Disturbing Trends in Adjunct Faculty Employment 9

The class glances uneasily at the clock as it slowly ticks:clock.jpeg


Suddenly, the professor bursts in, shirt rumpled and tie caught within the jumbled stack of file folders, books, and binders he clasps in his arms.

“Hi class, sorry sorry sorry…um, how’s everybody this Tuesday..er, Wednesday. Sorry, sorry, let me just get things…. set up… uh…. what class is this?”

The Street Sweepers of AcademiaAdjuncts Adjuncts Everywhere.jpg

A recent article in the Chicago Reader (May 1, 2008 Vol. 37, No. 32) titled And All I Got Was This Lousy PhD jumped off the page as I was perusing the paper recently, and for good reason–this piece by Deanna Issacs confirms many of my frustrations and concerns regarding trends in hiring practices at many universities. I’ve written two articles on this very topic which may interest readers (the former was published in 2007 in Adjunct Nation Magazine, and the latter is part of my upcoming book Road Warrior Without an Expense Account):

Low Pay for University of Chicago faculty

Consider the following statistics for the University of Chicago (the institution of primary focus in the Reader, though it is representative of nationwide trends at institutions of higher learning):

  • Average pay for an 11-week course: $1500-$3500 ($136-$318 per week)
  • no increase in compensation for the past eight years
  • 33% of courses taught by graduate students
  • 33% of courses taught temporary, untenured faculty
  • 33% of courses taught by tenured faculty

Assuming that a standard university course meets in three hour-long sessions per week, a University of Chicago part-time faculty member would be compensated accordingly:

  • $45.33 per class session at $1500 rate
  • $106 per class session at $3500 rate

Assuming that most adjunct faculty members for this institution are compensated somewhere between these two compensation benchmarks, the typical University of Chicago part-time faculty member makes somewhere between $50 and $100 per class session.

If one assumes that approximately ten hours of preparation time is required for each week of classes (grading papers, making lessons plans, PowerPoint presentations, office hours), these compensation figures get downright dire:

  • $3.49 compensation per hour at $1500 rate
  • $8.15 compensation per hour at $3500 rate

I hope those part-time faculty members don’t stop at Starbucks and buy a coffee on their way to class–that would eat up the day’s profits in no time. To darken the situation even further, these faculty members all hold masters degrees and frequently hold PhD degrees, yet they make less than a fry cook at McDonald’s.

Update: A reader pointed out that my calculations are wrong. Here’s his comment:

Sorry, I’ve done these calculations over and over and I can’t see where you’re getting your numbers. An 11-week course at $3500/course with 3 hours of classroom time and 10 hours of prep time should come out to $3500 / (11 weeks * 13 hours) = $24.48/hour, not $8.15/hour.

I still think that the spirit of the argument holds true…

And these are the people teaching the next generation of leaders! What exactly are the students funding with those $30,000+ annual tuition bills?

Why People Agree to Teach Courses for $4-8 Per Hour

Why on Earth would anyone with an advanced education agree to work in a situation that pays less than most high school students make at McDonald’s? Well, most of the folks in these faculty positions are searching for a tenure-track position in higher education, and they see these teaching positions as opportunities to work in the field, with the hope of this experience leading to a more stable job in the future.

Though this approach seems logical (I was on this path myself, teaching for five years at a state school and applying for full-time faculty positions during that time), teachers in these positions often find that these positions are dead-end jobs that lead to nothing but similar positions, and the only way they can make any sort of living in this space is to take multiple part-time positions at many different universities.

Welcome to Adjunct Nation.

Higher Education Comic.jpg

Adjunct Nation

Even if these part-time faculty members are employed at multiple institutions, shouldn’t they be capable of providing just as high-quality an education as a tenure-track faculty member? After all, they attended the same institutions and got the same advanced degrees as their tenured brethren. In fact, shouldn’t the fact that they don’t have to participate in advising, lengthy faculty meetings, search committees, and all the other bureaucratic baggage of the tenured world allow them to focus on teaching, enabling them to devote even more time to their students?

Unfortunately, the reverse is true. Because they lack benefits, security, and the steady salary of their tenured colleagues, part-time university faculty must find other means to support their income, and they frequently end up taking similar positions at multiple institutions, generating a few thousand dollars at one school and a few thousand at another, trying to weave the disparate schedules together into a patchwork living.

Correlation Between Adjunct Faculty and Freelancers

One of the biggest reasons why the plight of the adjunct faculty member interests me (apart from having held one of these positions myself for five years) is how closely their employment resembles that of the freelance musician. Check out my series Road Warrior Without an Expense Account (soon to be a book!) for more of my thoughts and observations on the freelance music business, and see how many parallels you can draw between this lifestyle and that of the adjunct university faculty member.

There are quite a few parallels between the employment situation of the freelance musician and that of the adjunct faculty member, and in the world of music, these two jobs often merge together into a freelancer/adjunct hybrid patchwork.

Common Issues for Freelancers and Adjuncts:

  1. No job security – even worse for adjuncts–many freelance jobs have tenured positions
  2. Stagnant pay – usually without annual cost of living increases
  3. Sporadic employment – feast and famine work cycles
  4. Juggling part-time positions – multiple positions to make ends meet

Circumstances Where Adjunct Teaching Fits

Though I am highly concerned at the ever-increasing percentage of university faculty positions being held by part-time instructors, I realize that for many people this is the perfect way to do some teaching in the world of higher education. Perhaps a person with a great deal of expertise in a particular field wants to share their experiences and “give something back” to the community. Perhaps a retired professional wants to earn a little extra income and keep themselves involved in their retirement years. Many circumstances exist that are a great match for adjunct jobs, including:

  • private enterprise professionals interested in doing some auxiliary teaching
  • graduate students looking to earn some extra income and resume-building experience
  • qualified professionals looking for part-time work
  • retired educators looking to supplement their income and keep active

For far too many individuals, however, adjunct teaching is something that they fell into while looking for a full-time tenure track position, and they quickly become bogged down in the morass of multiple part-time positions.

The Adjunct Rat Race

In order to make ends meet, adjunct faculty members will frequently teach one or two classes at multiple institutions, assembling a few thousand dollars from each of these schools in order to piece together a living (with no benefits, and tenuous job security). Individuals in these multiple positions typically commute between several schools each week, enduring rush hour en route to one institution and fighting for midday parking at another institution. This frantic lifestyle leaves little room for office hours, personal development, or time to develop relationships with other faculty.

These adjunct faculty members may have their name on a door and pasted under a mailbox, but they’re not really an integral part of an institution. They are, by the very nature of their job description, interchangeable and replaceable. Longtime part-time faculty members working at multiple institutions learn that developing loyalty or really investing their heart and soul into developing a program is unlikely to be a wise expenditure of energy, for they can easily be out of a job the next time a tenure track professor is hired or an internal reorganization takes place.

I have many colleagues (and have experienced this myself to an extent) who have put blood, sweat, and tears into that $3.50 and hour job, putting in extra time and really going the extra mile to make their class an exceptional learning experience. These efforts are all too frequently unnoticed by administrators, and even if they are noticed, the result is usually a figurative pat on the back and nothing more.

If working hard in these positions in unrewarded in any way, and if no future path to more secure employment results from doing this low-paying and often frustrating work, the adjunct faculty member frequently adopts the following survival strategy:

I will do exactly what is in my contract… and not anything more. Ever.

Adjuncts Face Difficulty Shaping the Educational Philosophy of an Institution

There’s more to being on faculty at a university than just teaching classes, and adjuncts typically have little or no say in the curriculum, institutional outlook, and philosophy of a program. They are, for the most part, hired guns, sharing offices and mailboxes with hordes of other part-time faculty members, and are frequently seen by tenured faculty as semi-anonymous faces passing through.

When I was working these kinds of jobs, my adjunct faculty identification card never read “faculty.” I was always labeled “staff,” and that’s what I was–part of the “help” rather than part of the core faculty. Though I didn’t want to be a hired gun, I found myself in that role, and over the years I learned that anything extra I volunteered would detract from my own career advancement.

My Adjunct Teaching Survival Strategy

It’s too bad that this is the attitude that must be taken; for me it goes against my personal philosophy of higher eduction. But I’ve had to take this approach in the past. Here’s my thinking:

  1. I’ve got to pay the bills.
  2. You (the institution) are paying maybe my gas bill with this job.
  3. Giving the students they educational experience they deserve would really cost 4-5x what is being offered.
  4. Volunteering my time to invest in making the program better and adding my personal stamp deprives me of more lucrative employment opportunities.
  5. Though I want with every ounce of my being to give this high-quality educational experience (that’s why I went into this, after all), out of self-preservation I can only offer my time and energy in proportion to my compensation.
  6. Therefore, I give my all when I’m there… but I really can’t afford to give anything more.

This may seem cold-hearted. It kind of is cold-hearted, and it’s a big reason why I don’t do these kind of jobs anymore. I love teaching and making a difference, and I want to give everything I’ve got to a position, pouring in my physical, mental, and emotional energy.

I don’t, however, want to do this in a dead-end position (or set of positions) that offers virtually no opportunity for advancement, keeps my wages locked in at fry cook level, and deprives me of other career opportunities.

Why We Need Tenured FacultyUniversity Faculty A Dying Breed.jpg

Every time I look at a faculty roster and only see a couple of names with “professor” following them, I get a little suspicious. Schools nationwide are ratcheting up their adjunct faculty numbers at the expense of their full-time positions. When a tenured professor retires, it is far cheaper (and more efficient from a business perspective–not that these institutions should be thinking along these lines!) to replace this tenured professor with a part-time employee. To university department administrators looking to save expenses, having a pool of highly skilled and cheap “temporary labor” is a tantalizing option, but the quality of a program is often destabilized and eroded by the preponderance of adjunct faculty in key teaching roles.

Too Much Responsibility Shifting to Remaining Tenured Faculty

In a school with a very high percentage of adjunct faculty (50% or more), the administrative responsibilities placed upon the remaining tenured faculty members can be overwhelming. Adjuct faculty members really are hired teaching guns, and they have little or no involvement in meetings, advising, and the other administrative tasks associated with running a university. When departments only have a few tenured faculty members, the large amount of responsibility placed upon them to accomplish these administrative tasks makes them as harried and overworked as their adjunct colleagues.

What Tenured Faculty Members Contribute

In institutions with a research orientation, tenure-track faculty members are expected to contribute to the knowledge base, through writing articles and books in the academic arena, or through performing recitals, recording albums, and the like in the performing arena. In addition to contributing to the knowledge base, tenured faculty are expected to shape and guide their institution’s programs and remain relevant in this rapidly changing world.

These “ivory tower” tasks really are important. Like art for art’s sake or music for music’s sake, knowledge is one of our cultural gems that must be nurtured and cultivated. After all, what are the Greeks remembered for? Education is not business, and the more universities move toward a corporate structure, the less likely they are to focus on what really matters: the students.

The “Business Outlook” of a University

I often think about the following questions when considering the university as corporation rather than as educational institution:

  • Should universities see themselves as businesses?
  • Does this outlook benefit the students or only for the institution?
  • Does everything in education have to have a practical bent?
  • Do “university corporations” focus too much on the “professional schools” at the expense of liberal arts studies?
  • Does the ratio of tenured faculty to adjunct faculty play into a student’s decision to attend a particular institution?
  • Should it?
  • What will schools look like in 10 years with this move toward more adjunct faculty?
  • How about in 20 years?
  • Is this preponderance of adjunct faculty positions hurting American education?
  • What will happen to all these adjunct faculty members long term (with no health coverage or other benefits)?

Final Thoughts

I’ve been an adjunct faculty member in the past, and I loved teaching my students and building a program. I would love to to this full-time, but I’m no fool, and I see dozens of colleagues running around with doctoral degrees in my specialty and no job to show for it. Though I have had many other opportunities to resume adjunct teaching, I have opted against it, both for practical reasons (I make more money teaching my private students and with 1/10th the hassle!) and for the philosophical reasons outlined above.

What are your thoughts on adjunct teaching? What do you think about the trends in higher education we’ve covered here? Let me know–I’d love to hear your perspectives!

About Jason

An active double bass performer and teacher, Jason teaches double bass at DePaul University and served on the Board of Directors of the International Society of Bassists for many years. Jason is the current President of the Illinois chapter of the American String Teachers Association. Jason has been a member of the Elgin Symphony since 2000 and has played with the Midsummer’s Music Festival in Door County for the past decade. He is a past member of the Milwaukee Ballet and IRIS Orchestra, and has performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Grant Park Symphony, and numerous other professional ensembles.

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9 thoughts on “Disturbing Trends in Adjunct Faculty Employment

  • paul bailey


    after teaching 12 years full-time in the public schools my transition to teaching college adjunct has been a good (but very low paying) solution for part-time employment.

    for me, the main problem with tenure jobs (and one reason why i am not pursing a Ph.D.) is that you have to take the “secular vow of academia” and move away from friends and family (2-3 times) for a “career” that jumps from town to town until the tenure job is attained. of course where you finally end up at the end of this game is a crapshoot. (rolla, missouri? fresno, ca?) :roll:

    as performing musician/composer i can’t see leaving a city where i have 20 years of connections (and great friends). i see that academia is filled with many lonely people trying to get somewhere else. i’ll take the devil i know.

    as ‘adjunct’ jobs go i am pretty lucky. i have benefits and am only 13 units away from being ‘vested’ in the state pension plan. now if i can only survive the fall budget cuts… 😥

  • GSarchet

    J- you say:

    Based on my direct experience, this approach also sounds like some–*some*– public school teachers, (and perhaps private?). Not only adjunct college/university instructors.

    The last item is particularly interesting: it feels good to believe, or use the rationale, one is ‘giving one’s all’ to the job, however, compared to what other talent and dedication, found at other ‘best practice’ institutions?

    Noodle on that!

    Thanks Greg

  • Katherine

    I found this on my google search… I’ve been an adjunct for 6 years… am trying to apply for full time positions and need letters of recommendation – and guess what? So far, 3 of the 4 people I’ve asked have told me they don’t know me well enough or haven’t observed my teaching recently enough and one said that I was consistently late (only because I had a ten minute break to get to a class entirely across campus…)
    I really want to do a job that makes a difference, and teaching is how I can do that, but I’m really thinking of taking up some full time soul sucking corporate job because that will be easier & have at least some security.
    Thanks for posting this and doing the math.

  • Michael

    Sorry, I’ve done these calculations over and over and I can’t see where you’re getting your numbers. An 11-week course at $3500/course with 3 hours of classroom time and 10 hours of prep time should come out to $3500 / (11 weeks * 13 hours) = $24.48/hour, not $8.15/hour.

  • Michael

    I think maybe you were counting 10 hours of prep time for each of the 3 classes per week…

  • Jason Post author

    Oops–you’re right. I must have done the calculations wrong on this post. I’ll update it.

  • Scott

    Well not sure where $3500 is coming from unless that is a graduate class. Most need PHD to teach graduate class. Here in Florida most community colleges pay $1550 to $1850 per class and that is 13 weeks of school.

    Figure if you travel and get enough classes
    I am figuring:

    1 to 2 hours drive time
    3 hours per class
    10 hours prep

    14 to 15 hours X 13 weeks for $1700.00 = $9.34
    per hour

  • Aaron Burgess

    I am just now completing my doctorate at Northeastern University (MA) but I have had a full time job in higher education for three years as a mid-level administrator and lecturer. I started as an adjunct but when an administrative position opened up I applied and got the job. I knew people in the department and students in the program were good informal references for me.

    If you have it in you, be open to working on the administration side and also teach. This is a route that is often not discussed. Many small colleges have administrative faculty positions now. In my case, it has worked out well for me.

  • Dan Eubanks

    Not much to add, except to say you must have been following me around in my former multi adjunct/freelance musician life! I am grateful I had the chance to teach and value the experience, but I came to these conclusions you outline 10 years ago, and after an all in, last ditch effort to gain full time status at my alma mater, where I had been adjunct since grad assistantship days, I said screw this, I’m going to Nashville to roll the dice. I do fine with private students and gigs, and although I contemplate a return to adjunct life occasionally, I’ll never be able to justify going at it the way I used to, all directions at once etc. Thank you for this article, it is spot frigging on!