A bit more than a decade ago, I took on my first full-time higher-ed teaching job in the US. I had taught as an adjunct at a number of different schools over the years and I thought this would be a real step up.
It was not.
Though I liked my new colleagues quite a bit, I was not a member of the club. After all, I was only a contingent hire, someone who would soon be gone. Though invited to department meetings, I was not expected to contribute to the running of the department, to course development, to anything other than what went on in my classroom. In these respects, what I was, essentially, was the adjunct I’d always been—but with a better office.
Still, I was not an adjunct. My pay was better, as were my benefits. There were other differences. Unlike an adjunct, for one thing, I could not expect to stay beyond two or three years. Yet, as a contingent hire I was no more of an academic professional—in the eyes of the institution—than was an adjunct.
My experience was not unique. In fact, there really is little difference between the way contingent hires and adjuncts are treated at most colleges and universities. Neither is considered an important part of the professoriate by any college administration; neither is brought into the little bit of shared governance that remains today. So little is the difference between them, in this regard, that the two groups have discovered a natural affinity and common cause. Today, as a result, we rarely refer to the one group without the other.
Most of us, that is.
In a blog post yesterday, Phillip Magness, a historian and Academic Program Director, Institute of Humane Studies, George Mason University—a post with the rather disingenuous and misleading heading “The Myth of the 76% Adjunct Majority”—claimed that, “Thanks to poor and even reckless reporting, the term ‘contingent faculty’ is often used interchangeably with claims about adjuncts.”
No one argues that three-fourths of all faculty are adjuncts–which is why I find Magness’s title somewhat dishonest. It is adjuncts and contingent hires together.
Magness is mistaking the affinity I mention for identity. Furthermore, the assumption behind his statement is that contingent hires have more in common with tenured/tenure-track than with adjuncts. And that is just not true.
I have never seen the interchangeability of terms that Magness claims to see used anywhere. And I doubt anyone involved with adjunct/contingent advocacy would ever use it. The two groups are placed together not because they are identical but because they face many of the same problems within the institutional structures of American higher education. Many of these are ones I have faced in both situations: outsider status, the sense of being temporary, reduced access to institutional resources, lack of due process is retention—hell, lack of academic freedom. Together, adjuncts and contingent hires become a faculty without the rights and privileges tenured and tenure-track faculty have—rights and privileges that all faculty should have. The adjunct/contingent model is that many of the for-profit colleges and universities are built on, but it is not a good one, not for any faculty or any student. That it is becoming the norm should scare all of us. We should not try to brush it off by dividing the model in two, as Magness does.
Magness finishes his post with this:
In short, relax. Traditional 4-year degree higher ed isn’t descending into an adjunct death spiral where three quarters of the faculty are also part time replacements for formerly full time positions. If you take out the For-Profits and community colleges, the adjunct totals are a comparatively tame rate of only about a third of the faculty. And that rate, I submit, is both a reasonable expectation and a beneficial one as it reflects on the use of adjuncts to augment and supplement classroom offerings that are still very much situated amongst a full time faculty core.
My fellow Academe blogger Martin Kich points out that there are many more problems than the attempt to divide contingent and adjunct faculty with Magness’s thinking leading up to his conclusion. In an email, he tells me:
- The statistics on adjunct faculty in 2005 were not as accurate as they are now because no one was committed to gathering and tracking them. Those gathering data relied largely on institutional reporting, which deliberately or carelessly under-reported adjunct numbers much more often than not.
- The data is ten years old, and given that the Great Recession greatly impacted higher-ed hiring, the difference between 61.5% being contingent in 2005 and 70.5% being contingent now is really not all that great. There is much evidence that a significant number of tenure-track positions continue to be converted to full-time non-tenure-eligible lectureships and instructors.
- Despite the recession, administrative bloat has continued to increase almost without interruption. So, given the sharp drops in state subsidies at most public institutions and fiscal constraints at most institutions, it’s no longer just a surmise that more “savings” have been squeezed from the instructional side of the ledger.
- The stats show only a 1% increase in the total of contingent faculty if non-profits are included. So those numbers are not distorting things as much as the author claims–which is not surprising since the for-profits at their peak in 2012 did not have quite 10% of the total student enrollment.
- The institutional categories at the top of the list not only are the most elite and expensive, but they also serve the smallest percentage of students. Furthermore, this is a phenomenon that is percolating up from the bottom through the categories. So the very extensive exploitation of adjuncts in the community colleges is now becoming more widespread at baccalaureate institutions.
- Lastly, breaking down the categories–distinguishing the top tier from the second-, third-, and fourth-tier institutions in each category–would show very vividly that the institutions in the bottom tiers, who are feeling the greatest fiscal constraints, are now relying much more extensively on part-time and full-time contingent faculty–showing, again, how this phenomenon is percolating upward from the bottom.
As a final point, I would add that Magness sees the numbers of adjuncts being small at the top, at the high-profile research universities. While I have not been able to confirm this, I suspect that these institutions do not report their graduate instructors as faculty of any sort—probably in part in fear of graduate-student attempts at unionization. To all intents and purposes, however, these teachers are identical with adjuncts—and are often treated just as badly.
I’m not sure why Magness wants to denigrate the movement to make adjuncts and contingent hires fully part of the faculty. The “faculty core” he lauds really is fast disappearing, all of his arguments to the contrary. If we as members of the faculty don’t start acting as one faculty, instead of allowing people like Magness to divide us into ever smaller and smaller (and less powerful) groups, education in American is soon going to head into a steep decline. One of the reasons the for-profit colleges and universities are collapsing is that they have no respect for faculty—they don’t even have (no, they purposely avoid) that “faculty core.”
Ultimately, the only way we are going to have a successful “faculty core” and continuing success in American higher education is to make all faculty part of it.
Update: The more I think about Magness’s “faculty core” the more frustrated I get. For the past fifty years, as I see it, the “faculty core” has been feckless as an advocate of American higher education. Only recently have members of that “core” begun to see that they need to do more than protect their steadily eroding prerogatives. It is those outside of the “core” that have been the best advocates of the best of American education. That they are now finding their voice as a group is one of the most heartening developments of the past decade.
“Governors Hall Residence” by Brendanriley – Brendan Riley. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Governors_Hall_Residence.jpg#/media/File:Governors_Hall_Residence.jpg