Adjuncts and Contingent Hires: Do Not Force Them Apart

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 –

29 thoughts on “Adjuncts and Contingent Hires: Do Not Force Them Apart

  1. Aaron, I am really confused. Doesn’t “contingent” refer to the fact that, whether you are part-time or full-time, your position is dependent (or contingent) on enrollment, rather than, as you suggest, a full-time NTT position for a certain number of years? “Adjunct” means non-essential, added on. I think we should stop using that title, and refer to us all as ‘contingent.’

    I just finished my 37th year as a part-time contingent faculty member with benefits, same institution. I don’t think I am an adjunct, but tell me (and those like me) if I am. And yes, it’s been a nightmare.

    • “Contingent on need” is much broader than simply enrollment. But that’s beside the point.

      As I was writing, I was thinking about the point you make. Perhaps, I thought, “part-time contingent” and “full-time contingent” would be a better way of speaking. Maybe I should, as you suggest, stop using “adjunct.” Maybe we all should.

  2. Thank you for your timely post, Aaron, and thank you for immediately striking out against the ones who would want to “divide and conquer”, to destroy Academia, because that is all these types want in the long run.

    When someone such as this “Phillip Magness, a historian and Academic Program Director, Institute of Humane Studies, George Mason University” — who seems to be double dipping by the way, or can he be both an adjunct and a Program Director? — comes out with these out of date facts (from 2006!) and presumptious holier-than-though attitude, can anyone take him seriously?

    We need to remember our struggle together, continue our fight, and reclaim education for us, for students, for faculty, for the higher truth, all else be damned.

    And that includes all nay sayers.

    So again, I thank you for writing this, and for standing by us.

    Besos, not borders,

    Ana M. Fores Tamayo, Adjunct Justice
    Facebook Page:

  3. Aaron, I wanted to say this too: “I’m not sure why Magness wants to denigrate the movement to make adjuncts and contingent hires fully part of the faculty.”

    You take the point in a different direction than I would. I want to know why this guy opposes adjunct/contingent advocacy. Why would he bend over backwards like this to tell everybody that adjuncts/contingents are overreacting to some non-existent problem? Does he think at-will hiring/firing is reasonable? Does he think $2700/section is fair pay?

    In other words, his purpose for making this argument is nothing other than self-aggrandizing, an opportunity to make the case for abusing contingent labor while hiding behind 10-year-old data and concern-trolling to do it.

  4. Mr. Barlow – You state “No one argues that three-fourths of all faculty are adjuncts–which is why I find Magness’s title somewhat dishonest.”

    In fact, in my post that you reference above I linked to no less than 5 different news sources making the claim that 76% of all faculty are adjuncts or part time. I would appreciate you making a correction to reflect this reality, as well as a retraction of your claim of dishonesty on my part. For your reference here is a list of the relevant pieces that I linked to, which also represents only a small sample of similar iterations of this erroneous claim:

    1. “76% of instructional staff appointments in U.S. higher education are now not even full-time jobs.” Source:

    2. “Of all college instructors, 76 percent, or over 1 million, teach part time because institutions save a lot of money when they replace full-time, tenured faculty with itinerant teachers, better known as adjuncts.” Source:

    3. “part-time professors now account for over 76% of hired faculty at universities in the country.” Source:

    4. “On April 8, 2013, the New York Times reported that 76 percent of American university faculty are adjunct professors – an all-time high” Source:

    5. “Adjuncts now make up more than 70 percent of all college and university faculty, often juggling a course load at multiple universities, earning an average of $2,500 per course” Source:

    • Thing is, as you know, you can find people saying foolish things, and wrong ones. Maybe I should have said that nobody who knows anything about the issue would never make that claim. That said, I do still find your post fundamentally dishonest, for you are trying to split apart what should not be split and for reasons you do not make clear. You are also implying that we should trust in the efficacy of the “faculty core.” Why?

      • It’s not simply “finding” people saying foolish things, Aaron. All five of those stories were directly linked in my original post, which you then misrepresented here.

        Surely we can disagree about the way contingent faculty numbers are interpreted without stooping to bad-faith insinuations of the sort you’ve indulged in here. But go ahead and continue down that route if it suits you – I suppose it is easier than actually looking at what the numbers say about the nature of adjuncting.

        • Your use of numbers a decade out of date to argue against contemporary situations can only make me believe the worst. The question remains, why did you find it necessary to make such a point? The numbers don’t agree with you, unless you pick and choose from different times and places and use different definitions at your pleasure. So, what’s your real point? Is it that the status quo is somehow wonderful?

      • The 2006 numbers are the most recent study of academic employment that breaks the data down into the detailed categories I discussed. If and when a more recent report becomes available, I’ll welcome it as another data point to see if the trend holds up.

        I have reason to believe that it will. While we don’t have more recent numbers that break down adjuncting between for-profit/non-profit etc, we do have more recent data on the overall % of adjuncts in higher ed from the 2012 AAUP report. They record adjuncts as 41% of the academic workforce. What’s telling is that number has remained flat in the low 40s since the mid 2000s, or right around the time that the 2006 report came out. The boom in adjuncting actually took place between the late 1970s and 2005.

        • If the numbers were from 1936 and the most recent, would you still try to make your case? 1996? You can’t use an out-of-date set of numbers as relevant simply because there are no newer ones.

          What is your “reason to believe” that a set of numbers from before a severe economic disruption are appropriate for use in regards to a situation after?

          Here again, you make an unwarranted separation in the 2012 report. Why are you insisting on talking only of part-time contingent instructors and ignoring full-time ones? The point of the current movement for contingent rights has to do with unequal treatment, and that exists for everyone off the tenure track. There is no difference.

          You are parsing something for a particular purpose. I wish you would admit your subjectivity. At that point, I might be able to call you honest. I am biased in my beliefs because I find supporting contingent faculty in my own best interest. What do you see as your best interest?

      • We aren’t talking about 1936, Aaron. We’re talking about numbers from only 9 years ago. Now you are perfectly free to believe that the American university system – notorious for its snail’s pace responsiveness to anything and everything – has completely transformed itself in only 9 years, such that stats that were valid in recent memory are now junk. Or you can try researching the issue further and find that several post-recession AAUP studies have verified that adjunct %s have not grown substantially since about 2005, or a year before the stats you now declare junk. In any case though, please ground your argument in something more than your own personal outrage. As it stands your recurring insinuations of ill-will are becoming tiresome.

        • The point is that you are guessing, and disguising your guesses as numerically valid. “Only 9 years ago” can be a long, long time. Try 1925 to 1934.

          You keep insisting on looking only at adjuncts. My whole point is that doing so doesn’t give the full picture. Why do you insist on ignoring the full picture?

      • Actually Aaron, according to the most recent AAUP study (2012) those other non-tenure track full time “contingent” faculty have made up a stable 15% of the academic workforce since 1999 with absolutely no discernible movement in either direction. So once again your claims are at odds with the empirical reality.

        The adjunct % did grow…until about 2005. It’s also been stable at around 40% ever since, indicating that those more detailed 2006 numbers likely still hold as well.

  5. I think it is possible that the media do not understand that the terms “adjunct” or “contingent” can include FT NTT positions. My institution tried to keep the latter separate from part-time faculty until the NLRB told us that we could all be considered in one “community of interest.” Separating faculty is a union-busting ploy–is that what you want to do Prof. Magness?

    • Jane – You are probably correct about the confusion on the part of the media. Nonetheless, it is a very real confusion and a fairly pervasive one contrary to the claim that was dishonestly lobbed at me by the original poster.

      I am personally not a fan of unionization and would never willingly join one, although I recognize that others may have different preferences on whether to organize or participate in a union. I am however interested in getting an accurate statistical picture of academic employment, and on those grounds it seems very misleading to lump an adjunct making $6,000 by teaching 2 classes a year with a VAP who teaches a 4-4 load and makes $55K.

      • If you are interested in an accurate picture, why are you conflating numbers from ‘before the downturn’ with numbers now?

        At least we are finally getting to the true reason for your post, anti-union sentiment.

        • Has the percentage of contingent faculty been stable? That’s the real question.

          But what bothers me most is your insistence that there’s nothing to worry about, that the “faculty core” has things in hand. Would you say the same for someone with a good grip on the steering wheel while driving off a cliff?

      • Phil–You are precisely at the heart of the problem. All of those who are contingent receive unequal pay for equal work, part-time and full-time alike. Whether the gap is large, as in the case of part-time faculty, or less so with VAPs, we have the same problem.

        The amount we are paid should not be the source of separating us. Salary does not equate to value as higher ed professors. Hiring in academia is not based on a meritocracy–even some tenure-line academics say that when they “win the lottery” of a TT position.

        It’s time to fix this–contingent faculty lives matter too. It is not that complicated–Equal pay for equal work.

  6. I wrote up a brief response to the questions raised in this post:

    A summary:

    1. I explain why I consider it important to differentiate adjuncts from non-tenure track full time appointments. Feel free to disagree, but the difference of employment characteristics for each seems to be substantial

    2. I correct Barlow’s mischaracterization of the 76% statistic and its frequent application to adjuncts in the media.

    3. Adjunct hiring trends since the “Great Recession” are added – it turns out that they actually stabilized around 40% in 2005 and haven’t moved since then. By this metric, the claim about the 2006 study being out of date doesn’t hold up.

    4. The same is true of non-tenure track faculty, which have actually remained completely flat at 15% since 1999.

  7. I fully agree with the comments by Martin Kich. This is a flawed analysis of what the new faculty majority actually looks like. These statistics are over 10 years old and claiming that they were used because they were “easier” to assemble is no excuse for proposing conclusions. One can say 10 years ago, 47% of the faculty were adjuncts. But that data is too old. What about 2015? Secondly, there is a problem with definitions of contingent and adjunct. Every college, in my experience, uses these terms differently. Contingent faculty are paid slightly better, but they are also on short term contracts like today. The term has changed since 2005 and I would would like to see how many contingent faculty are still around 10 years later. Despite this, the author is not surprised at 47%. He states it as a matter of fact. Should we not be upset at that point? I would agree. In addition, as others have written, we are only looking at elite schools. My question would be this. If elite schools are using 47% of adjuncts, then can one imagine what is going on at college that are very adequate but not elite? In addition, the analysis makes a further implication that just grates at the nerves of adjuncts. Mainly, that as full time staff the implication is “we are better than you.” Or “our jobs are not dependent upon your work.” Both of which are incorrect. When professors are trying to obtain tenure, they do the work to write their studies and books. Who do you think helps them with their work by taking up the teaching slack? The superior arrogance of many full time professors that they get where they are without help is just perverse. They do have help from their families and the adjuncts who teach their classes while they are out researching. Full time instructors and professors need to realize that their plight is tied to the the adjunct and they need to do so before it is too late. Students also loose out when temporary instructors are used continuously. They are paying more and more for an education to take classes to be taught by full time tenured faculty. When 47% or 76% of adjuncts are used, they are getting short changed. Adjuncts do not counsel, offer help, and are not even required to have office hours or work with other faculty. And why should they on the wages that they make?

    • Michael – Have you seen post-recession data for adjunct employment? The most recent available chart came out in 2012. It’s a slightly different survey methodology, but do you know what % are adjuncts now according to that survey?


      It hasn’t changed, and it certainly isn’t skyrocketing as we’ve been led to believe. In fact, most of the adjunct growth occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. There’s been virtually no movement since 2005. With non-tenure track full time faculty, even longer – it’s stayed at the same level since 1999.

      • The 41% figure is also wrong (or misleading, as it includes Graduate students in the total number). IAgain, from NCES (2011) 760,990 (PT) + 760,660 (FT) + 350,000 (grad students). For purposes of unionization, higher education quality, and other discussions about higher education, it is more appropriate, in my view, to use the straight PT/FT split, and not include Grad students. However, if you did include them, as part time teachers (which they are), you would have about 63% PT.

  8. I think Magness is right about some points: some reporting on adjuncts is bad, we ought to distinguish part-time and full-time contingent faculty, and the proportion of FT and PT contingent faculty probably hasn’t changed dramatically in the past decade (because it’s hard to get much worse), although we don’t have all the data. Unfortunately for Magness, that really wasn’t his point. His key argument is, “in short, relax” and the current situation is “beneficial”: Contingent faculty aren’t a big problem, because universities don’t hire quite as many of them as community colleges do, and perhaps one-third of the contingent faculty are actually teaching full-time for 15-20% less money, sometimes larger teaching loads, no job security, and far less academic freedom than tenure-track faculty. See? No real problem here. Magness finds it “reasonable” for almost half of the faculty at universities to be off the tenure track and a third of the total faculty to be part-time. That’s what Magness fundamentally gets wrong.

    • At my university, there is an enormous gulf between full-time contingent faculty and adjuncts: Full-time contingent are treated very much the same as tenured in terms of salary, teaching/research/service responsibilities, participation in department, collegiate, and university governance, and, yes, long-term stability of employment. Full-time contingent encompasses nearly all the clinical staff; though they are technically on short-term contracts, as a matter of fact they are generally kept on for as long as they want. Our recent faculty senate president was among these ranks–and she was fighting the president both in public and behind the scenes, in heroic measures in which the faculty as a whole eventually prevailed.

      Adjuncts at my university, on the other hand, are compensated abysmally, generally have no participation in departmental or collegiate governance (and none at all in university governance), and come and go with the flows of teaching needs. All measures relating to support and rights of faculty are specifically geared to full-time faculty, which specifically eliminates adjuncts. (Graduate students with teaching “assistantships” are not adjuncts at my university; even though they have full responsibility for the courses they teach, they are not treated as faculty. They are paid about triple what adjuncts are paid per course–and they have insurance benefits–but they teach only one course.)

      It would seem that the nature of full-time contingent faculty can vary quite extremely between institutions. Overall statistics are probably meaningless without digging far down into the exact nature of the jobs being talked about, including political and social structures.

      • Steve: Your comments also reflect the situation at my university, where the largest group of adjunct faculty are volunteer clinical faculty in our medical school, and we have large numbers of volunteer faculty in our law school as well. They are paid a token amount and get various small academic benefits in return for occasional mentoring of students, but there is no meaningful sense in which they are members of the precarious class of faculty that are the focus of our concern. At the other end of the spectrum, the same may be said of graduate student teaching assistants. I understand the desire of the AAUP to expand the category of ‘faculty’ as widely as possible — strength in numbers, for example — but when we identify the subset of faculty that are underpaid to the point of needing to string together 4 or 5 jobs each semester to survive, receive no benefits, and are excluded from any participation in college or university governance, we are talking about a small group at most non-profit four-year colleges and universities. I do think Magness poses a reasonable challenge to distinguish various kinds of non-tenured or non-tenure track faculty: we should focus our advocacy on those who need it.

  9. The data that should be used, the only data that is national and which is required by law (institutions MUST submit the data in order to recieve federal funding, any federal funding), is the NCES/IPEDS data (last data, 2011).
    It shows that PTF are 760,990 –around half of the HE instructional staff (leaving out the graduate students, who are about 350,000), and the original blogger is correct to wish folks would get their basic facts straight. The widely circulated 76% number IS correct for contingent (non-tenure track labor of both PT and FT) labor, but is NOT a correct natioanl percentage for PT labor (the correct percentage is about 50%)!

    Contingent FT NTT faculty have demonstrably much improved circumstances, in most cases. Of course, on the outlier front there are FT NTT who are more badly paid than a few PTF, and there are PTF who are better paid, in a very few places, than FT TENURED. But these are rare, very rare outliers. The basic picture is VERY badly paid PTF natioanlly, and modestly paid, more job secure, health benefitted FT NTT contingent faculty. Using the NCES category of “instructor ” rank as a close proxy to a “non tenure track” FTF, the annual pay is around $58,000 as I remember (again 2011 figures). The annual pay, generally without benefits, for a PTF working at FTF load, is around $28,000. (adjunct project estimates). Magness is absolutely correct to try to disentangle the stats, but he has evidently put the “stats” correction to relatively weak use, in my view.

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