An Uncertain Future: Thoughts on the Crisis of Contingent Faculty

The end of the semester is approaching, and faculty all over the country are wrapping up courses, saying goodbye to students and welcoming summers dedicated to research, writing and editing manuscripts for publication, attending conferences, prepping fall courses and hopefully, stealing a bit of leisure and family time.

Well, around 30% of faculty anyway – those with tenure or on the tenure track.

The other 70% – contingent faculty, the majority of whom are adjuncts and temporary hires – are likely to spend the next few months differently. They will be scrambling to apply for jobs, sort out finances, or plan hasty moves to new towns (where they have perhaps landed a one-year contract with a low salary and a heavy course load). They will be strategically stringing together adjunct positions at multiple institutions across their region, calculating how many are needed to garner a just-barely-living wage. Research, course planning and professional development will fall by the wayside. The end of the semester and summer are consumed by the task of figuring out how to make it work for another year.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Does it?

“If you don’t like it, just quit.”

If you’re an academic with an advanced degree who has struggled on the job market, you’ve likely heard the above comment somewhere along the way – whether from a personal acquaintance or online troll. (Though there have been some more nuanced arguments along these lines, I’m talking about the knee-jerk variety.) You chose this life, these critics might say, knowing it would be tough to find that tenure-track job. If teaching and scholarship aren’t working out, why don’t you just find another job that offers better pay and security? Go to trade school. Plumbers can make a lot of money.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading too much New York Times comment section lately, but I feel like the statement “if you don’t like it, just quit,” is an all-too-common response these days to anyone who dares to criticize our workplaces or our country’s institutions:

  • Are you a K-12 teacher who wants to be respected, valued, and compensated appropriately? You get your summers off and you want more? Go get a job in tech.

  • Are you a minimum wage worker who’d like to afford rent and also eat? You need to quit and go get a degree. Those jobs are for high school students!

  • Are you an American citizen who would like to live in a democracy where regular people have a voice, where the poor are not left to die in the streets while health insurance companies make billions in profits? Better just fuck off to Europe, pal, because this is the USA and we don’t need commies like you.

Frustration with these kinds of reactions aside, the problem here is not the fact that high school teachers, minimum wage workers or adjunct instructors have chosen the wrong profession; it’s that the larger institutions which rely directly upon their labor to function treat them as disposable. When it comes to education especially, the value we assign our institutions and the value we assign to those who keep them running (teachers) are grossly out of step with one another.

That this attitude – if you don’t like it, just quit – has become widespread is no surprise. It very nicely serves those in power, who would rather give more tax cuts to the rich than fund education. But this implication that institutional change is impossible, this constant excuse of growth and profits and we’re in debt and there’s just no money for that but we can’t mess with the economy ’cause look – it’s doing so great? It’s dangerous. It’s poisoning our society, higher education included. Because in 2019 there is, in fact, something very clearly wrong with education in the United States. And to turn a blind eye, to simply quit instead of pushing for change, would be to essentially let it die.

The Age of Contingent Faculty: Less for More

The fact is, respect for higher ed labor has eroded so drastically over the past 40 years that the majority of faculty now have no job security, and receive low pay and poor benefits (or none at all). Of course, some have decided to throw in the towel and quit academia, and no disrespect to them (you’ve gotta eat). But if you care about higher education in America, if you’re passionate about teaching and scholarship and making our world a better place, then quitting feels like acquiescence to the Republican-led tide of austerity and anti-intellectualism that has been diminishing our educational institutions for decades. Often, it’s leaving a job you believe in for one you don’t. And it hurts the people faculty care about most – our students.

Students today are attending college in record numbers, and they’re paying more than ever. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the projected number of students attending American colleges and universities in 2018 was 19.9 million (slightly down from 2010’s all-time high of 21 million). Also at a record high are costs for these students, who in 2016 paid an average of $22,432 for a year of tuition, fees and housing. A college education is more important than ever on the job market as well. And yet these students will likely take most of their courses with faculty who are marginalized and demeaned by their universities.

The Numbers

As noted at the beginning of this piece, as of 2015 around 70% of faculty were not on a tenure-track, according to the American Association of University Professors. This category includes full-time, non-tenure-track faculty (17%); graduate student employees (14%); and part-time faculty or adjuncts (40%). (It’s important to note that many who are classified “part time” teach the equivalent of a full course load.) These kinds of positions are all “contingent,” meaning that they are usually not secure and can end at any time. The AAUP’s graph shows a steady increase in contingent positions over the past 40-odd years: in 1975, just 55% were contingent; by 1995 that grew to 68%. The biggest difference of all has been the shift to “part-time” labor, which grew from just 24% in 1975 to 40% today.

These statistics are especially troubling when you look at wages. In 2017, for example, the AAUP found that the average yearly salary for “part-time” faculty was just $20,508. And yes, there are adjuncts that choose to teach only one or two courses as a supplement to another income. But far more treat adjunct teaching as their sole profession, carrying full course loads each semester.

Impact on Millennials & Gen Z

Even though I am personally one of those truly part-time adjuncts with a second job, and my husband is one of those rare tenured professors (albeit an underpaid one, by national standards), I think about this issue nearly every day. After all, I was in graduate school during the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008; my peers and I are those millennials they talk about, the ones who got screwed. In the past decade I have watched friends and acquaintances – many of whom hold the derided humanities PhD – experience years of uncertainty and instability, bouncing between yearlong appointments and adjunct gigs while attempting to land some sort of stable job. These people are pretty much all wonderful teachers, gifted scholars and hard workers. They are dedicated, passionate, organized and (by necessity) flexible. Their only crime is that they graduated at the wrong time, when their chosen profession was no longer valued.

But I’m not just concerned for my friends and their colleagues. This reliance on underpaid, contingent faculty is putting the university as an institution at risk. The education that students and their families must now pay tens of thousands to obtain is being compromised, as so many of their professors are overworked and ignored, without research support, adequate office space or opportunities for growth. All of these factors make it more difficult for students to find faculty mentors, and it weakens the feeling of community for which colleges and universities strive and on which they thrive.


So how do we solve this problem? How do we go back to a system that creates stability and support for faculty? Unfortunately, like many social issues plaguing the United States today, it’s an uphill climb under current leadership. But colleges and universities also have to realign their priorities. As explained in a 2018 Medium article, “Mind the Gap: Addressing the Paradigm Shift in Education,” between 1976 and 2011, the number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty increased by 23%, part-time faculty increased by 286%, and “full-time non-faculty professional staff” increased by a staggering 369%.

This would constitute what is known as “administrative bloat”: as the reliance on contingent faculty has increased, so too has the number of administrative offices on campuses – and with them administrative positions, many highly paid. The authors of the Medium piece cite a number of studies from recent years, which reveal that chief executives in higher ed often make more than $1 million per year, while lower-level administrators usually pull in six figures. They write,

Higher-education administrators have responded to criticism about administrative bloat and rising tuition prices by alleging there is need to raise administrative salaries in order to remain competitive for top talent. While the notion of competition for talent in higher education is not fundamentally unsound, the extent to which this competition has driven executive salaries disproportionately higher is grossly out of scale.

The article also looks at other issues driving up university costs, like increasing luxury amenities on campuses to attract more wealthy students.

Another major problem explored in the Medium article is that many of those in charge of budgets lack understanding of what a professor does or why tenure is necessary. Take the case of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker who, after slashing his state’s higher ed budget, “argued that better ‘worker efficiency’ could pick up the slack, suggesting that faculty members should teach an extra course per semester and ‘do more work’ to offset the cuts.” In cases like Walker’s, the only solution is at the ballot box. But higher ed faculty, particularly those who are tenured, can do more to support their contingent colleagues and spread awareness about the profession.

It’s not going to be easy to restore the university to a place that prioritizes teaching, learning and scholarship, and it will take progressive, forward-thinking leaders at all levels. But if things continue the way they are, higher education risks being reduced to a nicely polished shell of what it promises to be. And while recent efforts by adjuncts and graduate students to unionize for better wages and benefits have been crucial in improving working conditions and moving the issue forward, they don’t target the bigger issue of the decline of tenure track positions.

As the authors the Medium article state, “Contingency is not a solution. If this business model becomes the new norm, we risk creating an academic environment that does not support research or scholarly pursuits, and limits the availability of faculty members to engage students.” There are many issues plaguing higher ed today – so many that it’s sometimes difficult to prioritize. But this issue of underpaid and overworked faculty – brilliant scholars and teachers who are treated as disposable and interchangeable – is one of the biggest. And if we want higher ed as we know it to survive, we must stop thinking of the problem as something that simply is, that can never be changed, with a shrug of if you don’t like it just quit.