Faculty Contingency is a Social Problem

My dissertation research focused on the obstacles that young aspiring musicians faced as the labor market shifted away from formal institutions toward contingent and freelance action supported by emergent technology. As a former adjunct, labor sociologist, and faculty support professional, I have become obsessed with the parallel forces I’m observing in higher education and how it impacts the fortunes of young aspiring intellectuals.

This series is my public attempt to survey existing data about contingency before embarking on more data collection. I ask, what do we already know from existing reports, what else can be culled from existing raw data, and what survey instruments are already constructed? By documenting my process openly, I’m attempting to give back to the scholars and organizations that have generously made their data publicly available and to inspire new collaborations with researchers and activists, not to mention forcing myself to be more accountable to others at this early stage of my research process.

In 2006, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) published the Contingent Faculty Index, broadcasting the fact that 65% of teaching faculty is made up of contingent labor. Since the AAUP released the Index, various professional associations and advocacy groups have attempted to define the scope of the “adjunct problem,” seeking to understand the impact that college and university reliance on contingent labor, often low-wage and short-term, has upon adjunct faculty, students, and higher education.

The AAUP was the first major report that I’ve come across containing statistical data that identified the scope of faculty contingency in higher education. The report represented the increase in contingency as a decline of tenure in higher education and raised concerns not only about job security, but also academic freedom, and faculty governance. The AAUP’s subsequent advocacy has focused on ensuring the integrity of the tenure system[1].

In the years since the AAUP report’s release, books such as the Fall of the Faculty (2010) and No University is an Island (2013) have documented the institutional forces that have driven the decline of tenure, from administrative bloat and mismanagement to consideration of the AAUPs practices itself. Meanwhile, administrators themselves began to publicly express reservations about tenure. In 2010, Ohio State University President Gordon Gee called for a reexamination of tenure and its focus on research, and by 2011, 30% of college presidents believed changes to tenure policies and forced retirement could address financial concerns [2]. This line of research identifies neo-liberal management practices as the cause of the “adjunct problem” and the threat these practices pose to the professoriate as its primary result.

Simultaneously, advocacy groups began to gather data that presented a different picture of the “adjunct problem,” one that focused on the labor conditions of contingent faculty and not its threats to tenure or benefits to administration. The first data sets were regional and anecdotal. They revealed the pervasive practice of short-term contracts issued by deans that could be renewed, canceled or delayed each semester and, too often, even after the semester began. The data also confirmed that wages are most often determined by contact hours without adjustment for course planning and preparation, grading, or other administrative hours.

In 2011, Josh Boldt, an adjunct and advocate, created a Google Spreadsheet to crowdsource data about the working conditions of adjuncts, including information about the employing institution, pay per course, benefits, and union affiliation. Within weeks nearly 1500 contingent faculty populated the spreadsheet with their data to show that, among them, the average pay per course is $2,300 and health and retirement benefits are rare.[3]. The crowdsourced data ignited a different discourse about the “adjunct problem,” serving as an example in a broader public discourse about the recession, the costs and value of higher education, labor rights, and self-determination. In the last two years, the advocacy organizations New Faculty Majority and Coalition on the Academic Workforce have conducted formal studies of contingent labor conditions and made their data publicly available.

Despite the recent emergence of useful statistical data, debates about the “adjunct problem” are stalled. We are sitting, as we often do in these days, with row after row of data that have yet to be mined for information beyond basic counts (e.g., how many faculty are contingent?) and averages (e.g., what is the mean pay per course?). While data may be available to at least begin an investigation into the social causes and consequences of the adjunct problem, adjunct data has become fodder for ideological battles over the meaning of the American Dream and the relevance of higher education to achieving that Dream[4].

The current debate is limited because ideology is a placeholder linking frequencies and means to large-scale social issues. It is reasonable to claim that the rise in contingency is due to declining state support for higher education and resulting budget cuts. The underlying assumption of this claim is that state institutions are cutting costs by using contingency in faculty labor to find savings that can be used to balance the budget.

But are state institutions that face declining state support relying the most on contingency? I pasted the data from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s reproduction of a sample of the Contingent Faculty Index into an Excel document and then used a quick Z–>A sort to see which large research institutions used the highest percentage of contingent labor. Among the 14 institutions that rely on contingent labor at 50%+, about 8 are public and 6 are private. Yale, Harvard, University of Southern California, and New York University, all make the 50%+ list despite not being known for their financial problems. The University of California system and University of Virginia, better known for battles over state support, rely on contingent faculty at rates in the low 30%s. In fact, according to Josh Bolt’s crowdsourced data, the University of Virginia and the UCs are among those offering the highest compensation to contingent faculty, each offering more than double the average ($2300) per course at ~$6,000-7,000.

This quick and dirty method does not prove that declining state support is not a problem or that it is not related to contingency, but even cursory observations such as these can raise new questions about how, and in what circumstances, institutions come to rely on contingency and make decisions about compensation. We need to look at the existing data to more precisely understand the causes and consequences of contingent reliance so that we may effectively focus our energies to discuss the problem.

The data exist to analyze a range of related questions that are often simply asserted in the comments of op-ed pieces in publications like the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed: Do contingent faculty irrationally “choose” bad jobs? What are their professional intentions across disciplines and institution types? Does the supply of graduate students and recent PhDs correlate with their use in particular geographic areas? Does institution type, and its associated values and policies, override simple supply and demand?

In the next installment of this series I will more closely examine the 2006 data from the AAUP’s Contingent Faculty Index for what it has told us, how the data have been used, and what else the data can show.

[1]See AAUP’s Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession.

[2]Lederman, Doug and Scott Jaschik. 2011. “Perspectives on the Downturn: A Survey of Presidents.” Inside Higher Ed. March 4.

[3]Josh Bolt’s spreadsheet has now been imported into a Chronicle Blog Adjunct Project and is searchable by institution and location.

[4] I don’t mean to discount the scholarly work that has explicated trends in specific disciplines and institutions for at least the past decade, they are just still on my “to read” list. Check out that list in my public Zotero folder.