Can We Reverse the Adjunctification Trend?

Member: Kristen S. Slack (University of Wisconsin - Madison)

In the U.S. higher education arena, we have now reached a point where over half of faculty appointments are part-time, and 70% are contingent (i.e., on a non-tenure track), compared to under 50% four decades ago. This is alarming. This is unacceptable. And, I am guessing, these are facts of which many tenure-track faculty, students, and the general public are unaware.


The “adjunctification” of higher education assumes a negative connotation that has, in my opinion, nothing to do with the qualifications of part-time or contingent faculty, and everything to do with the net effect of delivering higher education using an untenable and, in many cases, exploitative business model. My purpose here is to walk through the scenarios and cost implications associated with hiring contingent faculty to provide important nuance to the debate surrounding this trend.


Let’s start by applying this discussion to adjunct hiring practices at a research university, where there is an expectation to bring in grant money and conduct research in addition to one’s teaching responsibilities. In this setting, the full-time teaching load is commonly 4 courses per academic year. When grants are awarded, tenured and tenure-track faculty “buy out” their time in blocks equivalent to one course (e.g., at my university, 20% of one’s salary equates to the time and effort dedicated to each course, on top of an expectation that 20% of your time is spent on service activities).1   If a tenure track faculty member’s annual salary is $80,000, and this individual buys out one course in order to conduct research, $16,000 of the faculty member’s full-time salary and $5,500 or so in benefits is now covered by external research funds, for a total of $21,500. This person’s course will likely be covered by a part-time adjunct instructor, who let’s say will be paid an estimated per course income of $5,000 (which is on the high side), equating to 20% of a $25,000 annual salary.2   In this scenario, the university saves $16,500 ($21,500-$5,000) on instructional salaries/benefits per course, plus it may receive a sizeable portion of the full-time faculty member’s research grant money in the form of “indirects” from the funder, which offset infrastructure and grant management expenses. This savings is significant (and likely conservative if the estimated adjunct compensation is higher than average) and cannot be ignored—a point to which I will return in a moment.


Assuming for a moment that we could live in a context of adequate compensation (and I would strongly argue that an annualized base of $25,000 is abysmally low), I do not find it inherently problematic to hire adjunct faculty to cover time-limited gaps in full-time faculty teaching loads that arise from research endeavors. It is a good solution for the inevitable need that exists in research universities to cover courses temporarily in the wake of an awarded grant. Another solution to this issue would be to over-hire full-time faculty on the expectation that they will buy out of a certain number of courses per year, and to do so at a rate that allows for more complete curriculum coverage. Of course, when faculty fail to bring in research grants, the university takes a hit because it must pay faculty even when there are not enough courses to go around—a business strategy that is not likely sustainable.


However, contingent instructors are not always hired to cover time-limited gaps in a department’s curriculum. There are at least two other scenarios that can explain an institution’s longer-term reliance on part-time instructors. One is unique to professional degree programs (e.g., social work, business, health and allied health) where practitioners from the community may be hired to teach students highly applied skills that reflect current practice in the field. Again, given adequate compensation, this is also not necessarily problematic—indeed I would argue it is desirable—as these part-time instructors bring up-to-date, real-life examples and knowledge to the classroom, with clear benefits to students, coupled with the fact that many of these individuals already have full-time careers as practitioners.


The next scenario is, however, highly problematic. It involves hiring adjunct faculty not to meet a short-term instructional need or to build a bridge between professional practice and the classroom, but as a long-term budget-reducing strategy. It is now common practice in many institutions to staff certain courses or a certain number of courses with contingent faculty for the sole purpose of keeping costs low. Part-time faculty, grossly underpaid (recall the cost-savings comparison between what contingent and tenure track faculty make) and lacking meaningful job security, are hired semester after semester to staff curricula that cannot be adequately covered even if all permanent faculty dedicated 100% of their time to teaching. If we value the mission of higher education, this practice must stop.


There is no one culprit that has led us down this path, and my objective is not to apportion the blame. My goal, rather, is to push us (and by “us” I mean tenure line and contingent faculty, administrators, and students alike) to stand up against this practice by 1) being clear that we do not like it, and 2) articulating and debating strategies for reversing and eventually eliminating the problematic aspects of this trend. Any solution must address both compensation levels and job security, and it will involve honest, difficult discussions at both the institutional and departmental levels. The status quo is neither fair nor sustainable. I am trying to find institutional leaders who are willing to go out on a limb to tackle this nonsensical status quo. It is a cause that desperately needs a champion.



1 Faculty may also take on institutional administrative roles that translate into a need to hire adjunct faculty. Additionally, faculty with grant money and annual contracts of less than 12 months may choose to pay themselves with grant funds during summer months spent working on research. For the purposes of this thought exercise, I am concentrating on the 9-month academic year salary which constitutes the basis of most tenure track positions.


2 If an adjunct faculty member teaches more than one course, they may also be receiving benefits. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s assume that we are talking about replacing the full-time faculty member’s course with an adjunct instructor who is teaching only that course.


First published on LinkedIn on February 23, 2017:


Image: @ a3701027d


Sketch drawing of a person standing with shoulders shrugged, next to an upward trend line on a whiteboard.