you only grant them to carefully selected people of whom you are sure they mostly already agree with your opinions.
Very true. Were tenure randomly distributed, the tenured would probably be bolder than the untenured It’s not, even considering only the selection process and not the candidates.
I’m Canadian, so we have a bit more protection than Americans, but the overall structures aren’t *that* different – Americans working in jobs like mine tend to get similar pay and benefits to mine, and I can be sacked without too much trouble any time they like. (The biggest difference to at-will US employment is that I get some severance pay if they do.)
And like others have said, it’s not anything like as brutal as what Bret describes. I’ve worked minimum-wage call centre jobs that have been markedly better to their staff than this. Better pay, better conditions, and at least a few perks (not “benefits” in the usual sense, but we got ten days a year of sick time, overtime pay that was better than the legal minimum, and a few other such things).
I’m further into my career now, and while I’m on contract, it’s an 18-month contract at a pretty fair pay rate, which has a good chance of me being picked up for permanent staff (with a raise and benefits) before the term is even up. I actually do have the “inside track” for the more permanent form of my job, and it’s clear from how my managers treat me that they want me to stay and grow within the role. It’s also been made clear to me that if there’s a personality clash or the work stops suiting me, they’ll see about possibly moving me to another department.
It’s still a business. They still lay people off at times (my department is seasonal, and we’re actually losing three more people Monday), and they’re hardly saints. But because they can’t just bask in an ocean of desperate applicants, they have to treat us like humans. And they do.
So yeah – in short, universities are far worse than their private-sector equivalents.
Another big difference is that a call center needs to train anyone new it onboards, whereas teaching positions put “is trained” as part of the job requirements.
I think you over-estimate how horrible US worker protections are. What you have to remember is that what you hear about on the news and in the media is the extreme cases. The most common situation is, if you do reasonably good work you have reasonably good job security. Vacation time and benefits depend on the job–my vacation time is very generous, other companies have far worse. There also are more protections than people think. We have unemployment insurance and legal prohibitions against firing certain (read: marginalized) groups and for certain things (whistle blowing, for example). These laws obviously aren’t always followed, but they DO exist and ARE enforced. And money serves as a protection. Onboarding isn’t cheap, easy, or quick, meaning that most of the time it’s better to keep the employee and train them than to fire them and hire new. And if you’re integrated into a program or a business group you have additional protections. At this point, until I get two new people trained up, the group I work with can’t afford to fire me.
I follow a few management blogs/podcasts, and while I’ve not done a systematic search through them, the general sense is that it’s MUCH more common to hear about managers keeping people too long than it is to hear about managers firing for bad reasons.
And it’s not a one-way street. At-will means that if I wanted to, I could just stop showing up tomorrow. It’s a crappy thing to do, and would hurt my chances of future employment in this field, but it happens.
Folks in the USA traditionally prefer the problems associated with too much liberty to the problems associated with efforts to increase security (Europeans tend to prefer a different balance) and this is just one more example of this. Chalk it up to cultural differences.
This is VERY different from what academia goes through. The closest thing to an adjunct professor I can think of is a day laborer–someone hired for a specific job, who’s only expectation is to be there for that specific job. If I tried to run any project I run using even 20% day laborers as my workforce I would have Health and Safety on me like sharks in a feeding frenzy. It can be done, but it raises so many red flags that it’s effectively impossible.
Another way to look at it may be that adjuncts are comparable to subcontractors. But there are a few key differences. First, subcontractors are their own companies, and at least in construction/environmental remediation (where I’m most familiar) the person you’re subbing for today is going to be your sub next week; it’s a job-by-job situation. If adjunct professors had their own company and took on contracted work for universities, that would be similar. Second, going from “subcontractor” to “new hire” is, if not common, at least something that occurs often enough to raise no eyebrows. Makes sense from a business perspective–the term of the subcontract is one long interview, and the subcontractor takes the risks of vetting the employee!
>I follow a few management blogs/podcasts, and while I’ve not done a systematic search through them, the general sense is that it’s MUCH more common to hear about managers keeping people too long than it is to hear about managers firing for bad reasons.
Not saying you’re necessarily wrong, but you could be getting a biased perspective from listening to management blogs/podcasts. Those are, by definition, from managements point of view. Getting the workers point of view would probably be very different.
My viewpoint is that they’re both correct. Middle managers are often reluctant to let underperforming workers go while upper management, when they want to lay workers off, are often arbitrary and don’t really take performance into account. Or if they do, used flawed metrics.
“Those are, by definition, from managements point of view.”
You’d be surprised. A lot of the discussion are from workers trying to understand the stance of management. Further, the divide between “management” and “worker” isn’t cut and dried. I’m both, for example–I manage a jobsite, but I also have a manager (who is working under me on the org charts for the projects I run). Throw in stuff like matrix management and “working managers” and other such ideas and the gray area between “worker” and “manager” expands until it encompasses most of both in many organizations.
Your last paragraph is mostly accurate in my experience. I would, however, argue that upper management often doesn’t lay off or fire individuals; they lay off or fire groups–offices, divisions, sectors, whatever you want to call them. It’s the performance of the group that matters in such situations, not the individual (though exceptions–good and bad–are often made). Something like tenure wouldn’t help anyone in such a situation. If a university decided to scrap its entire Arts program tenure won’t protect anyone.
“It’s the performance of the group that matters in such situations, not the individual (though exceptions–good and bad–are often made). ”
Yeah, sometimes you have targeted layoffs where the position is just eliminated. An employee is problematic, but not in a way they can be terminated normally without a fuss, so they’re let go and the position is closed.
In regards to the comment above yours, one of the issues is that layoffs are typically directed at the top and done in a surprise manner. It’s rather hard to get sufficient feedback on critical vs. non-critical employees when pondering a layoff without showing your hand (and causing a lot of chaos), so upper management tends to limit the review to a few critical managers and does their best guesswork, hoping no one gets the axe that was irreplaceable.
Their metrics are skewed toward avoiding being sued.
Getting offered a permanent job while working as a contractor is pretty common in the professional services sector too in my experience. Happened to me several times.
How do you define “very generous” vacation time?
As a full-time white-collar worker in Australia I get four weeks of holiday (vacation) time per year, plus 10 additional days of sick/carers leave if I’m ill. Other types of conditional leave are separate again (bereavement and domestic violence leave).
These are the legal minimums for full- and part-time workers in Australia — though in practice they’re being eroded by conversion to “casual”, allegedly short-term positions.
For long service (10 years) in my current job I’ve also just got a one-off entitlement of 8 weeks’ leave. (Not per year; it’s once per employer.) This is technically also a legal minimum, but it’s rare nowadays for anyone to stay in a job that long.
A full-time, white collar worker in the U.S. is going to typically get between 3-5 weeks of vacation time (I’ve had half a dozen professional white-collar jobs, and only one of them offered less than 3 weeks, which was 2). Sick time will be all over the board, but could range from zero (use your vacation days) to up to a week. So, slightly less than your minimum, but not horribly so.
What usually gets the shaft and causes a greater disparity between the U.S. and other modernized countries is blue collar workers and service-sector employees, especially the latter. The average waiter or retail employee will get zero vacation and zero sick time. If you aren’t at work, you don’t get paid.
To put a comparative example: The minimum legally mandated paid vacation time in Sweden is 25 days (so under normal circumstances 5 weeks) this gets more complicated if you work irregular hours, but that’s basically it
That said, the most visceral reactions I’ve seen from people to US (lack of) worker’s protections is parental leave. 12 weeks of unpaid leave vs. 390/450 days of paid leave. (some US states do offer paid parental leave, but still for ludicrously short durations)
In France the equivalent of lecturers and professors are public servant in universities, or normal private-sector employees in private schools (which cannot call themselves universities).
In both cases they have standard contracts. However, academic freedom is protected by the law, if not the constitution (I would need to check), and therefore applies to anyone doing research and teaching in any situation. You need a good reason to fire someone on a permanent contract anyway, either blatant misbehaviour or serious cash-flow issues.
There definitely is a problem, with underpaid TAs-equivalent roles being filled by new doctors. I don’t think it is as bad as in the US, but I will need to actually check the numbers.
Academicians have special circumstances in their employment that make tenure something that they would want to have regardless of a place’s wider employment law. Tenure is supposed to be helpful in the following situations.
* When you need to give honest grades to poor students, even ones who are scions of the rich.
* When you need political top-cover to make a decision to protect your academic department (This is why tenured professors are the ones who are supposed to do the governance of their departments, they can use tenure to weather the effects of a necessary but unpopular decision)
* When your research didn’t amount to much despite your best efforts and neither you nor your colleagues would know that your line of inquiry was bad unless you undertook that research.
* When your research and data contradict the theories of the big Dons of your science. People need to know the facts; but also, people don’t like being told they’ve been wrong for years.
* When your research has social and political implications beyond the academy that are in opposition to the ideologies of the government, mainstream news, your nation’s corporate establishment, the army, the cops, academia itself, or other powerful players.
Of course people are abusing tenure.
We have professors using tenure to become deadwood, pop off with evidence-free takes, force their advisees to ratify fraudulent research. All sorts of dirty deeds.
But the other abuse of tenure (our esteemed host might argue) is not using it to support other academic workers, not using it to break departments of bad hiring habits, not using it to make a scene when the trustees or the state legislature wants to cut (chop-down?) a department.
It seems to me that people in law firms and investment banks have those same issues: protecting their departments, taking on ventures that may not succeed, representing controversial clients, etc.; and they do fine without tenure.
They even do better. The private sector has not been the subject of ideological capture to the same extent as universities.
Do those areas require a 7 – 10 year buy-in period, and if someone is fired from a position at an investment bank or law firm is it possible for them to work in finance or law again, ever?
There’s a pretty enormous difference between something like law or finance where people can transition easily to related work, or just flat out walk away, without a massive opportunity cost associated with it, both practically and culturally speaking.
That’s an abuse, not a justification of tenure.
Interesting post. I am a non-tenure-track academic working at a small, regional university in Quebec. Quebec’s higher education system is different from the US’s (and also from other Canadian provinces’), so it might be hard to make a direct comparison, but I believe my employment type (“chargé de cours”) is closest to what our host calls “adjunct”, with the possible difference that “chargés de cours” at Quebec universities are typically unionized, which might reflect our higher unionization rate in general, while I don’t know if they usually are in the US. But the same movement towards adjunctification of faculty is at work here as well; I have a poster just next to me (announcing the National Adjunct Day on November 22, 2022) claiming that “chargés de cours” teach half of all university courses. There exist other types of teaching academics here as well, but I believe they are less common; a few years ago I applied for a job as what I would describe as full-time teaching faculty at another university. I did not get that job, and as I understand it they offered it to an internal candidate in the department, which suggests that such a thing does happen sometimes.
One thing that might seem strange is that while my Ph. D. is in mathematics, I currently teach in an education department. The reason for this is that Quebec requires high school teachers to have a bachelor’s of education (with a concentration in their chosen subject), rather than a bachelor’s or major in their chosen subject, followed by a certificate of education, which is more common in the rest of North America. Indeed, in much of Canada and the US, the course offerings of mathematics departments at small universities might mostly consist of service courses for science, engineering and business students, as well as a few more advanced courses for their own students whose career plan is to then train as a high school teacher, while similar universities in Quebec might just not have a mathematics department at all, with the education department itself teaching the mathematics courses required for high school teacher training.
How did all of those “university management” rolls that used to be filled by academics get replaced with bureaucrats? That seems like it creates some extremely perverse incentives at a management level.
That sounds like the least worrying part of the whole business, to be honest. There is no reason to suppose that “splendid teacher, world-renowned expert in Mayan agriculture” equates to “good at being a senior manager in a large corporation” and it makes a lot of sense to have people doing management who have been picked for their managing skills!
I would disagree, although partly from my own experience (at a Swedish university) – here we still have collegiate leadership (i.e. prefects (department chairs), deans and the vice chancellor are *elected* by the faculty from among the faculty – and adjunctification seems to mostly have been avoided here.
Leadership at those levels are less about the specific management skills (usually there is staff hired for that under the direction of leadership) and more about representing the interests of the faculty.
I missed this: the strategic direction of the university should be elected not appointed; the managers should work to a strategy decided by elected people. Whether those are elected by the state or by the faculty or by the students or some mix of the three is a different question.
The problem here is that the United States is notoriously bad at teaching and identifying management skills.
They have entrepreneurs and they have executives, but neither of those are actually management jobs; they’re product jobs or finance jobs. That is they are about running the business as a business, not about running the group of people as people.
Management itself is getting a team of people to work together to a single agreed goal (the goal itself is not defined by the manager, it’s either a collective goal or a goal created from above the manager by an executive or elected body). Anyone who has had the rare privilege of working for a good manager can tell you how much more gets achieved when everyone is pulling in the same direction and you’re not endlessly stressed by worrying about what terrible decision with no comprehension of what is going on is going to come down from above.
If there was a skilled professional class of managers in the US that they could hire from, then it would make sense for American universities to do that, but there is no such class of people; junior and middle managers are thrown in at the deep end and either guess their way to success, or fail, or (most often) achieve a simulacrum of success by techniques that don’t work in the long-term (bullying being one) and then change jobs too often for their failures to catch up with them. Senior managers tend to come from MBA graduates or entrepreneurs, not from promoting middle managers, so many senior managers, who often have executive skills, are terrible and inexperienced at actual management (the good ones find a PA who is a decent junior-to-middle manager and get them to manage their immediate subordinates).
The US is actually quite good at management. The largest academic project studying management practices ranks the US #1 in the world, with Sweden as a close second. (https://www.hbs.edu/ris/Publication%20Files/Management_Practices_cd1ecd8a-6aeb-43e0-9d3d-f912ed242bf9.pdf)
Capability of calculating short-term numeric efficiency and to fluently speak Manger/corpospeke (no offensiveness, no blame, a lot of “we” in negative and I in positive, words that don’t mean anything (or misused and abused) aside from aesthetic value…), do not a value to a university make… Except for cash value.
If anything, they should be the ones with “Assistant” or “Assisting” attached to their titles and contracted jobs – but they’re even harder to root out than tenure, and more likely, like rats, to abandon ship to their new float at signs of sinking. Weighed down only by the “successes” they attach to their portfolio, which their like-minded cousins will accept with glee to present to the non-management as valuable. Starting the new ship to listing.
Limited numbers of management are necessary, completely sensible even. Allowing the management and beaurocratic efficiency to overtake the actual purpose of the institution (academic, political, or industrial) is one of the poisons we’re most hard done by today.
I can’t comment on academia directly, but in my field (software), you want your senior leadership to have some degree of domain knowledge in the relevant fields. They don’t need to be the best there, but it’s hard to manage something without fairly in depth understanding of how the thing works.
Yeah. My take on both this and what Bret was saying about ‘technocracy’ recently is that you want things to be managed by people who multiclass buth the domain they’re working in and management.
They make engineering undergrads in the UK study a significant amount of management, ops and finance because the past half-century has been a multigenerational case study in what goes wrong if you don’t prepare people to function in both worlds. You either get technical experts failing to manage and budget effectively or finance-types treating the core function of the organisation as a cost centre.
Sometimes both at once.
I suspect that a big part of it is that the admin burden has exploded to the point where most of your faculty would be on 0/0 teaching loads if it all needed to be handled by faculty.
A lot of those jobs are BS, of course, but often they’re BS that is still necessary (in the modern regulatory/legal environment, legal compliance is always a nightmare for any big organization), and a lot are featherbedding by the bureaucracies…which is functionally impossible to kill unless you can burn down the whole organization and start fresh.
Sigh. Once upon a time, I was an idealistic young graduate student, really thinking that I’d beat the odds and become a professor. Live the life of the mind, research and teach and advance human knowledge step by step.
Then I took a good look at job placements, adjunct salaries, and the chance of getting a TT position and noped out in favor of secondary education after just a year of poking the job market.
Part of me regrets not sticking with it, and probably always will. On the other hand, steady paychecks are nice.
Glad to see the overused, and flawed talking point about “overproduced elites” taken to task here.
I think that was the one thing where Bret was wrong. You simply cannot get away with this kind of BS unless the job market is absolutely oversaturated with eager applicants. Cut the number of eligible job-seekers by three-quarters, and you’d see most new hires being on tenure track pretty quickly.
But for as long as there’s ten doctorates for every academic job, it’s just like any other “lottery industry” (most entertainment fields also fall into this category). When a huge number of people are chasing a small pool of very good jobs, the gatekeepers can get away with murder. Bad pay, bad conditions, and (less openly) all kinds of interpersonal abuses, up to and including sexual ones. It’s supply and demand – you can’t solve that with price floors, you can only make it more secretive. And that’s just as true of pop stars and basketball players as it is of academics.
(And worse: Unlike a lot of those other fields, academics can’t demonstrate skill in anywhere near as objective a way as sports players can. Even entertainers can point to record sales and box-office take. But academics are in such rarefied space that they can’t really do that – the closest thing to an objective measure is teaching evaluations and research paper impact scores, both of which are flawed, and one of which is ignored for cultural reasons.)
He has made posts on Twitter and elsewhere showing that based on data the lottery effect is artificial and based on the adjunctification of teaching roles. The job market is only over-saturated because of the artificial limit placed on full time teaching positions by administration.
If that was true, then there’d be no special difficulty getting an adjunct job. It’d be like most jobs – you can’t just walk in and get hired, but a moderately diligent search will find you a decent gig within not-too-many months.
If adjunct jobs are that easy to find, it’s only because of the sheer number of people who have opted out from a system that abusive. If they were even close to being as good as tenure-track jobs, there’d be massive shortages.
Labour markets simply don’t exist in a state that skewed without some major underlying reasons. Anyone who tried to act that poorly would get very little interest from a typical labour market, and anyone competent would get poached quickly.
There seems to be a bit of confusion in this comment. It is in fact generally not very difficult to find an adjunct job! The norm for an instructor stuck in the precariat is to be stuck in one or more low-paying no-benefits adjunct jobs, not to be completely unemployed. At some schools “just walk in and get hired” is not too far from the norm. That said, in the post-Covid world this is less true than it was five and certainly ten years ago. Declining enrollments have often led to cancellation of basic intro classes that were once taught by adjuncts.
But, a big part of the “oversupply” is an industry that practices supply segregation. If any academic stops working in the academy, ever, that ends their academic career.
Thus, if someone wants to work in the academy they must be segregated from the rest of the economy, and accept the lower pay of the academic caste system.
This is a LARGE part of the oversupply of elites problem. Some of the people that left the academy for higher pay and working conditions would never come back. Thus limiting supply. But, because it’s a one way ratchet those that wish to do such work are trapped until they are willing to abandon their desired career forever.
This is not in fact true. In stem fields there is regular lateral movement between academia, national labs, and industry labs. There is also the occasional example of a hobbyist who proves e.g. a major mathematical theorem and catapults into a tenure line faculty job.
The key misunderstanding here is the conceit that tenure track jobs are about teaching. They are not. They are primarily about research. If you are able to do good research outside academia there is a path in.
Drug dealers are the same sort of job. Most drug dealers still live with their mothers because they can’t afford their own apartments. They stick to it in hopes of hitting the jackpot.
My ultimate takeaway here is that academics are like drug dealers.
Let me walk through a very generalized history here:
1. Post WW 2, the GI Bill massively increased the number of college attendees. This began a huge hiring push, especially at the big state schools who accommodated most of these new students.
2. The hiring demands pretty much subsided by the early 70s, but graduate programs had been expanded in an attempt to meet those demands. Suddenly there was a glut on the market because of overproduction. You also have to remember that PhD production can take 4-8 years depending on discipline and project, so market supply and demand adjustments have a huge lag.
3. From the 70s into the 90s, the overproduction continued for several reasons: Ranking and prestige were partly linked to PhD production; TT faculty preferred to teach graduate seminars and graduate student teaching assistants were cheap labor (only expensive compared to adjuncts) able to take general education classes as well as doing grading and research work for faculty. Programs also made money off their grad students by not funding them. Also, you usually couldn’t hire adjuncts or NTT faculty to teach graduate students, so big grad programs supported a larger TT faculty. Once the state of the market became clearer, grad programs had to offer full funding to applicants in order to land them, which shrank their sizes to the number they could financially support, and the financial incentive to accept more grad students than you could fund disappeared. This period coincides with the retirement of some of the faculty hired during the GI Bill period.
4. In the past 20-30 years, overproduction has been less of an issue. The problem is instead driven by a massive shrinkage in TT hiring: supply had already dropped because demand had fallen off a cliff, but the academic job market has a tremendous lag built into it: aside from PhDs taking 4+ years to finish, and the reservoir of graduates still looking for academic jobs, there’s a pool of already TT faculty looking to “move up” to R1 positions. This can include even faculty with tenure. So the potential candidates for a good R1 TT job include everyone receiving a PhD this year, plus everyone with a PhD not in a TT job, plus anyone with a PhD in a TT job that wants this job. The rise of the adjunct artificially enhances the supply of job candidates, because most full-time NTT faculty want a TT job, and they aren’t dropping out of the market and looking elsewhere because they can survive longer while looking.
When I was on the academic job market in 2004-7, in a fairly specialized subfield, I applied to 100 TT jobs over 4 years. Looking at positions listed over the past few years, I couldn’t have done that: there weren’t more than 40 I could have even stretched myself to apply for in the most recent 4 year period. And there is a minimum size to any graduate program: I can’t teach a graduate seminar with 2 students in it.
5. The final factor: the labor pool for adjuncts ranges from current grad students to retirees, and usually you don’t need the PhD, just an MA/MS or equivalent. So anyone still in academia or anyone unable or unwilling to switch out of it will be in this pool. There’s nothing a responsible graduate director can do about current admissions to address a labor pool that still includes some students from the 70s to 90s along with all the newly minted PhDs who saw the TT market drop off a cliff while in mid-dissertation. Most overeager candidates for adjunct jobs don’t bother applying for TT positions because they have no chance of getting them; contrarily, the demand for adjuncts has skyrocketed because hiring an adjunct makes a university money from student tuition, and why pay a full-time NTT faculty member benefits and a salary 2/3rd as large as a TT faculty member to teach 4 classes when you can get an adjunct to teach the same 4 classes for 1/8th the cost?
Meanwhile, adjuncts in their 40s-60s with health problems, no insurance (unless thru their partners), and teaching 6-8 classes a semester to get by do not have the energy left to unionize and fight for better working conditions. They’re grateful for what they get from the R1s, which pay a pittance but more than regional schools and offer a higher quality of support (and better students).
The rise of the online course (and associated adjunct, who can teach from anywhere) is just going to be the next complication in this already fraught situation.
Oh this is silly you can absolutely do that. Labor markets do not and have never worked anything like a SparkNotes free market system.
Academics have a buy-in/training period of, starting with a bachelor’s degree, at least 9 years, and outside of some very prestigious contexts, probably closer to 12. And the system and culture is cohesive enough that it’s functionally a single employer in most cases. You might as well be saying that coal miners in Appalachia accept poor safety measures because there are too many of them.
And what in this comment do you think rebuts the point made?
“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.”
This latter part is unfortunately super-common in Sweden and apparently not something anyone can get shamed out of any longer. In theory, positions get posted for everyone to apply to – in practice, they’re shaped so that only the one person they’re intended for qualifies. Hence by _far_ the best way to attain a career is to play nice within what looks pretty much like a patron/client-system where you get your department to hire you as soon as you’re eligible.
It should be obvious what this does for competence and independence.
To be honest I feel this issue is distinct from adjuctification in the US – the issue here is more one of a lack of confidence in one’s recruiting process. At least in my experience, groups prefer to hire the people they’ve worked with for a while and know work well with the group rather than gamble on a real external recruitment.
Unfortunately this does leave independence as a casualty since it is so much easier to get a job with a group you’ve established yourself within.
I would be curious to hear, if there is anyone involved in the academia of other countries to know how the situation compares.
I am not in academia, but doing a small Google search for my country (Canada, but more precisely Quebec) leaves me to believe we might be in a similar situation where the proportion of professors has been going down with time (from 80% in 1999 to 67% from the most recent stats I found). From my reading, it looks similar in terms of reasons, where the demand for courses has increased but that has led universities to increase non-tenured positions while keeping roughly the same number of tenured positions. I see similar complaints of the declining quality of education.
For what it’s worth, it also looks to me like these positions are generally unionized, so I hope they get better conditions than what you describe, but since I am not in academia and do not know anyone who is, I can’t confirm if that is the case or not.
I’m uncertain on the broader issues, but when Bret first started bringing this up, I did ask my father, who was a tenured professor at a Canadian University for years about the ‘won’t hire your own adjuncts’ thing, as that just strikes me as so insane. In my field, we often have internships/externships/probationary periods to make sure the person can do the work and get along with the office. To basically have that, then refuse to hire the people who succeed just struck me as insane.
He confirmed it as true, though had no explanation when I asked for one. He did have one particularly distressing story about a very successful adjunct, who was working in exactly the area which was about to be advertised for an assistant professorship (I think he was teaching all the intended courses and researching in the area) who he recommended apply for the position and continued to push that until the man took him aside and explained that he’d had a conversation with members of the search committee and they’d politely told him that applying would just be a waste of everyone’s time.
One explanation I heard for only hiring people from outside the university for tenure track was that it is supposed to prevent the departments from becoming echo chambers. Of course, only giving tenure to people straight out of the PhD programs of a handfull of top universities is is not the way to prevent echo chambers, hiring other universities’ adjuncts would be.
Belated response, since I was travelling, but I don’t think that works for hiring your own adjuncts, that’s a very different thing than hiring your own grad students. Grad students are students, adjuncts are colleagues, who are usually trained by another institution (if only because you really don’t want your grad students to get a glimpse of their future.
My wife, who works in medicine, actually had a good explanation why hospitals sometimes avoid hiring their own residents.
It goes like this: By hiring people they trained or taught they are creating a progressive decrease in their knowledge base. They can only pass on a fraction of their knowledge and experiance to an individuals, so they best way to maintain a robust knowledge base is to use the hiring process as an infusion of capability.
Of course these are medical parctitioners that do not have time for research because they have 60-80 hour a week jobs doing hands on medicine.
Right, but as mentioned above, they don’t train their adjuncts (indeed, if adjuncts were either graduate students or interns/externs it would be a lot less distasteful).
My mother used to be an adjunct psych professor at a community college. No research involved, pure teaching, and she only had a master’s degree, but she was very good at engaging the students. She quit because it got to the point where every semester a bunch of students would apply for her courses after seeing her name listed, only to have the section taken away from her and given to a full-time professor so they could have a full course load. She would get saddled with a lot of intro classes if she got anything. It was daft and she had no reason to put up with it, so she didn’t.
Reading accounts like this (both this post and your previous post about what it’s like to be a grad student, as well as from a grad student I know in the US) I’m astonished by just how large the gulf can be between conditions in different countries. Apparently I make more money as a PhD student in Sweden than most US adjuncts make (admittedly I am in STEM, which does change things – but even humanities PhDs make a passable salary here).
I do think the death of collegiate leadership in favor of CEO-style university presidents is a significant factor in the differences – over here university leadership is still elected from among the staff. Another huge factor is student involvement in quality control of courses, something which among other things has lead to every course taught (at least at my university – but I believe this is universal) requring a person as “course responsible”, and that person has to be the equivalent of tenure track or tenured. I.e. the university could not run an adjunct-only course even if they wanted to.
There are still adjuctification-esque issues, but they are on the research side rather than the teaching side (admittedly, this might also be a STEM thing) – it’s quite common here to be hired as a “researcher” on one-year contracts with no or only informal teaching duties. Tenure track positions also tend to have a “must be within x years of your PhD” clause attached to them, meaning that people who spend too long in non-tenure positions essentially have to qualify for tenure directly to be hired (which IME is rare except for people with non-academic research experience). Mostly this is a result of funding, with the teaching budget typically being very consistent while the research budget is highly dependent on grants (and there are strict prohibitions on what money can fund what).
I agree in many STEM is quite different. Both my wife and a close family friend in Genetics moved directly to a Post Doc (although Industry was the other potential). But as NTT assistant professors the deal was 3 years and a university initial endowment of money and some percentage of some existing grants (and also thus an easy publication or two as you got legs under you). At the end of three 3 years you had to be self funded by grants and each year you had a research publication quota. Teaching requirements was really up to them as was taking on a few MS students. If you did lean hard in teaching and students at associate you could petition to jump to tenured. But more or less it was the grant money and papers that the university cared about – because the U taxes your grants.
I profoundly agree that the shift to CEO-style university presidents, which happened in the USA in the 1990s and early aughts, was a disaster and needs to be rolled back. These professional managers have been uniformly bad for the universities they manage.
Am I correct in understanding that the shift has been to outside boards appointing presidents without participation of the faculty, and not delegation by the faculty to professional managers?
If so I believe the root of evil is taking authority from the Faculty, and that these managers would do much better by the College if they in fact worked for the College and were accountable to a majority vote of tenured professors.
At least at state institutions, the problem is that the states (either the Board of Trustees or the politicians) want more control over the universities even as they’ve massively cut support for them, and hiring a CEO-style president accountable to them and not the faculty or students is the best way to achieve that control. The deafening silence from university presidents in states legislating what can be taught or studies (while stripping tenure protections) shows how useful the CEO model is to those states.
I made more money as a sophomore computer science intern, 20 years ago, than they are paying adjuncts. STEM is different.
Stop ignoring the real question: is there an academic equivalent to Field Marshal, & why don’t American universities use it?
Who pushed for the administration numbers to increase? Was it professors, or was it the government?
Certainly a part of the reason for pushing tenure out is because a tenure appointment is effectively for life, which means your costs are much higher. When you have a lot of students to teach, but you won’t after a while (like in the baby boom), then you end up needing a lot of teachers for the next 10 years, but many fewer after that.
I suspect the committees are being told “We have the budget to offer *one* position in the next *five* years”, so they go for what they think is the superstar.
Having all the money hoovered up by the sports area, the restaurants, the grounds, HR, etc. certainly doesn’t help. By why is that happening?
The administrators push for the administrators to increase; once you make the mistake of putting them in charge, they, like an MMO player, start chasing ever higher numbers (metrics/KPIs). The best way to get numbers isn’t to increase output or worker quality, but to get more administration to generate more numbers, and administrators for those administrators; as long as the numbers they care for are rising, the rest of the business/school/industy/government can burn down around them.
Universities just need to draw in more mooks that think having it is necessary, important, or interesting. (Or to represent that they’re scoring points with an ideology that will provide funding as long as it looks like they’re scoring points on that same line.) Whether, once those mooks become students, they gain anything from the experience is a negligible impact on their numbers. Unless they can convince those students to do the work of employees for no-or-less money – a positive in their spreadsheets that lets them have more part-timers, or less employees in general. The only thing to avoid is negative PR, but even that in small numbers can be easily fobbed off. (And medium PR disasters just need to wait a year and they’ll be forgotten – you just need to avoid large and immediate-duration disasters that will get you closed.)
Sparkling buildings and sports fields score lots of PR points while having few long-term weights on finances – by the time those buildings become derelict the administrator will be long gone, and the new administrator can use it as a reason that the public should give them more money. They can even be a way to get more contractors in, who require more parallel administration.
Over the past 60 years, the states massively cut their contributions to state schools. In many places, the state used to cover the vast majority of costs and now contributes less than 20%. This money has partly been replaced by tuition, but many schools rely on donations. Big donors will give millions for a big building they can put their names on; sports, restaurants, grounds also help draw donor dollars, in the same way that student facilities (climbing walls, for instance) draw students willing to pay big tuition.
Even big federal money earmarked by senators usually goes to things like buildings or STEM programs. Who ever heard of a senator earmarking $150 million in federal funds to create more TT positions in the humanities in their state schools?
Actually, donors often endow professorships or fund programs, although they tend to want programs rather different from those that the faculty want.
Bingo. Many if not most universities and even CC’s are in actuality real estate and sports franchise industries, which are financed by students’ tuition. The point is acquiring properties of all sorts, not education of the students, much less teaching.
For decades too, higher education has operated on the extraordinarily cheap to non-existent payment of students to do many basic tasks that in the outside world would have had to be handled by professionals, which means the relentless go-round of someone perhaps getting a handle on the work to be replaced by someone who knows nothing. No institutional memory.
I first noticed this in universities and colleges that have publishing presses — the messes the presses have become with even filing copyright has led to some just finally going out of commission and, of course, leaving enormous messes just sitting there.
BTW, university and college librarians have the same set of conditions going on that faculty do — with less and less budget to hire human beings, staff being let go, and non-professionals hired instead.
That’s fairly well known in the business: My father was a professor and noted that when he want to college, the college had 6 administrative positions, counting from the president down to the switchboard operator. The major causes are (1) an increase in various regulations that have to be obeyed, (2) an increase in various sources of government money, all of which have various stipulations attached, and the big one is (3) colleges sell themselves to students as being fun places, rather than selling themselves to students’ parents as being educational institutions. If you delete the concept that the college should supply “student services”, staffing needs are much reduced.
I buried this in a reply so I’ll post it again here, Brett:
Why do you not list “stop making working in outside of the university a career death sentence” among things that TT faculty can do? Is that just a bridge too far?
Anyone smart and hardworking enough to get a PHD can get *some* kind of job outside of academia that pays better than working at McDonalds. Heck, High School teaching positions will give you benefits AND three months of the year off to conduct research!
To me, the “we don’t hire our own adjuncts” is awful, but the real killer is “we won’t hire someone who’s left the gang.” That’s the main pressure that *lets* universities treat their adjuncts like crap. Without that dangling hope of “I still have a chance, even a small one!” PHDs wouldn’t be locked into the system.
It’s kinda like the Spartiate system, now that you mention it. The only way to go is out…
I definitely concur as a Civil Engineering graduate student. In addition to the competition putting pressure on universities to offer better salaries and working conditions, professors with more varied work experience are often better teachers. Some of my best professors from undergraduate university, which is a state school that’s effectively an overgrown community college, had initially worked as professional engineers before pursuing academic careers and it showed in their excellent and career focused advice and teaching. I have not seen any such professors at any R1 university, where every professor seemed to have been bred and born from undergrad to work in research and assume everyone is infatuated with the theories they study rather than the reality of what it takes to build a sewage network or a highway bridge. There’s no space for experience outside of academia, the so called center of knowledge, without sacrificing your career.
Falling for the carrot of “I still have a chance, even a small one!” is not a good look for the candidates either. Have some dignity, people.
The “professor of practice” role could be a loophole here. We just have to make it acceptable for a distinguished researcher to wind up their career at a university. This would also solve the problem of junior researchers outside academe getting discouraged because they don’t see the senior people leaving, ever, which is a giant problem in my field. Disclaimer: STEM.
The rationale is coupled to the rationale for not hiring candidates who have been on the market for more than a few years.
“Replacement” positions in the tenure-track are gone. No state school that I know of will give a department a TT hire just because somebody left or retired. They certainly won’t guarantee a TT hire if someone fails to earn tenure.
That means if you hire someone into a TT position, their ability to earn tenure or not determines whether the department keeps that line or loses it (potentially to be replaced by the kind of contingent labor Bret discusses, or maybe by nothing).
That makes the ideal candidate someone with an active research agenda, who presents their work at academic conferences, is getting published, and is about to hit the “milestone” for tenure at the hiring institution. “Older” PhDs are less likely to hit those marks. Theoretically, they may be less “current” in their fields, but practically, it’s because they have no support or encouragement to attend conferences or conduct research while in adjunct or full-time teaching positions, they do huge amounts of labor, and they’re at risk of “timing” out on the currency of their dissertations.
The “ideal” TT candidate has a book contract but the book won’t be published until after they’re hired and it will thus “count”. A big problem Bret doesn’t discuss is that universities only care about the research you do once you are hired, that goes out associated with them: a school head-hunting a superstar researcher will do so because of their prior research record, but a candidate for a TT position can only rarely count past publications toward tenure. They’re paying you to be doing research NOW, not five years ago, even though they’re happy to count that book you completed before being hired but that goes out with the name of their institution linked to it. All the “metrics” administrators use to track TT research support this model.
Contrarily, if you had a great and publishable dissertation but then didn’t conduct any research or keep up with the field for three years while you taught 6 classes as an adjunct to survive, someone else may have beaten you to the punch or a development in your field may render your work largely unpublishable. No department is going to take that risk on you when they lose a position permanently if you fail. If you taught 6/6 and managed to publish anyway, then you probably looted your dissertation and need to write a SECOND book to earn tenure; if you published a book while adjuncting, then you definitely need to write a second book for tenure, and are the odds of that better than hiring someone with completed dissertation in-hand?
I went to a small public university and it apparently is much more old school. 34% have tenure (versus 23% nationally), 16% tenure track (9%), 7% full time NTT (20%), 43% adjuncts (47%).
Most of the adjuncts only teach 1 class, and pretty much all the rest 2 classes, so >75% of the classes are taught by tenure-track. We still call our adjuncts by that name. They are mostly what you apparently call a professor of practice, people who are at the tail end of their career and think it would be a good experience to teach a college class. Others teaching a class for money on the side. The adjuncts won’t really be doing research for the most part since being an adjunct isn’t really part of an academic career for them.
It is interesting how different it is between departments. Like the History Department is all tenure track while the English and Criminal Justice ones have 5 or so adjuncts each. I don’t really know how things work administratively, but makes me suspicious the departments are each essentially their own private fief which decides what approach it want to take.
Also like people will straight up say that it is more teaching oriented than a lot of larger institutions, which is probably why there were a surprisingly number of genuinely good professors given the school was not terribly high up the college prestige ranking.
Also, I think you are too dismissive of the elite overproduction theory. There has certainly been a drop in share of people with PhDs for instance becoming professors tenured or not. The thing is a lot of people really like teaching, so conditions can deteriorate rapidly when supply exceeds demand. Basically it is like how K-12 teachers are paid fairly badly, enough people are willing to work anyway, so the privilege of working for students essentially is the compensation.
Basically people like you, Dr. Devereaux, desperately trying to find any type of academic work are in a certain sense the problem. You are taking a job some other unlucky adjunct who probably needs it more than you do could have and in the process are infinitesimally reducing the leverage of everyone who wishes they could be tenure track. Like it is totally understandable why you want to, being a professor is great! But that dynamic helps feed the pathologies.
…and what is he supposed to do about it? Not have a job? I mean, for Devereaux in specific it might be plausible to try making his public-oriented academic writing into a full-time Patreon-supported job, but that’s not remotely possible for most “people like Dr. Devereaux”.
The idea that needy people not getting jobs they need should be blamed on other workers and not on management is utterly baffling to me.
Dr. Devereaux’s twitter’s feed is full of posts saying that students who study in history do well in their later careers, and that an education in history imparts valuable skills on those students.
To the extent that people actually believe these things, it should logically follow that history PhDs should also have valuable skills.
I am actually not trying to be snarky; I strongly suspect that Brett Devereaux actually doesn’t know if his skills (or the skills that he is imparting on his students!) are actually valuable on the job market outside of academia, since he never had a serious job outside of academia. Reading the results of a few surveys and then telling undergraduates that it will all be fine is very different from jumping in the deep end of the pool yourself. This uncertainty, more so than anything else, is what keeps the academics in academia despite the terrible treatment.
“Basically people like you, Dr. Devereaux, desperately trying to find any type of academic work are in a certain sense the problem. You are taking a job some other unlucky adjunct who probably needs it more than you do could have and in the process are infinitesimally reducing the leverage of everyone who wishes they could be tenure track. Like it is totally understandable why you want to, being a professor is great! But that dynamic helps feed the pathologies.”
What’s missing from this perspective is precisely how large the sunk cost of a PhD happens to be.
I graduated with a BS in Mathematics during a boom-time for corporations; if I’d pivoted from math to accounting instead of a humanities field I would likely have landed a good job with plenty of advancement opportunities that same year. I know the school’s accounting program was so desperate for graduates to teach accounting that their chair made a big offer to me and promised me I’d get a starting salary of $100,000 from a TT job because the market for BS accountants was so good and the pay was so high nobody was willing to dedicate the time to grad school and then teach accounting. Starting level accounting jobs were in the $33k to $36k range based on what I can find googling it now.
I received my PhD in a humanities field 9 years later. I landed a coveted TT job 12 years after graduating college. During the time-to-PhD I received no SSI or retirement benefits and lived on $14K a year. The starting salary on that TT job was $48,000. Factoring in 12 years of inflation, my starting salary had I become a regular accountant (not a TT accounting professor) would have been higher than that, and I’d have had 12 years of raises and promotions.
Even better, the PhD disqualifies me for many jobs because I am “overqualified.” One isn’t stuck in academia, but non-academic job opportunities are limited for humanities PhDs in many ways.
I made a conscious decision to take this route and to prioritize doing what I loved over making more money in exchange for being unhappy at work. And I am one of the success cases. But if you’ve already sacrificed a considerable sum of money in exchange for a career path, abandoning that career path becomes extremely difficult to justify. And very few graduate programs provide much support for non-academic job paths; even fewer provide specific training in classes. Suggesting that someone who sacrificed so much already in pursuit of this specific kind of work is “the problem” ignores the ways in which the academic system is designed: requiring long years and many sacrifices in exchange for an exploitative labor market. Given the extent to which cheap, productive labor seems to be a primary goal of the people at the top of the broader market, blaming the laborers for those conditions is like suggesting we need a socialist revolution culminating in the punishing of the working-class for being dumb enough to labor so productively and cheaply.
> Even better, the PhD disqualifies me for many jobs because I am “overqualified.”
You don’t have to mention your PhD on applications. Your application is an advertisement and should only include facts that help to sell you. It is not integral to your post, but many people have a blind spot here. So I push back.
A PhD is not a criminal conviction with a disclosure requirement. You can say you spent that time teaching, or self-studying Ugandan doll making practices etc (as long as you really did those things).
Re “elite overproduction”.
I believe you when you say that the demand has stayed level or risen. But you didn’t talk about the supply, and supply is where “overproduction” happens.
If my decades-out-of-date memories are right, a department with N full professors produces a bit less than N new PhDs per year. Since full professors stick around for more than a few years, more new PhDs are produced each year than retire in that year. Yes, some of them (especially in STEM) go into industry, but even so there’s overproduction.
I think of this as the “ballerina” issue: so many more people want to be ballerinas than there are ballerina jobs that the market price (wage) for a ballerina is just enough to keep them alive. Similarly, lots of people want to be tenured academics.
For disciplines which are growing (e.g. Computer Science in the 1970s, Linguistics in the 1960s), where each university is creating new departments and staffing them, the demand is high enough to consume the supply. But for disciplines which are not growing or even shrinking, the demand is far below the supply. I think you shouldn’t so quickly dismiss “elite overproduction”.
One of his tweets on the side of this post says:
“The reserve army of adjuncts is the death of TT bargaining power. Always has been.”
That does imply that there is indeed an oversupply issue. Yes, there are additional complexities as other commenters have stated that there is some artificial jacking of the market due to a huge buy-in of years required for the degree as well as informal blacklisting of people who EVER decide to leave academia for trade, but at the heart of the matter is that there is an oversupply. If not, universities would have such a difficult time obtaining workers in these adjunct positions that they would be forced to change their standards to even attract any interest. They might have biases that these potential applicants aren’t “worth the extra salary/perks” (much like many employers of low-skill workers likely do for having to hire waiters, cashiers, etc. these past few years), but they would still have to bite their tongues and offer those salaries/perks anyway.
This may not be current overproduction, but this has all the earmarks of a field where there is a big enough glut of applicants that the employers decide they can do whatever they want. The job market may not be a perfect free market, but it seems that the only way colleges can get away with offering an adjunct position for $25,000 a year (!) is that there are still enough applicants who will take such a job instead of deciding that it would be better to teach high school and get more than twice the pay plus benefits, or go into the private sector. If such a shift went on long enough, it might also force colleges to look at candidates who have left academia.
This may have somewhat different factors keeping people in the system than ballet, music, or modeling (to name some fields that probably have the worst exploitation due to oversupply). Someone with a PhD may view being a professor as the only viable way to earn the cost of education back, particularly outside of STEM. But the pattern seems to repeat itself.
> 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.
This is always a culture shock, as a STEM academic — in most of STEM, taking an adjunct job is equivalent to leaving academia, as far as job chances go (4% of new hires in ecology in 2018 had a teaching related title at all, including full-time teaching jobs — https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2018/10/04/how-were-newly-hired-n-american-tt-asst-professors-of-ecology-employed-when-they-were-hired-heres-the-data/ ). I suppose that’s because there’s more postdocs around, though, so that’s where PhDs are expected to go when they don’t land a TT job right away.
The situation in Australian higher education is not too dissimilar, although a full-time tenured professor earns $200K plus significant benefits, so those roles are even more attractive than in the US.
There is currently a massive series of industrial claims in Australia to redress the exploitative conditions many adjuncts have been forced into. These so-called ‘wage theft’ cases have already caused several elite Australian universities to offer backdated additional payments, and calls for re-calculation of rates paid for marking, admin and preparation work. I know of several people with PhDs in the natural sciences who have never had a full-time university teaching role,let alone tenure-track, in the past 20 years. I was very pleased to see one of them take up a role in private industry, after beating her head against the ivory walls for such a long time.
I am reminded of the comments we have had that the more valuable citizenship is, the hard it is to naturalize.
Tenured status gets you a very elite citizenship, with powerful voting rights.
According to this link, professors at UQ do not earn $200K AUD, which in any case would be quite a bit less than $200k USD. https://staff.uq.edu.au/information-and-services/human-resources/pay-leave-entitlements/pay-scales/academic
Wait! Where are the photos of the Academicats?
Irrelevant to the topic at hand; I don’t think Devereaux hires adjunct academicats.
Neither did Ollie have any connection to the topic of Academic Freedom, yet nevertheless, his photo graced its introduction.
Dr. Devereaux has confirmed that Ollie is the crazy idea guy, while Percy is the sensible one who shoots most of them down. So Ollie needs tenure to protect his crazy ideas.
Are they adjuncts? As far as I’m aware, they’ve got permanent life-long positions and won’t be kicked out for anything short of gross feline malfeasance.
If the cats’ position in the household depended upon regular dead-mouse production, that’d be different. But unlike in academia, I think the human relationship with cats has moved toward the tenure model, at least in North America.
I’m sure you’re correct that the vast majority of people don’t understand how the system works. Heck, I’ve read your social posts on this topic at length and this blog post still had numerous new details I wasn’t aware of. However, I think people do intuit the broad brushstrokes and that’s a major reason why we no longer have a national consensus on the value of a liberal arts education, or the humanities more broadly.
On the one hand, we have colleges and universities telling us that a liberal arts education is vital to ensuring well-rounded citizens. On the other hand, their budgets and hiring practices — the two biggest ways that organizations demonstrate their values — put teaching well behind research and other responsibilities.
If colleges and universities don’t prioritize education (hell, if the actual educators who make hiring decisions don’t prioritize education), then they shouldn’t be surprised when the general public turns on their claims about the value of a liberal arts education and comes to view secondary education purely as vocational training. They need to change their values if they want the public to follow.
I also disagree with the valorization of tenure. I agree that adjuncts teaching 4/4 at $4K per course have a miserable existence, but VAPs and full-time teaching professors (usually called lecturers at my college when I was there) have perfectly good jobs with just as much job security as every other professional in America. Do lawyers ever take controversial cases? Yes, some of them–the ones with integrity–and sometimes they get fired for it. For example, Kirkland and Ellis fired the lawyers who were arguing (and mostly winning) gun rights cases. But they got other jobs. It might help that law, and most professional fields, are a little less politically monolithic than academia. Maybe that’s what needs to be remedied. Doing so might obviate the need for tenure.
“It might help that law, and most professional fields, are a little less politically monolithic than academia. Maybe that’s what needs to be remedied. Doing so might obviate the need for tenure.”
I’d love to see that remedied- the dominance of particular ideological viewpoints in academia, and educational polarization in general, are really bad for society- but I’m not sure how to solve the problem. Any ideas?
I was hired by my university (a Law school in Spain) last October. I don’t have a PhD. The position is supposed to be similar to what y’all call VAP. The hiring process was shocking, to say the least: another teacher had left suddenly (in September!), so I was unexpectedly offered the position. Then, the university offered me a short course to round up my salary. Then, another teacher left too (in December!), so I was offered another course for the second semester (and more pay). Now, after preparing two full courses, I’m not 100% confident I will be hired again for next year or that it will be to teach what I have prepared and can go deeper into. What gives me hope: other teachers have left because the salary is risible (we’re all lawyers, after all), so the university is having a hard time retaining “talent”.
So, I quite sympathize with you, Prof. Devereaux. After all, academia is a wonderful challenge, but not my career choice. The conditions you so aptly describe must be very hard for the likes of you – I will say they are disrespectful and degrading.
I was very surprised to hear my students, poor fellows, address me as Professor or Doctor. In my first class, I had explained to them that I’m just a lawyer, but they don’t seem to have understood it. They don’t know what the situation is in their university, or how their teachers are hired. They just trust the institution, and they’re deceived.
This one hurts a bunch as it was basically this dynamic that made me decide to give up on the Academic Philosophy dream I had had since I was like 12, since humanities academia is ~ the worst job market in the world.
I completely vibe with your goal of ‘fixing this f-up situation and restoring the university to its purposeful form as a collegial institution of scholars’ but I do think I would also appreciate some more historian magic around the system. Questions I have for example:
– Where does the adjunct come from? Which University, or who, first began this process? Did it come from administrators, or funders, or what? Is it repurposing an older non-abusive institution to a new form (like your discussion of Sulla’s dictatorship if I recall correctly).
– How does an academic hiring committee actually work? How does the money get allocated/approved? How is the job title/requirements settled on? How does a hiring committee get selected (and how are its members trained/acculturated?)
– How do the different funding mechanisms for the University intersect and how do they manifest in different incentives? (like how does state funding compare to federal funding to donor funding to tuition ect.) How do the different prestige/status mechanisms effect people (prestige in the larger community, among the community of scholars broadly, at same title level in your department, in the department as a whole, with respect to students, with respect to self-identity)?
– How does direct and indirect usefulness, signaling effects, and increased specialization (or other larger economic and social transformation) effect the dynamics here?
One challenge I have is that I often feel like explanations for these events are a bit thin (like for the value of the humanities the focus might be ‘policy has not emphasized the importance of the humanities enough’) and don’t explicitly confront the secular trends that are shaping the situation (like for the humanities the rising cultural valence of the measurable and lucrative, the decline in the proportion of present identification with a specific past tradition, the tremendous relative expansion in STEM knowledge, increased specialization and professionalization driving a decline in the pursuit of generalist skills, the transformation of the university generally towards employment preparation, rising disgust with the conduct/characteristics of past ages, rising suspicion of cultivation or education as being necessary for happiness/good citizenship…)
My gut feeling is that a trend that is cross-national, cross-departmental, and now multi-decadal can’t really be explained by the individual bad choices of thousands of different actors (though I do think that building a durable sense of common-cause among academics would definitely help, class consciousness is a prerequisite for the revolution after all).
Happy to now be an Amici and to do my small part to helping you lose your chains.
My understanding is that the original and true adjunct positions still exist: local professionals who are willing to teach a course in law or accounting or dentistry. I have known several lawyers who did that, either long-term (but untenured) or on a one-shot basis.
They do. I (civil engineering student – that’s buildings and roads and the like) had a course taught by a local professional architect. I don’t know if he still teaches that class, but I got some useful stuff out of it.
I’m an undergrad, and I took a (gen. ed requirement) psychology class last semester taught by a practicing therapist with a Psy.D. Not entirely sure why he wanted to take time from his presumably quite high-paying job in a very wealthy nearby city to teach Psych 101 to a bunch of random undergrads, but the class was decent.
I wrote something similar for freshmen: https://jseliger.wordpress.com/2010/09/26/how-universities-work-or-what-i-wish-i%e2%80%99d-known-freshman-year-a-guide-to-american-university-life-for-the-uninitiated/, ,and it covers some of the incentives that are often opaque to people not used to the peculiar university system.
Current college student here. (Engineering major, so not exactly your field, but I like the history writing.) Thinking through this, I can identify about five teachers I’ve had who I am 100% sure were tenured – they were in high-level department positions. The STEM ones mostly taught upper-level classes, although there was one who just really liked teaching freshman chemistry; the German ones taught anything and everything because there were a total of three people in the department and they couldn’t get funding for an adjunct. Labs were usually run by grad students, who… let’s just say they varied a lot in how much they wanted to be there. Everyone else, I’m not sure.
I have noticed, though, that the teachers I really liked often did not stick around long. My favorite math teacher was here for one year. With this in mind, that makes a lot of sense – they were mostly younger and not in profitable fields, and were probably adjuncts, searching for somewhere, anywhere, that would pay them decently. We’re an R2 state university, and by far the worst-funded state university in the system, so we’re no one’s dream job and we don’t have the money to pay people to stay.
Wait, where are the postdocs in the charts you posted? You mentioned them briefly in the text, but they don’t seem to be in your charts? In math it seems like there’s a lot of postdocs, but I have no idea how you’re classifying them in your chart.
I was for 25 years (1990 – 2015, when I retired) tenure-line faculty at two large state medical schools. What strikes me on reading this is how different medical school is from what you describe. While we had non-tenure-track faculty, none were adjuncts as you describe — they (Instructor and Research Assistant/Associate Professor were the usual titles) were fulltime employees, salaried, and with benefits. And most of them were researchers, not teachers, yes, even the Instructors were mostly researchers.
I think this is mostly a med school vs undergrad university difference, but it could also be a STEM vs humanities difference.
Also, proffessional programs are often a different beast altogether. Saying this as a JD. Often profesional programs are direct sources of profit for the underlying institution (tuition > cost) and the students aren’t trying to get into academics.
Anyone qualified to teach at a professional school has much better outside options than all but academic superstars who already have tenure in the humanities. Having good outside options is most of the reason STEM and Economics are less bad for adjuncts than the humanities.
Typo(?): The article introduces the term “ABDs” without previously explaining it.
All But Dissertation. A PhD student who has completed all of the requirements for a degree except writing and defending their doctoral thesis. Apparently ABDs from sufficiently fancy schools can get hired for prospectively fancy jobs? At least if they’re right out of the gate? That’s the implication I get here.
In another time, my mother finished her PhD coursework at NYU (before I was born) and then spent about a decade teaching part-time at small colleges while working on her dissertation in spurts (while I was a young child) before deciding she didn’t want to keep pursuing it. I don’t know if, thirty years ago, she would’ve been able to actually get on a tenure track if she had completed her degree after such a long time.
It’s fairly common for ABDs to get hired (depending on pedigree). It’s a term that encompasses a fairly wide range of stages, but when it comes to hiring it tends to mean something like “their advisor quietly assured me that they will defend prior to the start date of the position”. Because of the PhDs-go-stale phenomenon it’s not strange to see people strategize about when to defend a dissertation, and try to avoid doing it until there’s a job-in-hand.
A possible alternative solution might be for it to become generally understood that accepting an adjunct position is every bit as much a permanent exit from (tenure track) academia as accepting a job as e.g. banker, or salesman at a car dealership would be. And so nobody should accept an adjunct position unless it is actually their best alternative despite being a permanent exit from the academic track.
I think the abuse of adjuncts is enabled by the fiction that adjuncting enables people to keep their foot in the academic door (for a tenure track job). This isn’t true. At all. It’s like the joke about the guy who mucks out the circus animals pens, who can’t imagine leaving his job because it would be `leaving show business.’
As in…if people accept an adjunct position given an accurate understanding of what the position is and is not, then they don’t really have grounds to complain. The problem arises if they thought they were signing up for X and were actually signing up for something totally different. So let’s make the truth common knowledge and then people can make adult decisions.
This is similar to the R1 I went to twenty years ago, but with minor differences. We has the assistant, associate, full, chair track. We had senior lecturers (and presumably non senior, but I never met one) who seem to be a mix of what you call TAP and professor of practice. I’d never heard of an adjunct before reading your blog, and I don’t know if we had them at all.
One difference is in what you call leadership. The university was broken down into schools, and schools into departments. A school would have a graduate and undergraduate dean, and these were always a tenured professor. And some special programs, like the honors program, would have a provost, who was also a professor somewhere in the university.
Additionally we had post docs like you describe but also graduate students who were working as research assistants, doing research and funded by a professor’s budget, teaching assistants either teacher or supporting the teaching of classes, and fellows, doing RA work but funded by some endowment or by the university itself. I was a fellow, and I have to say that coming with your own funding makes you feel lime the belle of the ball. These students and the post docs functionally had the same job, though the population was notably different in that post docs almost all intended to have a career in the academy, and I’d say only a sizable minority of the grad student, even Ph.D. candidates, had that goal.
-“form job-posting to job-offer” -> “from” (I’ve definitely made that exact mistake many times before)
-“where a committee of faculty int heir department” -> “in their”
-“whose ‘practice’ is ‘having a PhD in their field and a traditional academic background)” -> missing a closing quotation mark after “background”
Darn it, this wasn’t supposed to be a reply to you.
Makes me glad I went to a Government research lab instead of academia after the PhD.
I wonder how the transition to large numbers of adjuncts tracks with the exponential increase in non-teaching bureaucrats you see in many universities?
A friend of mine graduated with a PhD in Mechanical Eng from an R1 school and was offered a one year teaching slot at the same school. After that he went to a different local university as a “visiting professor.” While there the school advertised for a tenure track version of his position and completely overlooked him for the position. He then took a post-doc position with a DoD Lab and was told that they would convert him to full time. After a couple years I was able to get him into my lab as a full time researcher. Our parent organization has stood up its own graduate school (going for accreditation at present) and he now teaches their as part of his normal job, though only one or two classes a year.
A few of my coworkers have worked as adjuncts in the evening at local universities and colleges. For them this is just a chance to make some extra money and get teaching experience. To me this is where adjuncts make sense – truly part time professors that augment full time faculty
” 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.”
Tenure is chiefly attractive to those who fear being fired. It is therefore inordinately attractive to people who say things for which they should be fired, namely trolls, and people who are inordinately afraid of being fired, namely cowards, and the later predominate.
Trolls may say the right thing, sometimes, and people who attracted by other attractions of the job, but tenure means you have many, many, many people who are utterly spineless.
Tenure is needed if you are going up against the top people in your field. I was discussing data with a professor who wanted to work with my government lab. He pointed out what appeared to be errors in the data and the resulting conclusions. He was all gung ho to replicate the tests and point out the errors in a journal paper. Then I told him who had conducted the original work and his demeanor changed. The other professor was one of the top people in the field. He didn’t dare challenge this other professor.
Was he not tenured?
Tenure track but not there yet.
Even tenured until full prof you still have to be careful. Tenure may guarantee your job but your advancement can be stopped
One notes that those who are attracted to tenure and don’t have it yet would be the least likely to muster any courage. Which adds the inculcation of bad habits to the issue.
Tenure allows them to fight it out in the journals. Until you have tenure it is publish or perish. If you annoy the big names in your field and you are newish they can effectively black list you from publishing.
If you are a full professor you already have enough credentials to hopefully survive the fight. Worst case your reputation takes a hit but you keep your job. Newly tenured you wind up stuck as associate for your career (I know people this happened to).
No tenure though and your career is done. There is no upside for a non tenured person to take on this fight. Even if they win they have made powerful enemies and possibly driven from the field. One would be extremely foolish to take such a risk.
If you truly want people to be willing to challenge established authorities they need the protection of tenure to do so if they are academics. Otherwise only those in government or private labs can push back.
By the time they get tenured, they have learned all the bad habits especially since the tenure track requires them to be especially careful.
I generally agree with this (although I think the preferential hiring of ABDs probably varies from discipline to discipline) but I was a little puzzled by this statement:
“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).”
I’ve been at three state universities of varying sizes, which is obviously not a representative sample, but at none of them have NTT/TT lines or NTT to TT conversions been determined at the department level.
I’ve never been at a department that WANTED to hire adjuncts to cover classes or that preferred NTT lines to TT lines, and I know at least in my current department we would love to be able to convert some NTT faculty to TT faculty. But we only get the lines we can convince the administration to give us, and we have been explicitly told that NTT to TT conversions are not going to be a thing. And we’re a big department with a lot of majors, I assume smaller departments would have even less ability to convince the administration that they should be allowed to make some permanent hires.
I sit down and have to talk about what I have learned every day and today as I’m sitting at the table I realize this situation is the same as one of the causes of the fall of the greek city-states: The lack of openness for new admissions of the politai.
So, where’s the money going?
All of this cruelty is designed to save money. Meanwhile, tuition just goes up and up and up. So the cash has to be ending up somewhere. What is it being spent on? More administrators?
You mentioned “pet projects”, but I’m not sure what those might be.
Well, there are all the perks. Gyms, lazy rivers, and other amenities to attract people who are still minors and lack judgment.
The down side of college loans is that the college can now capture the marginal value of the education.
Those amenities don’t really cost much though. For like $50 a month you can get a membership at a really snazzy private gym that has all that stuff, and probably better. And often the buildings at universities are paid for by donations. I haven’t seen any real data on this for universities, but I’d be shocked if stuff like gyms and landscaping are big expenses for them.
What *does* cost money is administrators. They cost a lot individually, both salary and benefits, and there seems to be more and more of them each year. The way you get ahead as an administrator is to hire more staff below you so that you seem important. EG, Yale now has more administrators than students: https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2021/11/10/reluctance-on-the-part-of-its-leadership-to-lead-yales-administration-increases-by-nearly-50-percent/
Everyone carving out their own fiefdoms. You’re not “important” unless you can have several people working underneath you, regardless of whether or not that labor is necessary.
There is a tendency to underestimate administration, plenty of organizations have looked at their org charts and gone “Why are there so many people working on stuff other than what we’re doing? Let’s fire the administrations to trim costs!” only to have the result that the administration *still needs doing* and now you have your doctors/police/teachers etc. spending most of their time on administration rather than the job they were actually trained for…
Can you give some examples? I guess it could happen the way you said, I’ve just never seen it happen. The general trend is for more and more administrators everywhere in healthcare, police, business, and education. I don’t think what they do is unimportant, I just think there’s too many of them because they’re the only group that gets to make hiring decisions so they always want to hire more people like themselves.
Except that bureaucracy keeps accreting and it can’t all be good because the institution actually worked without it.
This has been analysed. Basically – more administrators and higher admin salaries.
They always talk about “running the university like a business” but they never actually *do* it. Any real business that hired so many expensive managers as a university hires administrators would either go broke, or bought out and and forced to do mass layoffs. It might even be possible for the shareholders to sue the corporate directors for such egregious mis-management.
You assume businesses work any better.
I am frequently reminded of one of my father’s observations on capitalism and competition: “To be the best in a particular business, you only have to be better than your competitors.” You don’t have to have a well-managed business, you just need to outperform the others.
For that matter, only a public corporation with publicly-traded stocks is open to a shareholder suit. A quick Internet search reveals less than 1% of businesses are publicly-traded.
What is the business selling, and to whom do the proceeds go? If the business is selling prestige it is a perfectly plausible business decision to endlessly raise the price, whether the service improves or not.
And the if proceeds go to the people who control it, who happen to be administrators, it is perfectly sensible to send the money straight to the administrators.
If the administrators effectively control the business, without having to maintain the support of stockholders, it is quite sensible of them to give its profits to themselves.
A couple additions to this re math, which behaves a bit differently from other STEM:
1. As in other STEM, being an adjunct is a tenure-track career death sentence.
2. Postdocs are required universally but involve teaching, often at similar rates to tenure-track faculty. My postdocs were low-teaching – the only one that had any, at UBC, was 1/1 – but the American R1 norm is 2/1 (or was in the early 2010s), and in practice tenure-track professors at R1 unis are more 2/1 than 2/2 as I understand it.
3. Because postdocs involve teaching, tenure-track applicants have a teaching record, which is used secondarily by research universities and primarily by liberal arts colleges (I have no idea how non-R1 state universities weight it); liberal arts colleges typically look for a postdoc who did pretty solid research and has teaching evaluations that say “this person is God’s gift to teaching.”
4. The hard part is getting from postdoc to tenure-track. In contrast, once on the tenure track, tenure is almost automatic, even though professors still stress over it. At the few most elite universities – not even Columbia, just Harvard and Princeton and such – nobody gets tenure internally unless they’re Noam Elkies, which is called “fake tenure-track,” but the people who are denied tenure are then immediately hired at a university one tier lower, like Duke or UT Austin, where they will get tenure in two years. At Columbia, I was told three out of the four most recent hires got tenure (and I think the fourth got tenure one tier lower); below that level, it’s rare to be denied tenure, at least at R1 institutions.
5. The academic job crisis means that people increasingly have to do multiple postdocs. Traditionally, it was three years in postdoc, then a tenure-track job. I believe one student in my year got that (and I graduated 2011); the rest of us had multiple postdocs, some eventually landing tenure and others (like me) not, my case involving five years in postdoc. The second postdoc is semi-institutionalized: formally it’s no different in conditions from the first postdoc, but universities sometimes make a decision that their hire this year is a first and not second postdoc, and will demand more publications from a postdoc who they want to hire for second postdoc than from a grad student applying for their first.
6. Visiting assistant professorships exist, as a combination of adjuncts and lifelines. The lifeline VAP is in practice a postdoc with a bit more teaching – the ones I near-missed were 2/2 if I remember correctly – and are essentially a way for professors in department to steer teaching appointments to researchers they would like to see stay in academia and have one more year to try.
7. Hiring is based on papers – monographs are rare enough to be notable – and on rec letters. The number of papers is weighted by how many years one is out of Ph.D. – a second postdoc on the market five or six years out of Ph.D. will be expected to have published proportionally more than a first one three years out. There’s also a complex prestige system, with a hierarchy of journals from God-tier (Annals, JAMS, Acta, Inventiones) down to journals that would publish pretty much anything correct; you’re expected to have at least one paper in a very selective journal – mine is in Duke, which is very solid but not God-tier. In the early and mid-2010s, five to eight papers was normal-to-good in pure math. Unlike in the lab sciences, it’s not expected to publish with your advisor, and papers are usually solo or with a colleague roughly at your level (occasionally more than one; my Duke paper atypically had three coauthors).
8. The DEI efforts are never about your topic of research but about teaching; the UC diversity statement system instructs you (or at least did in 2016) to talk about how your teaching experience centers underrepresented minorities. I do not know how seriously hiring committees look at this statement.
> In contrast, once on the tenure track, tenure is almost automatic, even though professors still stress over it.
I still remember the week one of my teachers began an assistant professor and ended an associate. He want from noticeably anxious to super excited.
I teach at a state R1 university in their continuing education department.
In the taxonomy you describe I’m closest to being a “professor of practice.”
I am a respected professional in the field, no PhD. In my contract I am described as “Non-faculty instructional staff.”
When people at work find out I that I teach at the university they ask “do you want to become a professor?” With no understanding that it simply isn’t an option.
My role is what it is, there is no option for progression, and people outside of that world (and I am very much of the periphery of it) can’t grock that it just doesn’t work that way.
I have no complaints, I am not doing it for the money, I love teaching and it’s a good for my professional brand, but I think the biggest challenge with getting people to care is that academia is so alien to most people that they can’t even conceive of the problem.
Thank you for your great post?
I think this problem is uniquely bad in the humanities and some of the soft sciences, although it definitely is quite prevalent in STEM. I’m a chem undergrad planning to go to grad school, and the majority of chemistry PhDs don’t go into academia. There are plenty of other jobs that require a chemistry master’s or doctorate, and I think that’s part of the issue, a lot of people don’t really have any other options to utilize a degree which you spent maybe a decade in higher education for.
One of my parents is an adjunct prof, and yeah, you guys really get screwed over. Not really sure how it will get better, beyond making university administration less bad, though. Either that or a massive flood of new, high paying jobs outside of academia for PhD holders.
There are two implicit, but incorrect, assumptions in BD’s post here:
1) R1 Big State universities are publicly funded.
This has not been true for several decades. I don’t have the latest figures at my finger tips, but I believe the State of California currently provides only about 15% of the Univ. of California funding.
2) The public wants high quality publicly funded education.
This had also not been true for several decades. The public does not want to pay what prior generations paid in public funding for state universities, even though a good state university is provably an economic benefit to the state’s public. The universities have consequently turned elsewhere – excessive tuitions, enrolling larger proportions of foreign students (including out of state there), earmarked research grants from private corporations, cutting costs (one of BD’s emphases in this post). Also there has been the decades long right-wing attack on public universities. The attack has been that the faculties are full of pointy-headed intellectuals who are cultural Marxists or worse. Reagan ran for governor of California essentially “against UC Berkeley.” DeSantis in Florida has just been following this well-known playbook.
the US system had a budget of 21 billion dollars in 2010, this year the budget is 46 billion. the assertion that these institutions are being starved of funds is simply inaccurate. the problem isn’t a lack of money, the problem is the universities are as badly run as most government services.
As a government employee I resemble that remark.
Just remember we didn’t win the Cold War they lost. Also given how screwed up the Government is there is no way the conspiracy theories could be true – we just aren’t that good.
My comment doesn’t say that Big State U. budgets are down. It says that the portion of funding from state governments is way down, which is true. I pointed to other sources of funding that have become dominant. Those sources have led to distortions in how the U. carries out is mission. There has been a shift (sharply) in favor of STEM subjects and away from humanities and most social sciences. The shift has also increased the emphasis on research (which draws grants) and relatively (even further) away from teaching (which rarely draws grants).
Your point about the overall increase in university budgets doesn’t address whether that is public universities, or all universities – which would include huge budget/huge funds institutions like Harvard and Stanford.
> The public does not want to pay what prior generations paid in public funding for state universities
Likely one major factor is the increasing number of people who get bachelor’s degrees. As more jobs demand bachelor’s degrees, there is a natural tendency to increase the state university capacity. Unfortunately, that causes the cost to scale proportionately. “Few American adolescents completed high school in 1900, and only one in fifty finished college. By the end of the century, more than 80 percent of adults had completed high school and a quarter of the adult population had graduated from college.” So there is a natural cost increase of 25/2, or 12 times. So even if you quadrupled the state funding in real terms, on a per-student basis it would have been cut by 2/3.
Perhaps the problem is that more people need to learn statistics.
If people understood distribution more, they would be more rational about selection techniques, and employers would not have to use bachelor’s degrees as the selection tool that wouldn’t get them sued.
“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).”
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. If we judge graduates by the prestige of the university they attended, rather than by grades that might tell us what they learned there, perhaps we shouldn’t expect academics to be judged objectively, either.
It’s not obvious to me what a university has to gain from teaching its undergraduates well, so it is hardly reasonable to expect them to care about teaching ability when making hiring decisions.
Only kind of related, but since you mention it being hard to do research as an adjunct…
Are there any research projects your readers could help with?
For instance, there are at least some programers on here: do you have any data tasks? Simulations that would be cool to run?
I’m sure you have a lot of people who would be happy to proofread.
Sort of acient history: PhD (math) 1970; Got my job the old fashioned way (thesis advisor called his friend in the field whose lang ago PhD srudent was chairman of a department wiht a tenure track opening)
R1 or 2 private engineering school so mostly a service department with a few PhD studnets (who taught freshman calculus)
Accrediting agency (ABET) required 17 credits of math (taugnt by the math department) and 17 credits of humanities (taught by a humanities department)
The was a humanities block 1-4 TTh (1-2T 1-3 Th and 2-4T 3-4Th) where almost all humanities courses were taught by adjusts(this made it easy for adjuncts to pick up gigs elsewhere)
The were a few full time people who taught more advance electives and did the hiring and scheduling of adjuncts
At the satellite campus where I spent most of my tim there was onefull time non-tenures person to handle adjunct hiring and teach two sections.
I math, we had one full time adjunct for two sections of freshman calculus and usually one other course and usually a high school math teacher to do the extended calculus for weaker students
One of our full time adjuncts quit for the ral world. I ran into hime years later on a consulting gig at Bloomberg so he did all right I bailed in the mid 90’s to do computer stuff so I ahve no idea what happened after that
Going on fifty years ago, I started college at an OK, moderately sized private university. There were professors there on what I think was called “funny money”, grants that would only last so long. But to the best of my knowledge, I took exactly one course from an adjunct, a local rabbi who taught a two-credit course on Maimonides.
About thirty years ago, I taught a computer course a few times at a local continuing-education college, of course as an adjunct. I was particularly impressed at the level of effort to teach it the first couple of times: although there was a skeleton syllabus provided, I reckoned that I did not make minimum wage, the first time at least. But that school was aimed at working adults, and did not aim at offering a university environment. The instructors as far as I know were nearly all working professionals, many of them very good teachers.
Academic with some administrative experience here, and I want to share some of the realities driving adjunct positions that you wouldn’t know without that perspective. I am not claiming these realities account for the current situation nor that they justify it, just that there’s more factors involved than appear at first glance.
Humanities programs at big state schools often have big general education offerings, and these courses are typically taught by NTT faculty. Part of this is simple math: if the incoming first-year class is 6000 students and they all have to take a specific gen ed class from your department, if you wanted to guarantee all of them get seats in their first semester and you operated with 18 student sections, you’d need 333 sections to provide them all seats. Under R1 TT loads, you’d need 167 TT faculty to cover that teaching load. That is never going to happen. Even if you split the demand across two semesters, you still need 167 sections per semester. Unless you admit far more graduate students than can ever get jobs, grad student teaching can’t meet that demand. Ideally, you’d hire 4/4 NTT teaching professors to cover the remaining sections, except that there’s a big issue with that plan:
Big state schools need students. Tuition dollars and course fees pay for much of what happens on campus. But admissions is an imprecise enterprise at best. Let’s take our big state school. They pick a target of 6000 first-year students. They push recruitment, hold events, etc. Let’s say they receive 20,000 applications between in-state, out-of-state and foreign students.
You cannot simply accept 6000 students and be done with it. Many students, especially the ones you want, will have acceptances from lots of colleges and universities and may not attend. Others might accept but not attend for other reasons. And if you offer to 6000, wait to hear back, and then offer to another 3000, your odds of getting the students you wanted (or any students, for that matter) drop substantially. Your best bet is to estimate how many offers will get rejected and extend, say, 9000 offers while wait-listing another set of students. Then you try to pull off the wait-list to make up for rejections.
Let’s talk margins of error for a moment: if you’re aiming for 6000 students and offer to 9000 initially, expecting about 4500 to accept, and then plan to offer to another set of students or to wait-listed students after that, what happens if your guesses about acceptance rates were off. If this year, 60% of students accepted our offer instead of 50%, then instead of the 4500 students we were planning for, we ended up with 5400. That’s still below the 6000 target, so we’re OK.
In reality, big state schools are aiming to overadmit instead of underadmitting (we’ll discuss that in a moment from a staffing perspective), because having more money coming in is better than being underbudget. Let’s say they were off on admissions, and instead of the 6000 students you expected, 6600 are actually going to attend. That’s 600 students more than expected. Even if you can split that demand across two semesters for your general education course, you have to seat 300 addition students each semester. That means a demand to staff 17 classes of 18 students each, both semesters. But the university may not know who is actually attending until right before classes begin. That probably means you need adjuncts to cover these new courses, or you have to overload 17 full-time teaching faculty to 5/5.
Let’s consider the alternate situation: the university didn’t hit its enrollment target, and you now need to cancel 17 classes. No department wants to be in a position to fire 4 full-time NTT faculty right before classes begin; worse, you probably have NTT faculty teaching courses besides this first-year general education class, so firing those people messes up other parts of the schedule. Graduate student teaching assistants are required to teach X courses or the equivalent. If you have a heavy grad student load (2/2) you could pull students from single courses and reassign them to other duties, but most graduate programs at R1s are down to 1/1 loads. Teaching may be undervalued, but a graduate with thin teaching experience is not going to do well on the job market, so pulling graduate students from classes is not always practical. Dropping adjunct courses does the least damage (though it is obviously not great for adjuncts).
In both situations, the only viable alternative to adjuncts would be to have excess capacity within the department that you can transfer to cover courses in cases of overenrollment (the most frequent), but administrators don’t like the idea that you’d hire 17 4/4 load teachers and only assign them to 3 classes per term to have that spare capacity available. They also don’t like that you’d have more such “underemployed” instructors in the case that the university misses its enrollment target.
Departments willing to run introductory courses as huge lecture classes ignore these problems; the smaller your class size, the higher the demand is likely to be for adjunct labor. And since the college has to set aside money to cover this contingent labor anyway, and adjuncts are considerably cheaper than even cheap full-time NTT faculty, you’re left fighting to cover as many classes full-time as you can in the face of administrative preference to stick with adjuncts.
Best-case, you have solid support for replacing part-time adjunct positions with full-time NTT faculty. We were able to do a fair amount of that. But those NTT positions tend to draw applicants with PhDs who are on the TT market, too; many adjuncts do not have comparable credentials (even in teaching–teach 8/8 at three different schools and see how many awards you win) and departments have to make a deliberate decision to hire them. Dropping from 100 sections covered by adjunct labor to 40 sections looks like a good step, but it probably means firing 13 or 14 adjuncts, and converting only 1-2 to full-time alongside your other hires.
Tl;dr: departments are always going to need some adjuncts, and many current adjuncts won’t get better jobs if departments reduce their dependence on adjunct labor. These are both complicating factors. That doesn’t even address NTT to TT conversions, which I’ll save for a future Chet post.
BTW, it’s not in the least coincidental to this discussion that governors of states like TX&FL are making war in every way they can against tenure, in the larger war they are making on education across the board — and libraries! — not to mention women! — with the objective, at least for the Txgub to secede from the USA and be the ruler of his own nation in possession of nuclear capability. Don’t think then, however, these new nations are going to be content with that boundary. They, as did their forefathers, expect to have it all and they, like their forefathers, will break every law and tell every lie and repress voting by all but themselves to get it.
We can’t examine these matters in isolation from each of the many other intersectionalities of oppression, impoverishment, repression, precarity and authoritarianism in play in our contemporary condition.
The timeline you’re typing from sounds much more dramatic than the timeline the rest of us are in.
Sorry Bret, but I hope you understand how hard it is for anyone outside the academia (except for those in SCOTUS, I guess) to sympathize with a complain “Oh no we don’t have enough of life-long unfireable positions anymore”. Sure, the working conditions of adjuncts sound terrible (for an intellectual worker at least), but what you describe as “teaching track” sounds just like normal employment that the mere mortals have.
Yeah, the teaching track situation is not bad; there are some issues with the class system, in which teaching track professors have less control over the department, but they’re resolvable, and I know multiple such professors at elite universities who as far as I can tell are well-respected. It helps that these cases are often spousal hires, or people in the subfield who are God-tier teachers but don’t have God-tier pub lists. The job security is similar to that of line office workers at profitable megacorporations (you can get fired at Google but it’s hard and they’ll give you a lot of forewarning and advice on how to improve).
The complaint is about adjuncts specifically, and as Bret points out, teaching at American unis is increasingly done by adjuncts rather than permanent tenure-track or teaching-track faculty. That is the problem. It’s not exactly about tenure – as commenters farther up have noted, Maggie abolished it in the UK but in practice it takes gross incompetence for a professor to be dismissed (which is, again, the same as for coders at a tech firm that isn’t doing mass layoffs).
Yes, the issue is not tenure but income <$40,000 with health insurance from Obamacare. A full-time VAP is still elite compared to an adjunct.
I was expecting this post to be a departure from the previous weeks, but it turned out to be also about a privileged governing minority that restricts access of outsiders.
The whole thing with “professors of practice” (or whatever else you’d call it) is much less of an exception in “creative” fields like art, music, or theater — although of course these are fields where compensation and job security are if anything far worse than in academia, so even the most precarious and underpaid adjunct-style teaching appointment is like being granted a medieval aristocratic fief by comparison.
Not something you directly touch on in your post, but a related problem: aside from the general public having a rose-tinted view of how nice and cushy it is to be a college professor, I think people underestimate just how corrosive it’s been for U.S. higher ed in particular (I’m not aware of other countries that do this) to have built so much of its general public appeal on top of what amounts to running exploitative pseudo-amateur minor-league farm systems for the NFL and NBA. While obviously the hollowing-out of mainstream respect and appreciation for the very idea of scholarly inquiry is a much larger problem than the kinds of academic hiring practices you’re talking about, the extent to which academic departments have turned resolutely inward toward criteria for prestige and career advancement that have basically nothing to do with the outside world (a problem you’ve understandably focused on quite a bit) seems like a natural flipside of the extent it’s treated as normal for the outward face of any large American university to be its head coach, quarterback, or point guard. And even if the higher ed system isn’t equipped to singlehandedly cure U.S. culture of its pathological obsession with sports, universities hardly seem to notice or care that even alumni of their own undergraduate liberal arts programs are more or less openly encouraged to treat their alma mater as a glorified sports franchise that incidentally happens to have some academic buildings scattered in the general vicinity of the stadium, which seems like a much more solvable problem if it would be considered a priority.
You should be as famous and well-remunerated as Roy Williams, is basically what I’m saying.
I’ve noticed several folks from STEM adding input. There needs to be more work at forming alliances with STEM, even if STEM faculty aren’t currently interested. We still have power. We bring in money. Unfortunately, most STEM faculty are blithely unaware of how adjunctification is ultimately without borders. There are already people in STEM fields who do a second or third postdoc and then find themselves just not able to go in in academia. Industry can absorb many of them–at the moment. Furthermore, there are many people in STEM with PhD degrees who are “service” staff, and this number is rising. Finally, even the clout that associates with externally funded research is being eroded The Texas A&M system, for example, has instituted a non-tenure-track research track. You have all the burdens of a research faculty member without any of the benefits.
I doubt this is likely. My memory of “solidarity” with STEM at Uni was the humanities students shutting down job fairs in sectors that STEM was preparing for.