I’ve been thinking about a problem that won’t be news to many educators: the increased role of adjuncts, or more precisely of teachers who aren’t entitled to some form of job security, in colleges and universities. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012, “[a]bout 70 percent of the instructional faculty at all colleges is off the tenure track, whether as part-timers or full-timers, a proportion that has crept higher over the past decade.” This development continues a long-term trend; according to a 2013 news item in The Atlantic, "[s]ince 1975, tenure and tenure-track professors have gone from roughly 45 perent of all teaching staff to less than a quarter."
There’s a lot one could say about this. Given the dismal rates of pay adjuncts receive (a Chronicle survey, published in early 2013, reports "2,987 per three-credit course"), it’s clear that anyone making his or her living as an adjunct is making a poor living indeed. That’s unfair to them, and it also can’t be good for the quality of education for it to be delivered by people who aren’t paid a decent wage, or given reasonable job security, for the difficult work they do.
It’s quite another matter, I think, if someone whose principal work is elsewhere wants to teach, for little pay or even as a volunteer; adjuncts of this sort can bring the community to the classroom in very desirable ways. As a full-time faculty member with tenure, I’ve happily helped to hire and worked with adjuncts like these, whose main employment was in law practice.
But what about the many adjuncts who teach so much for so little? Perhaps the work these teachers are doing should instead be done by full-time faculty with tenure or some equivalent form of permanence and job security (or who are on the track to that kind of status). Whatever else is clear, however, it seems certain that a change of that sort would quite dramatically raise the cost of higher education. Tenured and tenure-track faculty are paid much better than adjuncts; they also have teaching loads that tend to reflect the other obligations or commitments they have, notably for scholarship and internal governance of their institutions.
Can schools afford the increased costs involved in delivering their full educational programs through tenured faculty? Only if they raise their prices – far from an easy or welcome solution today – or cut their other expenses. There probably are other expenses to be cut. The extravagant college football industry is certainly a candidate (though football players themselves may soon be able to demand more compensation from universities rather than less). But what about, say, career services? It just won’t do to say that individual faculty members will take over the task of career advice; faculty don’t necessarily have great career advice to impart (precisely because they’re working in universities themselves, rather than out in “the world”), and they don’t have the time to give that advice to many students. Or fundraising? Or disability accommodation? Or compliance with regulatory requirements, which generate massive reporting duties? These tasks, in today’s schools, must be done; they can’t be dispensed with. And they won’t be done by tenured or tenure-track faculty.
So I don’t think the days when a university consisted of its faculty, its students, a small set of administrators, and the many people required for such critical tasks as serving the food and maintaining the physical plant, are ever coming back. That means, in turn, that it will never be possible to pay to faculty – all of them, whatever their job status – as large a percentage of the university’s total revenue as would once have gone their way. And so it seems clear that adjuncts playing important roles in education are here to stay. If that’s right, then it follows that they must be treated as the important players they are. They need decent salaries, even if decidedly less than those of their tenured counterparts; they need some form of job security and in particular protection of their academic freedom; and they need some form of a say in the affairs of the school. All that will redistribute some of the universities' revenues to this group of instructors -- and so it should.
But I admit it won't be simple to work out.