Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Adjunct and Contingent Labor in Academia

I received my Anthopology News and Anthropology of Work Review in the mail today. Both publications included a short blurb about the disturbing trend of decreasing tenured positions and an increase in contingent faculty, mostly known as adjuncts. These are PhDs who teach classes at a university at a decreased rate, usually per class or by "head-count", receive little to no benefits, and whose contract lasts a semester, with the option of renewal. For more information, Wikipedia gives a short summary of adjunct professors :

According to Alan Trevithick (1), "...we are as competent and dedicated as anybody. Yet we receive about one-third, on a pro-rata basis, of what traditionals [tenured professors] receive; are removed more than traditionals from university governance, have low or no health and retirement benefits; and recieve little or nothing in the way of professional development" (Trevithick 2010: 4).

This is bad for a number of reasons. First it is bad for the adjuncts for the reasons listed above. No job security and little time for research could also be added to that list. Second, it is bad for the universities that employ this strategy. Without tenured faculty, the amount of research will decrease, as well as the quality. Quality of research is crucial for so-called research universities. Other than to educate people, that is their main goal of existence, to create new knowledge. With most of its faculty teaching higher than average courseloads on a small salary, with no health insurance or other benefits, that can be really hard to impossible to achieve. In addition, it is hard to control quality of teaching when the university employs mostly adjuncts. Cheap is better, which means more inexperienced teachers are going to be teaching those classes. In addition, many universities rely on graduate students to teach many classes and as these grad students become more skilled at teaching, they are soon replaced with newer, inexperienced grad students (2).

So why do universities employ this hiring strategy? Simple, to cut costs.

Michael Chibnik explains in his review (2) that along with many businesses, universities are employing a Post-Fordist approach, "Such systems allow enterprises to react quickly to changing market demands through the use of a 'flexible' labor force that can be easily hired and fired and whose places of work and job descriptions can be changed without difficulty. These temporary employees are usually poorly paid, non-unionized, and without benefits available to more permanent worers. PostFordist labor arrangements are contrasted with older, more rigid 'Fordist' management strategies that involve large-scale, fixed-capital investments in mass production systems using workers with long-term contracts" (Chibnik 2010: 94).

To summarize, instead of using permanent workers who represent a long-term investment for the company, universities are hiring and firing adjunct faculty based on immediate needs of the university which is cheaper, but doesn't provide any benefits to those employees.

As cited in this paper, The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found evidence that the percentage of tenured or tenure-track faculty members decreased from 57 percent to 31 percent from 1975 to 2007 (Chibnik 2010: 94). That's a big drop. The Faculty and College Excellence (FACE) argue that 75% of classes should be taught by tenured faculty members (Trevithick 2010: 4). Instead, the exact opposite is true: 75% of classes on average are being taught by contingent faculty.

Do we have any hope of achieving this? A few organizations have tried to draw attention to the matter. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) made a comprehensive report in 1993 ( The American Anthropological Association (AAA) did a survey in 2000 on "Who is doing the teaching?" ( The Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) made a statement this year ( (1) Trevithick is currently soliciting a AAA statement on contigency faculty as well.

However, both authors recognize that universities are unlikely to change their hiring practices in favor of more tenured faculty.


(1) Trevithick, Alan.
2010 "Anthropology and the New Faculty Majority." Anthropology News. 51 (9).

(2) Chibnik, Michael.
2010 "Flexible Labor in Academia and Testing Companies." Anthropology of Work Review. 31 (2).

[This post is subject to edits based on comments, new information, and spelling errors.]