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Adjunct Profs, Academic Poverty & the Quixotic Quest for a Tenure-Track position

Three articles about the steady decline of tenure. A lot of stories about adjunct teachers.

Also worth mentioning that for these kinds of columns warning about the job market, it’s just as important to read the comments by disaffected academics as it is to read the actual article. In fact, because most of the time the articles are being written by well-intentioned tenured academics, they could possibly be – by definition – the ones least likely to see the problems at ground level. 

After reading the replies, I felt inclined to write my own response. I had some nuggets of wisdom to impart. But after typing two paragraphs, I realized that my contribution to this debate was trivial; I did not actually have to live the life that commenters despaired about; there was no way I really understood what it felt like (except the personal testimony who followed market signals and avoided college teaching).  image


image Under the fold  are several dozen commenters on the subject. They will tell you what life in academia is really about.  People in the humanities seem to be particularly hard-hit; it’s amazing how different the perspective of people in professional and science programs can be from people who stuck it out in the humanities. These people ought to be respected, not vilified. Ok, now the comments: 


To see my pay rate, you would have thought I was rich—making more than $50 for every hour of actual teaching. Of course, that rate applied only to time spent inside a classroom, so the average literature class that semester paid a bit over $2,400. A writing course involved an "extra" hour, bringing up the salary to roughly $3,200.

It was not uncommon to hear adjuncts discuss Medicaid benefits, or to hear that a colleague had quit to become a waiter or a temp. As an adjunct, you are not guaranteed employment from year to year. But if you are offered reappointment for the next year, you are not necessarily eligible for unemployment benefits over the summer. To get health insurance through the union at my university, you needed to teach at least two courses each semester—every semester—and then wait a year to be eligible. You were not paid for all the time you spent preparing a course. Nor were you reimbursed for extended office hours, registration fees at conferences (let alone transportation costs), or time spent e-mailing students or responding to their messages

In fact, non-tenure-stream faculty — including adjuncts and graduate students — are not just "actually teaching many of the courses offered in departments across our universities": we’re teaching HALF of the undergraduate courses offered offered in American public institutions of higher ed. And it’s not that we shouldn’t teach under such abominable conditions, as is suggested by love-it-or-leave-it defenders of the status quo. It’s that schools who can’t afford equity for the 70% of their faculty who are serving contingently should close — or at least rephrase their noble-sounding missions.

As a doctoral candidate at an urban university and an adjunct lecturer at another, this article sadly resonates with me. It reminded me of when I received an increase in food stamps the same day I passed my comprehensive exams. Guess which news excited me more?

Those of you who suggest that adjuncts should reject such dismal conditions must understand that for many of us (including this single mother of two who receives less than $100/month in child support), we have few employment options available since we’re usually overqualified for most entry-level positions outside academe and underqualified to work in higher education administration that often requires experience beyond teaching and a graduate degree in HEA. At least being an adjunct pays (most) of the bills for now. I’m seriously considering pursuing a second MA in Student Affairs in hopes of becoming more employable, but I fear amassing more debt.

This is a great summary of the demoralizing and hectic life of an adjunct. As a student at a large urban university in New York City (CUNY, obviously!) I can completely relate. The title of this editorial is a little misleading, however. When I read "An Underclass is Educating Your Children" I really thought this article was going to be directed to an audience of tuition-paying parents, but this is mostly just a rundown of the work-life of a disrespected and underrepresented adjunct–a story we’ve all heard a thousand times.

I wish this article had given more thought to the audience suggested by its title, since I sincerely believe that at least one of the ways to change our current situation is to educate and inform students and parents about the deleterious effects of adjunctification upon the quality of education. Adjuncts have stood up and talked about how hard they work and how good they are for too long. It’s time that we were really honest with parents and students and explained to them that while we are being cheated out of a living wage, they are being cheated out of a real education.

The first day of each class, I make an effort to explain this fact to my students. Telling them a little bit about myself, I ask them if they know what an adjunct is, and inevitably the great majority have no clue. My students are mostly sophomores and juniors who have spent the last two years taking classes almost exclusively with adjuncts, and yet not a single one of them knows what an adjuncts is, how they are treated, and how little they get paid. I tell them exactly how much I am paid and what my course load is, and then explain what the average salary and course load is of a tenured or tenure track professor. Inevitably a few students gasp, and several groan, especially when they realize that many of them are probably making more a year than the adjuncts that teach them.

But here’s the important part, I also tell them that because of these conditions it is impossible for me to organize the class in a way that is truly student centered(when I develop syllabi, for instance, my biggest concern, sadly, is not what students will learn, but how can I organize the class in a way that creates the least amount of work for me), that there is no way I will be able to provide them with the time and attention that they deserve and which they are paying for, that my lectures and discussion sections may be less than perfectly prepared, and that I will not have the time to give them feedback on their written work, to look at drafts before they are turned in, to write them letters, or to spend any time with them outside of my one paid office hour (one hour for several classes).

This article feeds into a notion that ought to be debunked: that these supposedly awful adjunct lives are inescapable and that the poor fellows who lead them have no personal agency and can’t do anything else. Nothing could be further from the truth. People are not forced into doctoral programs in the humanities. Quite the opposite, in fact: only a tiny minority of those who hold bachelor’s degrees chose to apply to doctoral programs. (That this tiny minority is, in and of itself, vastly larger than the number of tenure-track jobs that will be available to it upon graduation should not distract us from the fact that, compared to the general population, the percentage of humanities Ph.D.’s is infinitesimal.) To put it more bluntly, no one put a gun to Dr. Faunce’s head and forced him into doctoral study. Likewise, no one forced him to attend "a major public university in New York," likely a certain impoverished graduate center located in what was once the B. Altman Department Store on Fifth Avenue between 34th and 35th. (Please forgive me if I have misidentified this "major public university in New York.") There are other universities in New York–and, for that matter, other universities in less expensive parts of the United States and the world, and many of them offer far more generous fellowship packages than does Dr. Faunce’s alma mater.

I should know. I survived a humanities doctoral program in the very same metropolis as did Dr. Faunce. Like the author, I finished my Ph.D. at a university in New York and taught at a campus–to borrow his phrase–with a panoply of class, race, ethnic, and sexual diversity. (That’s any campus in New York, happily.) I, however, was concerned with the material aspects of my existence when I applied to graduate school in the first place, and I chose a rich Ivy League university in New York rather than an esteemed but broke public institution. Had I failed to gain admission to my graduate alma mater I would have done something else, something more remunerative. As it was, I finished my doctorate without having to subject myself to the agonies of running around the five boroughs and applying for food stamps or federal health support. It wasn’t a Carnival cruise–is any graduate program?–but I was able to get by, just.

This gets to the always-unmentioned core of adjunct complaints that pop up on grad student blogs, the Chronicle, education supplements in newspapers, and in classrooms themselves: that many complaining adjuncts operate from the presumption that they have a right to decent salaries and good working conditions. Workers who greatly outnumber the jobs they desire should suffer no such illusions. Education, for better or worse, is a market like any other, and this particular market will continue to bear the low salaries and abysmal working conditions of adjuncts until such time as there are no adjuncts left who are willing to do those jobs. I would therefore advise the author, when attempting to formulate how, precisely, "to help friends who still participate in the economic horror show that is graduate school," to tell them to do something else altogether or to transfer to an institution that will provide them with a salary and working conditions more to their liking. And, whatever the case, get over yourselves. No one made you do this, and you can always jump ship and do something else. Should you feel that you are no longer suited for any kind of other work, well, that’s simply too bad, but it’s no one else’s fault.

This adjunct situation cries out for an Upton Sinclair to write The Jungle for university teaching, or a Jacob Riis to do photojournalism. Alas, it might be hard to garner much sympathy for well-educated, articulate adults who dress decently and work at desks, computers, and lecterns. The adjuncts I know (I direct a writing program at an urban public university) do their jobs very well, participate in program teaching workshops, have collegial relationships with each other and with the full-time faculty in the program, and generally are respected by their students and receive good evaluations. Most of them have master’s degrees; a handful have a Ph.D. or an M.F.A. Many of them bring valuable job experience (in journalism, marketing, business, non-profits, even health care, and of course a few in K-12 teaching) that enhances their teaching of writing.

Yes, if they all went on strike or "dropped out" for a semester or two, we could possibly find other desperate folks to take their places. But some of those "other desperate folks" would not be as good, and would not have the valuable years of experience teaching in our program and other programs. There is not an inexhaustible supply of good first-year writing teachers. Nor is it ever good to have frequent turnover in any workplace, especially a professional one.

The entire university system needs reform. More funding from state legislatures would help, but that is unlikely. Better allocation of existing university budgets would be a start: at least make undergraduate teaching and learning THE priority, and see how far you can go paying all university teachers a fair wage with benefits, and giving full-time positions when there is full-time work. If necessary, cut back on or eliminate some student support services (but you have to be careful there–students need their financial aid processed, their registrations handled efficiently, their housing and food provided, their internships and career counseling); some research; athletics; "institutes"; and any program that doesn’t support itself with outside grants, if there are any such. Ask tenured faculty to teach more, but don’t expect them to publish as much or serve on a dozen committees. Above all, cut back on upper-level and mid-level administration, and make all those people take substantial pay cuts. If a vice-chancellor or associate dean is needed, there are people who would gladly do the job well for $80,000 or $100,000 instead of $200,000, or even less, as long as they can’t get paid more for being a professor. (I get paid less than $55,000 for fall and spring semesters, supplementing that with summer pay, so I’d be willing to do one of those administrative jobs for $80,000 in a minute.) You might end up with a pretty stripped-down model of higher education, but then you could look around and see what resulted. Boards of trustees, legislators, governors, and the general public, including parents, could see what their money can realistically pay for.

Don’t blame graduate students or adjuncts for this situation or for their choices. The ones I know (and the one I once was) like what they are doing and are willing to sacrifice to do it rather than manage a store or work in some government agency. They love teaching, love mentoring, and love knowledge and inquiry. They are simply starting to ask, "Why can’t I be accorded a modest degree of financial security and respect for this good, necessary work I do?"

The worst part of this whole rotten system is the way that universities kidnap people off the street and make them teach at gun point.

Wait–that doesn’t happen? These people are adjuncts as a result of their own (poor) choices? That complicates matters.

When this article first appeared, I wondered how long it would take for the social darwinists to show up; now they are here in force, berating adjuncts (and other contingent faculty) for being "idiots and slackers" who made "poor choices" and therefore deserve neither sympathy nor assistance from their betters. "Cry me a river!" they sneer. "Take some responsibility!" they intone. It’s all about "supply and demand", they explain, and administrators would be "derelict" if they paid a living wage to those who can be bought for less than that. If you don’t enjoy being treated like human garbage then go do something else, they admonish. And if, after all you’ve been through, you are no longer good for anything else, well, "that’s just too bad." The way things are going, it would not surprise me if the next round of comments involves terms like "untermenschen" and "useless eaters."

Lost in all this self-righteous posturing by people who "chose" to go to rich Ivy League schools and "chose" to become well-heeled tenured professors and administrators is the fact that, as an ancient wise man once said, "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all." That wisdom seems to have been forgotten by the self-righteous twits who so gleefully dance on the heads of those they obviously consider to be their inferiors.

Sure, we should all take more responsibility for our lives, and much misery could be avoided if no one ever made any mistakes. But we all make mistakes sooner or later, and sometimes there is no way to distinguish in advance between a boneheaded error and a reasonably calculated risk–or even a brilliant move that by rights ought to pan out but, in the end, simply doesn’t. It’s easy to invent explanations for why someone whose life has gone to hell ought to have "known better". The woman whose husband gives her AIDS and then abandons her for someone else? She should have chosen a better partner. The employee who is cheated by his boss and then fired for filing a grievance? He should have chosen to work in a better establishment. The people who lose their jobs and their house through no fault of their own and end up on the street with three little kids in tow? They shouldn’t have had children at all until they were sure they could support them comfortably for the next eighteen years. The twentysomething who joins the National Guard thinking he’s going to be doing flood relief, and then finds himself in some third-world hellhole and comes back shot to pieces and unable to work, only to be told there’s no benefits for people like him? He should have known better than to try to serve his country in the first place. And the young people who believed the bland assurances of their favorite professors that "people like you ought to go to grad school" and "you won’t have any trouble finding a job with a degree from a good school like this"? They should have known that eight or ten years down the road the economy was going to tank, the tenure track would be going away, and there would no longer be any demand for the field they spent a decade studying.

In short, everyone should have a crystal ball with infallible discernment of the future–and anyone who doesn’t have one should have the decency to shut up and stop bothering the rest of us about the consequences of their "poor choices." It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, "every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost!" These people need to stop whining and get with the program!

Problem is, no sane person really wants to live in a world like that. The social darwinists think they do, because for the moment they’re on top of the heap looking down at the rest of us. The darwinists take for granted that there will always be people who feel called to engage in socially valuable professions like teaching, medicine, and social work instead of more profitable enterprises such as, say, marketing corrupt financial derivatives; and they are perfectly willing to take advantage of other people’s decency and self-sacrifice even as they publicly vilify those same people as fools and idiots for entering such fields in the first place. They also turn into the biggest whiners you’ve ever heard when their carefully constructed world finally begins to fall apart and they have to start living like the rest of us. In fact, right here in this forum we’ve seen them become righteously enraged when the slaves they rely on to prop up their narcissistic little paradise threaten to begin operating according to the same self-centered competitive ethic that they themselves follow.

It’s the same story we see over and over again throughout history: The "haves" think they have the upper hand because they deserve to, while they grind their boots in the faces of the lesser breeds who were born to serve; and when the "have nots" plead for some modicum of mercy and human decency from their betters, they get nothing from them but insults and further abuse. One might hope that academics, of all people, might do better than this, if for no other reason than a practical self-interest born of the knowledge that, historically, such situations always end badly sooner or later; but judging by what we’ve seen in this and similar forums in recent years, such hopes appear to be in vain.

I feel that at the core of what we are talking about here is entitlement. Grad students and PHD candidates believe that they deserve a better professional life and thus a better salary, work conditions, etc than other people. Obtaining advanced degrees is a luxury in this country. I know it shouldn’t be, but until we have free higher educational systems, people who take the time and if necessary, the loans to pursue this academic track, will be doing so because they can afford to. When I was finishing grad school I was horrified that my MA didn’t get me special access to a bright and shiny career path. Just like all the other worker bees, I had to make my way, earn my place, work two or three jobs, work outside of my chosen field, change cities and even country. I’m amazed at how such intelligent people can do advance research and write dissertations and whatnot, yet they can’t google the salary and work economy for adjuncts? Really? The fact of the matter is, this is your career, your choice, your life. The academic/educational work structure didn’t change for the worst over night and will likely not bend to suit your sense of "well, I’ve worked so hard studying so now where’s my tenure-track seat?". Step away from your academic thrones and do like the less-educated yet successful folk do – find a way to market your skills and talents so you may parlay it into a way to honorably earn a good wage. Or, get a job.
(reply to above)

Smartgirlsensei: Your analysis assumes that people set out to become adjuncts and then were shocked to discover that adjuncting sucks. But I have never yet met anyone who began grad school with the intention of becoming an adjunct; we began grad school with the hope of becoming tenured faculty and having a professional career doing something that mattered to us and was of value to society. We were encouraged in that hope by reams of statistics and endless assurances from the federal government, from the universities, from people we knew in the field, from our professors, from damn near everyone we consulted, that by the time we finished our programs there would be a dire shortage of doctorates in the U.S. due to a massive wave of retirements that was promised to be coming any day now. And on that basis we made rational calculations about our job prospects and engaged in rational behavior intended to make it come true.

Of course all that advice proved wrong, and the promised openings never materialized. Why? Partly because of unforeseeable structural changes in the global economy, and partly because politicians and university administrators changed the rules of the game after we had already entered it. They got what they wanted out of us–sky-high tuition, cheap labor, expanded graduate programs, massive profits on student loans–but when we got to the end of the ride we discovered there was no brass ring.

And so we did all the stuff you are babbling about–working multiple jobs, working outside our fields, changing cities, and all the rest–and all it ever got us was more exploitation on the adjunct track, which many of us remained in for years while they plied us with more hollow promises about "when the next TT position comes open" and similar tripe.

So now what? Many of us are still deeply in debt, with years of our lives wasted pursuing a position we now know will never come … and you blithely tell us to "market" our "skills and talents" so we can "honorably earn a good wage." Do you have any idea how hard it is for someone who is now in middle age and has spent his or her entire life in academe to get a foot in the door doing something else? When I tried that, the only advice anyone could give me was to take the Ph.D. off my resume and apply for a job at Burger King. Most corporate managers simply do not want employees who are smarter or better educated than they are, and consequently a Ph.D. on the resume is the kiss of death for most non-academic positions–and being twice the manager’s age isn’t going to help, either.

It’s very easy to generalize from your own experience and say everyone should do what you’ve done. If it worked for you, that’s great for you–but this is not a one-size-fits-all situation, even in the best of economies. And in today’s economy, with unemployment the highest it’s been in decades and even the most highly qualified people going begging, many people are as thoroughly stuck in their miserable positions as if they were medieval serfs bonded to the land.

(reply to above reply)

I do not assume that you entered your PHD program or academia with the intention of becoming an adjunct, that would be absurd and heavens forbid a highly intelligent over-educated person would ever do something so ordinary. What I am saying is that I firmly believe many of you and us (because I say this from unpleasant experience) believed the road to tenure-track and other plum positions would come more easily, and quickly especially to someone whom was as you said are "smarter or better educated". I’m not 24, I am technically middle-aged as well and I feel your pain and frustration. I do not mean to be as harsh as I know I am sounding. I do however grow tired of reading these articles about how PHD teachers must compete with those who do not have the same educational background but more practical experience, or how those who opt for online teaching (a significantly more manageable and often more profitable position) are sell-outs, blah blah blah….

Yes the economy and your professors promised an outcome they are unable to deliver. Such is life. I opted not to pursue my PHD because after paying off my undergrad and still in the midst of paying off my grad loans, it just didn’t add up. I realized that in the end, it really didn’t matter to anyone but a select community of degree snobs, my mother and my ego. I was still able to do the research and projects I wanted, still able to live a good life, feel like I was using my brain and my education and after less than glamorous teaching experience (at the university level and below), I was a much better, more confident and successful prof. And that (call it paying your dues or whatever), is how I got to this place. It didn’t happen overnight and it was by no means easy, but I never complained and kvetched about a professional path that I chose and continued to stay on was choking the life out of me.

If your ego can handle it, take your PHD off your CV. You might be surprised by the results.
The argument (made by jonkwilliams, larryc, and englishivy) which puts forth that adjuncts are responsible for their own predicament is clearly a red herring. As an adjunct, I take full responsibility for my chosen career. I accept the fact that with a Ph.D. from a top 20 school, great teaching evaluations, and yearly conferences and publishing, I still have relatively low wages and no job security.

The real issue, then, is implied by the title of this article: what impact does the status quo have on the education of students?

The answer is clear and cannot be denied: a system which pays low wages and yet requires several years of education will not attract the most talented faculty, and this is just one reason why our higher education system is so obviously faltering.

Imagine reducing the wages of most doctors by half, and stripping them of health benefits, retirement plans, and job security; and then telling those who nevertheless go into the profession of saving lives that when they complain about such working conditions they have nobody but themselves to blame for being so naive as to pursue such a hopeless career. That kind of riposte would entirely miss the more significant issue of how the treatment of patients would suffer miserably. And conversely, those who complain about their working conditions aren’t necessarily expressing self-pity as they are simply pointing out the need for a dramatic transformation of the status quo.

It’s a false dichotomy to suggest that adjuncts’ only choices are (a) to whine endlessly; or (b) to go find a real job with better pay and working conditions. Instead, here are what some adjuncts I know are doing:
1. Teaching their hearts out, finding fulfillment in this interaction with students and exploring the discipline.
2. Organizing with other adjuncts (and a few full-time faculty, including a tenured professor like me) to make others aware of this problem, advocate for better working conditions, and invite all faculty to join together in solidarity.
3. When full-time jobs come open, usually non-tenure-track, apply for them.

Yes, we are responsible for our choices and we can make new choices when things don’t work out well. The adjuncts I work with do not whine or wallow in self-pity. Some finally leave. Most preserve their dignity and self-respect, and I encourage them to stand up for themselves and their profession, OUR profession.

Do join the New Faculty Majority, and organize your own faculty. Feel free to email me if you want to know more about what we are doing at our university: sfox@iupui.edu


Just a few points:
1) The remaining tenured and tenure track professors are now managers. They manage the
adjunct faculty. They assume more and more service and administrative roles because there
are fewer of them to share the responsibilities. This results in less time for research and
interactions with students.
2. There will come a time (very soon) where young people will have no interest in pursuing
a Phd. It is already true in languages and the humanities. Assuming huge debts for
advanced degrees when there is no future will contribute to a loss of talent for higher education.
3. Grade inflation has come about as the non tenured and adjuncts are faced with student
evaluations that may cost them their jobs.
4. In our very litigious society, many people have received tenure who did not really deserve it.
The institution must prove incompetence and cannot demand excellence.
5. Tenure has been abused by some professors who simply stop growing and settle back to fix
up their houses on their sabbatical leaves.

Possible solutions: 1) Full time contracts with term limits. I have long thought that the 7 year
term is a good one. Every 7 years, faculty should be evaluated. If they do not carry their
weight in all aspects of collegiate responsibilities, they should be given a terminal year’s
pay and dismissed. This would keep everyone on their toes throughout their careers.
2) Stop building palatial campuses. European universities do not build "cities" with
country club like housing and student unions. It is the concept of "competition" that
has driven this. Doing well in the magazine ratings and "looking good" in the brochure and
on line pictures has taken precedence over high quality teaching and standards.
3) Re-examine collegiate sports. The cost of maintaining this huge industry, which really
provides the "farm" system for football and basketball has no place in the training of
scientists, mathematicians, linguists, poets, historians, teachers, artists, and musicians.
Again, European, Indian, and Asian universities do not do this. They are going to provide
the world with the dominant educated populations if this country does not change.
It will, if it has not already, become a national security issue.

As an adjunct for 3 colleges, I am not surprised by the figures presented indicating TT on the decline and PT on the rise. I have noticed this trend as the number of advertised TT positions has decreased over the past 10-15 years.

Although my work is well-liked by the schools’ where I teach, I am on a semester-by-semester contract. I have no job security. If enrollments fall, as they have in the past, my course has been and will be (again) cut or passed onto a FT faculty who need to fulfill their obligation. I cannot argue or fight my way into a course when I have no contractual obligation.

While hiring PT/adjuncts saves the university money, the students do not receive the same educational opportunities. As an adjunct, I may not be fully aware of the degree requirements, outreach opportunities, or research experiences available at the schools and cannot effectively advise students. Instead, I suggest they speak with a FT/TT with whom they have no previous contact with, since my course is their one and only science exposure. As a research-trained faculty, I too am missing out on the opportunity to continue scientific research and mentor students in the process. Adjunct are typically not invited to faculty meetings nor have voting power. In relying heavily on adjuncts, students and faculty are not receiving the benefits of academia. If TT jobs are on the decline, there should be a push for long-term contracts (full-time) and less reliance on PT adjuncts.

As Ronald G. Ehrenberg discusses "gypsy adjuncts" in the article, part-time faculty often need to find employment at multiple schools in order to make enough funds to support a family or the economy (e.g. buy a home and other material necessities). Without my job security, it was a difficult decision about when and where to buy a home. My spouse’s employment ensured we could make the home-buying commitment. Has the impact of adjunct employment on the local economy been explored, especially in small college towns?

So, why did I turn down FT industry/government opportunities and continue with this lifestyle, because I love teaching. I will continue to nervously await teaching assignment decisions every semester, and have a greater teaching load than TT/FT faculty for about half the pay, and share an office with my closest 25 adjunct "friends", whom I never see. The smell of freshly-waxed floors every fall and the smiles of students eager to learn draw me back to the classroom.

One of the prime goals of the first-year writing program for which I teach is ostensibly to develop students’ critical-thinking skills. But the program’s in a division whose own professed goal is retention; it includes more support-service staff such as counselors and academic-intervention specialists than teachers, and its dean has no background in writing or critical thinking but in criminal justice. The program’s director, answerable to this dean, is its only tenure-stream faculty. Four full-time contingents and from 26 to thirty part-time adjuncts teach its same two courses at a salary discrepancy that the director has banned as a topic in department meetings. If students DO learn to think critically in this program, what might they conclude about the program itself?

I suppose most of my comments have probably already been made by those above – I didn’t read all of them in detail. This is, however, a subject I’ve wanted to comment on for awhile. First – tenure is as important to teaching faculty as it is to research faculty – so any assumption that faculty at major research institutions see tenure as more important than those of us at "teaching" institutions is off base. At teaching universities the issue is classroom control. Administration want more and more control over what transpires in the classroom. Teaching faculty are bombarded with all the latest happy hoo-ha about assessment, and distance education. We are heavily pressured to create online classes – which are seen as cash cows for the institution. In my state system there are constant talks of collaboration between institutions and programs – through online courses – that will surely cut the number of faculty across the system. After all, if I can teach Intro to Sociology online – why do the other 13 campuses need to have a faculty member to teach the course? All that stands against administration getting their way in this – is the tenured faculty. I can only speak for myself – but I will not willingly participate in activities that are likely to cost others their livelihood.

In earlier times faculty carried out many, perhaps most administrative functions in the university – but gradually the demands of teaching and research made it desirable to hire specialists to take care of registration, fund-raising, and other functions. Since then administrations have grown at a rate several magnitudes greater than faculty. Now – administrations have long forgotten this simple truism: they exist to serve the faculty and students, not the other way around! Senior administrators are now, for the most part, business oriented – and so want the "flexibility" that business executives have. They particularly want to reduce costs by using more adjunct faculty – but they also want control of the teaching-learning environment. In essence they would like to reduce faculty to "classroom technicians." They also want the capability to get rid of faculty they see as problematic, for whatever reason.

Those who have tenure should ask their administrators as often as possible the following question: Universities consist of administrators, staff, faculty and students – which two of these are absolutely necessary to have a university?

When tenure dies (as it surely will), I will wear red to the funeral and dance on the grave of this sad, meaningless drag on higher education. One of the great problems is not that tenure protects academic freedom (a complete fallacy), it is that it undermines the value of the one true responsibility of academia – teaching. There was a long-standing joke at one school where I worked that went: "Do you know who is going to be denied tenure this year?" "Yes," goes the reply, "the winner of the departments Teacher of the Year Award!"

I have a friend who published four history books and made a good amount of money in doing so not get tenure because the committee felt his work was "too pedestrian," "popular history," and "published for a general audience, not fellow academics." So, here we have it, he was teaching/informing the masses, not the numb, internal gazing fellows in his immediate group – and God forbid, he made a buck along the way!

I now work at an institution that is contract only, no tenure required. Our contracts are renewed based on the same process as most tenure systems but teaching is top on the list, research and publication are near the bottom and publications for the general audience are more than acceptable. I love it. Department politics are a thing of the past. I work to teach and inform the people of my university and community. I get plenty of time to attend conferences, present papers, and be a complete scholar. I just don’t have to kiss the smelly parts of the "latest flavor" trend in order to keep my job. That, my friends, is academic freedom.

Elimination of mandatory retirement took effect across the US as a result of 1986 legislation. It was deferred for higher ed until Jan 1, 1994. When it hit higher ed, it hit MUCH harder than in businesses that did not have tenure systems. In other businesses, while employers must try to avoid age discrimination lawsuits, they are free to structure job requirements in such a way that maintaining performance becomes progressively more difficult for older workers. Workers race to retire. In academia, the essence of tenure protects the bumbling, the forgetful, the too-tired-to-care, along with the brilliant wise elders. So academia totally relied on mandatory retirement to clear out faculty before they got too hopelessly non-functional. As a result, eliminating mandatory retirement was like an earthquake for university administrators. They faced a horrifying vision of their campus crawling with 90-year-old professors. A round of aggressive buy-outs and a collapse in the rate of tenure-track hires and tenure-grants ensued. We are still seeing the shakeout. Of course many potential grad students will figure this out on some level and turn away from academia, but the more intense publication pressure is just a manifestation of a bar that has, in fact, gotten so much higher. Meanwhile, an entire generation of us who got our PhDs in, e.g., 1990, found ourselves about as valuable as an autoworker in Detroit.
Again, I must ask, how is it that none of you (including the author of the article) seem to have any grasp of this fundamental reality. I mean really, all these silly conspiracy theories and so on!

I have especially strong and personal opinions on this subject. At one point in my teaching career, I worked at Oklahoma University as a TA, Oklahoma City CC as an adjunct, Midwest America Bible College as an adjunct, a small private elementary school teaching an after school program, and a teaching studio in Norman, Oklahoma – all at the same time and all for about $30000 a year. Later, I joined Oklahoma City University as head of their classical guitar department, left everything but the community college and the teaching studio and still only earned only $35000 a year (with no benefits and still considered an adjunct). I sat on graduate committees, handed out Master’s degrees, shaped policies for the music department, all as an adjunct. When I went to my dean to say I needed benefits, I was told it was not possible and that he was working on getting all dept head adjunct’s positions endowed and I should wait for that. He then rolled out the plans for the 15 MILLION dollar new Music/Theater building that they would soon break ground on and showed me where my nice new office would be. That was over ten years ago and since then, the new building was finished and all those positions that were held by adjuncts are still waiting to be endowed professorships.

I do see that many posters are aware of the fact that tenured faculty have lifetime job protection, and some seem aware that this is not entirely a good thing. However, posters don’t seem to be aware of the fact that this lifetime job protection for the lucky few was an unexpected development that just occurred 16 years ago – long after a critical mass of current faculty made their decisions to go into academia, and even long after they were tenured. This lack of understanding does not bode well for sensible reform.

Posters seem unaware that lifetime job protection for tenured faculty was injected into a system that was designed around an assumption that people could and would be forced out at age 65 or 70. Tenure would never have become widespread in the absence of a system of legally enforceable retirement ages.

Given the new reality, bemoaning the loss of lifetime job security – the "lifetime" feature existing for the lucky few only due to the fluke of new legal protection meeting up with the old tenure system – or arguing that surely parents and students will wise up to the benefits of tenured faculty, or hoping evil administrators will somehow get their just desserts is all just a waste of breath.
Faulty analysis has serious consequences. New graduate students look at their campuses and come to grossly optimistic conclusions about their own likelihood of being able to enjoy the working conditions and economic security of older faculty. Untenured faculty are angered when they see an older generation "living the dream" that is beyond the grasp of more recent arrivals. Faculty and administrators, at all levels, seeking to keep enrollment up have no incentive to be truthful with students about how little their PhD will get them. Legal considerations and the culture of self-blame and secrecy around tenure denials reinforce the lack of understanding about the situation.

Faculty tenured under the old system understandably don’t want to admit, to others, or even to themselves, they likely never would have been able to get tenure under the new regime. Administrators are reluctant to admit they have raised the bar as much as they have. For my cohort – people who truly faced a "bait and switch" in the mid-1990s – administrators reasonably feared that any admission that the tenure bar jumped up overnight might give significant legal ammunition to those rejected for tenure. Even today, when a sustainable system still has not emerged, openly acknowledging the new reality would make it more difficult for administrators to recruit for a tenure track that is now almost a revolving door.

Ignorance and confusion slow the emergence of a new system. As in any industry facing changed conditions, individual employees find it hard to tell whether their struggles are because they are just not very good at what they do or whether the world has changed. Anger and shame are less effective routes to beneficial reform than widespread understanding of reality.

The apparent ignorance shown in these 100 comments is striking. It is as if an auto worker agonized about not being able to attain the security his father enjoyed in Detroit, but was totally unaware of the emergence of competition from Japan and Europe.

All of this will sort itself out, eventually. Students will make career decisions on the basis of better information, including the statistical data in the forthcoming report. The availability of willing and desperate adjuncts will diminish somewhat. However, if there is not a radical improvement in awareness of the new reality, these adjustments could take a very long time – and Lord Keynes statement that "in the long run, we are all dead" will prove true in yet another industry.


As of 2003, 1.3% of all full-time instructional faculty in the U.S. were age 71 or older (and 5.1% were age 65-70; NSOPF: 2004 Faculty Survey, Table 5, Average age and age distribution of instructional faculty and staff). There is some effect of the prohibition against mandatory retirement, but it does not appear to be of the dramatic nature argued above.

If you think that forcing or encouraging older faculty members to retire is going to give your department the go-ahead for assistant professor searches on a 1:1 retired: new basis, I think you’re dreaming. What has happened in your department or school when people retire? Have you been through the destruction a retirement-incentive program can cause? When those lines go, you’re not going to get them all back in tenure-track form–particularly if your central administration is using economic need to justify a power grab.

Fundamentally, we are experiencing a large-scale shift in faculty labor practices, away from long-term institutional commitment and a teaching/research balance achieved within individual workers and toward money-saving, flexibility, and a teaching/research balance achieved across individual workers. Tinkering around the edges, for example by allowing age discrimination to force older faculty members out, is not going to do much.

Tenure is needless and destructive. The pursuit of tenure itself warps the pursuit of knowledge, and the possession of tenure corrupts. To get tenure one must play all sorts of demeaning games that demean one’s integrity, whether that mean hustling grants, kissing the department chair’s rump obsequiously, or peddling articles you know are intrinsically worthless.

The pressure to publish in micro-journals to pad a tenure request portfolio means gobs of pablum are pushed as "research." This is especially true in the humanities and social sciences, where the volume of published garbage reaches astronomical levels.

And the pressure to publish all this superficial and irrelevant material in turn drives tenure aspirants away from teaching, which robs tuition-paying undergraduates of their educations.
Once tenured, one is effectively unaccountable. There is no longer any incentive to be productive or to interact meaningfully with students. After the joyless and embittering process of securing tenure, one’s soul is permanently damaged, except with tenure one is able to pass along the pain to others.

Altogether a terribly unhealthy institution. It’s demise is a boon for society. Good riddance!

As a student at Oberlin College 35 years ago, I witnessed the near unionization of the faculty after the then president abolished (and later reinstated) tuition remission for faculty children. I served at the time on the faculty committee that allocated TT and non-TT positions among departments. During one committee meeting, a professor said sotto voce, "We would not have [a problem he identified] if we had a union." To which another professor responded, "What you could never convince me was how you could collectively bargain an increase in the endowment."  All so-called learned professions including mine (law) have experienced greater economic stress in the last 30 years than in the post WW II period. Academic tenure, law or medical practice partnerships, and permanent clergy appointments are all harder to come by, and seem to present more numerous and severe career risks. Yet as I work with my business clients, I am regularly reminded that the chances they and their employees take and the returns they stand to make are no better, and often worse. So maybe the risks and rewards of our lot as post-baccalaureate degree holders are not such a bad bargain after all.

The entire discussion seems to be heading into a pointless deadend of comments concerning what some individuals had to do some 25 or 30 years ago to earn tenure. What is needed is some evidence that those of you who claim to be tenured and at least in your eyes to have proven how deserving you are of it to be able to analyze the state of affairs as they exist now. Why is is so hard to clearly focus on what should be at the center of this discussion: What does the decline of tenured position reveal about the state of higher education and are tenured professors part of the problem to reforming higher education. What does tenure improve, what does it protect, does it protect anything that is worth protecting, etc. Really, for so many of you who claim to be tenured professors I would have expected at least some evidence that you can at least take a complex issue and analyze it clearly but I guess that is asking too much. However, it does seem to prove in part that tenure does impart much insight to those who have it.

  1. There is a complete lack of awareness of how university systems in other nations are organized and how those professor in those systems–which are almost all centralized into a government authority–have far more protection and provide far better working conditions. It may be difficult for some of you to realize that there is nothing worth saving in American Higher Education even if you may have been tenured in it. In most other systems it is not just tenure but strong unionization and firm centralized control. See Neve Gordon’s comments on Norman Finkelstein in the Chronicle 30 Nov. 2007.
  2. American tenured faculty seem to suffer from a narrow vision of the university that begins and ends with only whether they have secured their place in it. Any wider understanding of how the university functions within the larger economic ideology of American Market Capitalism seems absent either because most of you have no interest in it or most of you are so poorly read outside your narrow fields that you lack the understanding required. Being well read is clearly not one of the conditions of being tenured.
  3. Most of you failed to indicate the fields in which you were tenured. Tenure does differ from discipline to discipline and we cannot just impose our individual tenure stories on all.
  4. What is needed is a discussion of how to reform higher education in the U.S with or without tenure. One of the many problems with the present system is that tenure is given at too early a stage which is why the desire to hire only recent graduates to tenure track positions leads to filling those positions mostly with Ivy League Ph.D’s or other graduates from the elite departments because there is a vague sense that by the time they are up for tenure they will have done better than others. Therefore the entire process becomes some vague attempt to predict the future. And how many professors get turned down for tenure? Are these records at all kept? Another reason why we need to centralize higher education in a single federal department with firm control over all universities. What is needed are clearly defined entry level positions after graduate school that are not tenure track positions but that can lead to such positions but lasting a number of years and with full pay. To argue that only tenure is only means to provide professors protection is to make all those who do not have it less protected and poorer and it makes tenure hold up a burden it should not have to. Tenure needs to be separated out of the need for full time employment and freedom of research. By not doing this all of you are just playing into the game that there must be tenured positions and nothing else. And what as been the result: tenured positions have been disappearing. Because the more you hold onto to your late 19th century and early 20th century view of the University the less likely it will remain and since you will have no alternative to replace it with you will just allow Market Forces to do the work of change for you. For too many of you the world came to an end the day you got tenured because it was the day that you assumed you no longer needed to think–about higher education or anything else. Well there are others who are more than happy to think for you but by that time it will be too late. Not that there are too many of you who seem to care one way or the other. Indeed, this may be an example of what Baudrillard has called in another context the "Perfect Crime."


If you want to move to a world with very little research at all and no regard for faculty input or ideas, keeping copying the for-profit model. For-profit schools deprofessionalize teaching and call PhDs who could not secure the ever decreasing tenure positions, facilitators. Your courses are written by "discipline experts (not necessarily another PhD)" and you teach them. You don’t pick the text, the method and the pay is adjunct level.

Had someone been frank about the next generation of non-jobs in academia, I would have definitely abandoned the humanities before entering graduate school 15 years ago. My plan is to escape soon. Over the years, I have watched the situation deteriorate. I have a job, not a career, and there are many published people like me in the same position. I work with a colleague from Columbia: great in the classroom, published, etc. Academia is a dead end for the young with talent and they would do better to create the future outside of the academy.

If you are reading this pre-grad school, just don’t go unless you are headed to an ivy league grad program and accept that you have a 25% chance of landing a tenure track job.

There are some great, sensible comments already made. I’m an adjunct at a major university, and I have a full time professional career in addition to my teaching. This past year I received the Outstanding Classroom Teaching Award, which is a first for a part-time faculty member. My academic record and my publications in my field qualify me for full time position either where I am or in a professional school.

Tenure seems an outdated concept. The idea that faculty have a duty to argue with or dispute management with the administration is ludicrous. How would you like it if your students were able to dissent and disrupt your class in the name of some kind of academic freedom.

First Amendment law is firmly established now to protect public university employees from retribution for personal views expressed in public. But why should faculty, at work, be treated differently than the rest of the working public is? Don’t trot out the arguments of 1960 – there really isn’t any current justification for this outdated institution.

There are so many places of higher learning that an outspoken faculty member who can’t resist tweaking the administration either will rise in that place or should find a more hospitable environment. That’s what the rest of us do in our jobs.

The tenor of this article reeks of an unjustified entitlement. As taxpayers we don’t give this kind of protection to any other government worker, and there’s no justification for giving it to faculty members either.


Having had, and lost, four tenure track positions I consider myself quite an expert on the issue of tenure. Most recently I was "fired" after four years on the tenure track from a small liberal arts institution because the students and their parents didn’t like my "demeanor".

Be that as it may, the reason I am responding has nothing to do with needing to vent about ignorant, incompetent administrators, colossally insecure colleagues, and the misplaced entitlement felt by students and parents – all endured by many of us, and all affecting tenure in a variety of ways. It is, instead, to comment on how I simply could not get past about half of the responses already posted because virtually all posts miss vital points, or ask the wrong questions.
Who set up this system anyway? What is the point of waiting six years to secure tenure (or three, as was my case at a community college, fourteen years ago)? Why does this profession require protection? What do we as professors CURRENTLY need protection from, and why? Be honest! Is it really in order to teach those controversial topics, or the ability to pursue unpopular research?

In my experience, tenure does not provide, or secure, freedom to do anything. How does a person who successfully endures tenure retain any personal integrity whatsoever? Tenure is, in fact, granted only after a professor is successfully indoctrinated into a particular institution, and department. How can professors submit to such pressure to conform and then proceed to "be free" to teach students? After six years of frantic publishing and pleasing those in power is it possible to remember who we are, and what drove us to teach in the first place? Are we able, after tenure, to go back to who we really are, or is that person lost to us after six years of conformity? After tenure are we transformed, instead, into a kind of Stepford Professor that fits nicely into a particular institution, or department? Or worse, are we so damaged by the what we have endured to achieve tenure that unknowingly we transfer similar abuse to the new crop of tenure seeking assistant professors?

And how does this affect our teaching? What are students seeing, and learning, from our efforts to achieve tenure?

If there are any professors out there that think their tenure process was something else entirely, or pleasurable, let alone necessary – please edify me!

If tenure will continue – and I, like many others on this blog question whether it should continue in its present form – professors need to redefine it now, and precisely, before administrators do it for them. I use the term "us" loosely. It is doubtful that I will ever teach in higher education again, after my most current banishment. As we all know well, a professor who has left four tenure track positions, for any reason, is academic poison. After all, the goal is to get tenure, at any cost.

Are adjunct wages really "similar everywhere?" as realtyannie argues? Actually, you may be surprised at the differences, even given similarities of geography. Look at public universities in Los Angeles for example. The University of California, Los Angeles, pays its graduate student composition instructors $6,500 per class. California State University, Los Angeles, right across town, pays its grad student composition instructors $2,500 per each class. And yes, both are on the quarter system. Because of the high remediation rates, might argue that the CSULA instructors have the harder job, but UCLA instructors receive more than double the pay as CSULA instructors. CSULA instructors get NO fee waivers, unlike UCLA instructors. In addition, CSULA instructors are required to take a seminar class, at about $600. Not only that, the English department once (when I was teaching) forced its TAs to pay for their own handout copies, since the "copy machine budget has been exceeded." SO, deduct a couple of hundred more for copies for students. My classroom was filthy on the first day of instruction, being coated with a film of smog fallout, and repeated requests to have the classroom cleaned were not acted upon by maintenance. All told, CSULA teaching assistants make around, after costs and considering time spent reading papers, make around $5-6 an hour, while across the city at UCLA, they make a handsome above-minimum wage.

In many of the anti-adjunct postings we’ve seen here, there is an interesting double standard that should be pointed out.

We are told that students and parents are paying good money for a decent education and hence "deserve to get their money’s worth" in return for their investment, so adjuncts who "cut corners" or give less than their all to their students are cheats and slackers who should be ashamed of themselves for their egregious misbehavior.

We are also told that these same adjuncts have no one to blame but themselves because they knew, or should have known, right from the start that the academic job market was terrible, so if they chose to pay good money for a worthless product then it’s their own damn fault.

But wait a minute. The grad students who eventually became adjuncts were, by definition, students–and students "deserve to get their money’s worth" for their investment. Yet clearly many grad students who ended up as adjuncts did not get anything close to their money’s worth out of their graduate programs. On the contrary, they were lured into graduate school with false narratives about their employment prospects, told to focus on the wrong things, burned out with excessive teaching and/or research loads, burdened with vast amounts of student-loan debt, dumped unprepared into a job market that had no use for them, and then abandoned to their fate as "damaged goods" by the senior professors who got them into this mess in the first place.

So the bottom line as narrated by "real" faculty seems to be that the adjunct is always the one to blame. If today’s students are getting a lousy education, it’s not because universities treat the majority of their instructional staff like garbage–it’s because adjuncts are lazy and shiftless (i.e., don’t want to do more work than they are being paid for). But if adjuncts are adjuncts because they got a lousy education that didn’t adequately prepare them for the job market, it’s not the fault of the senior professors who gave them that lousy education–it is, once again, because adjuncts are lazy and shiftless (i.e., didn’t do their homework before committing to that lousy product in the first place).

But why should we not stand this whole argument on its head? Why not say that students and parents who get ripped off by corner-cutting adjuncts should have done their homework better and figured out in advance that they were throwing their money down an academic rat hole? "If parents choose to send their kids to a university that skimps on staffing costs by hiring adjuncts at slave wages, then they have no one to blame but themselves when their kids spend four or five years learning nothing and then have to move back home when they graduate because they’re not qualified for any of the few decent jobs that remain."

As the old saying goes, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

I suspect the real motivation for a lot of the hostility toward adjuncts is blame-shifting by the senior faculty. They are the ones who let their grad students down and threw them to the wolves; they are the ones who created, or allowed the creation of, the two-tier academic system we have today; they are the ones who benefit from a system that protects their own job security and comfortable salaries at the expense of adjuncts who have neither. And so of course they must find some reason for believing that the adjuncts are simply getting what they deserve–even while insisting that those same adjuncts have a moral obligation to exert maximum effort delivering good product so parents and students don’t figure out what’s going on.

See also: my musings about why graduate school sucks (chock full of comments by unhappy grad students).

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • CC 7/12/2012, 12:29 pm

    >I tell them exactly how much I am paid and what my course load is, and then explain what the average salary and course load is of a tenured or tenure track professor. Inevitably a few students gasp, and several groan, especially when they realize that many of them are probably making more a year than the adjuncts that teach them.

    In 2008, I had a similar experience as a student. I was a returning student in my early 30s, finishing up general education/core requirements. My job was (still is) as a public school custodian, earning $15/hr plus benefits. One of my professors, who had a nasty cough, made an offhand comment about not having health benefits. After class, I asked her to elaborate. She told me the ugly truth about her employment. And I walked away in a confused haze: mowing lawns, changing burnt-out lights, and cleaning toilets earned me a better living than a bright woman with a master’s degree could expect to earn.

  • Anne Servant 5/5/2013, 7:22 pm

    I am intrigued by the comments that “adjuncts are always the ones to blame,” and about the “blame-shifting” by senior faculty. Going a bit further, and although some of my colleagues who have commented above will doubtless voice strident objections to the use of the word “victim” in connection with non-tenure-track faculty, I would argue for the use of that word in this context, seeing in it as I do a rhetoric similar to that used to displace blame for rape onto the victims themselves. ‘Certainly, she should have known not to wear that sort of dress, or makeup; certainly she should have been wiser than to walk down that street at that hour,’ as many who would remove responsibility from the agressor would say. And certainly, the adjunct, by the same logic, should have known better than to linger in the literature aisle of the library, or to believe the nice full professor who said she was smart and had something to contribute. Almost any sane young person “should have known” not to accept candy from that particular stranger, and particularly not to get into that van, right?

  • Robert Nagle 5/29/2013, 12:09 am

    For Anne:

    As a writer I’d like to think that I was always attuned to these kinds of metaphorical nuances. Sometimes I miss things though. Often these tropes are so common that we no longer question or even notice them. Once, at an academic conference, some professor stood up and politely asked the previous speaker to refrain from using war metaphors in academic discussion (we were discussing something about digital archiving or something innocuous like that). This person’s request seemed almost laughable at the time, but over time I think he was absolutely right — we do overuse war metaphors too much, almost to the point where we trivialize the violence of actual or even undeclared war.

    I think your blame game/victimization analogy is spot on — and it’s used by conservatives often to justify not intervening or taking corrective steps. Blame has a moral quality to it, and it’s often not really relevant to the question at hand.

    A while back, I figured out why the allure of teaching at college was so great. As a student,I met lots of tenured professors who had good (almost cushy) and intellectually satisfying jobs and I thought — I’m basically as intelligent as most of these professors — perhaps even more intelligent. Why shouldn’t I also do what they do — and get paid for it?

    The mistake of course was

    1. thinking that the job market and interdepartmental politics from 20 years ago which gave this professor a promising career in academia is relevant to the decision today whether to pursue academia.

    2. assuming that all candidates with the requisite intellectual skills would be able to find some comparable academic job, but that is certainly not the case. I suspect that in this dog-eat-dog world of academia today that the median credentials for adjunct or non-tenure track is pretty damn high — if only students would appreciate that.

    3. assuming that the intellectual independence afforded tenured teachers would also be able available for part time teachers. Not only is this not the case, but practical concerns of making a living constrain behavior and thought considerably.

    I think the question boils down to: what economic price would (should?) the scholar place on the act of teaching? What financial sacrifices for the sake of teaching college students is acceptable and what sacrifices would be too much? I personally love teaching, but I don’t view teaching as a valued good by itself. (I value writing and scholarship, although the goals can be mutually compatible). I suspect I’ll get back to teaching somehow — but given that most of the adjunct teaching gigs in Houston pay 2000 to teach a 3 hour class for a semester, it would be a labor of love rather than a way to make a living.

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