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The Academic Graveyard Shift

Published:  February 11, 2013
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In 1969, tenure track faculty constituted 78 percent of the academic workforce. Today, less than 25 percent of the academy is on the tenure track (TT). This means that in about forty years, faculty labor has turned completely upside down. Non-tenure track (NTT), contract-contingent faculty—otherwise known by the anesthetized (often pejorative) term adjuncts—now account for the vast majority of faculty appointments in the United States. Further, a recent survey of provosts affirmed that we have every reason to believe this reliance on adjuncts will continue its upward trajectory. While a good deal is known about the growth in NTT labor, very few people seem to realize that the traditional conception of a tenure-track faculty does not, by and large, apply to the modern academy.

Here’s some background on the status of adjunct labor. The community college sector accounted for the lion’s share of NTT growth between 1969 and 1998. Adjunct appointments in two-year colleges grew by more than 800 percent over that span. In the years that followed, data show that although community colleges still accounted for the greatest growth in real numbers, the most dynamic rate of growth in adjunct labor occurred at public and private, nonprofit comprehensive universities (four-year schools providing education through the master’s level). In addition, NTT appointments account for disproportionately high numbers of women and faculty of color.

Typically, adjunct work differs from tenure track work in that it does not require attention to the traditional three-legged stool of research, teaching, and committee work. The majority of adjunct appointments are instructional, while relatively few are research posts. Some NTT faculty enjoy highly respected positions as full-time “professors of practice,” which integrate them into their local academic communities in a similar way as their tenure track colleagues. Yet others, at the opposite end of the spectrum, are underpaid with no benefits, are underemployed or overworked, receive little basic support (e.g., a desk, phone access), and have zero job security. Critically, many have no say in the matter, since they are not included in the governance of the university.

Plausible rationales abound as to why this shift has taken place. Economic, political, cultural, and technological explanations all serve to tell a part of the story.

But even now, more than 40 years into this immense shift, when the American faculty has been completely inverted, we continue to conceive of the academy in terms of tenure track labor. In fact, many, including Moody’s Investors Service, have blamed tenure for a variety of higher education’s maladies. Moody’s recently attributed a negative financial outlook to the field of American higher education as whole, stating, “Until universities demonstrate better ability to lower their cost of operations, perhaps through more intensive use of online classes and elimination or reduction of tenure, we expect government officials to produce bolder solutions to the public outcry against the cost of higher education.”

Perhaps we should give Moody’s a mulligan, though. As recently as 2010, a senior faculty member at Columbia University attacked traditional tenure as though it was still the standard of academic employment. Unfortunately, the shift in appointments has occurred with remarkable silence.

Let notice be served: adjuncts, traditionally add-ons to a tenure-track academy, now constitute the majority of American higher education faculty. But how has this change affected colleges and universities? What does it mean for the academy’s products and services (i.e., instruction, research and outreach), leadership (i.e., shared governance), costs, accountability, and business ethics?

Stay tuned as Higher Ed Watch attempts to unpack the challenges of the contemporary American faculty, its growing graveyard shift workforce, and its implications for the future.




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