From the President

Beyond the Numbers: What Can the AHA Do for the Part-Time Teacher

Eric Foner, December 2000

This issue of Perspectives contains a detailed analysis by AHA staff of a recent survey concerning the employment of part-time faculty at institutions of higher learning. Organized by several disciplinary associations including the AHA and financed in part by a chairman's grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the survey has produced hard data that substantiates the widespread impression that reliance on "adjuncts" as teachers has been growing rapidly.

The good news is that, judging from the rising number of full-time positions now being advertised in Perspectives, the job crisis of the past several years has begun to ease. At a time of widespread prosperity, trickle-down economics has finally begun to reach the nation's colleges and universities and even the history profession. Moreover, compared with other fields included in the survey, history still enjoys the highest proportion of faculty holding full-time tenure-track positions. The bad news is that the proliferation of part-time employment is continuing. And, it should be noted, while the survey did not include venues of public history such as museums and historical societies, much impressionistic evidence suggests that the same process is affecting these institutions as well.

The article examines the survey results in detail. I wish simply to highlight a few striking findings. Aggregating the data, more than one-quarter of history faculty hold part-time or full-time nontenure-track positions and another 20 percent of instructors are graduate teaching assistants. Full-time tenure-track historians teach less than half of introductory history courses. The percentage of history courses taught by full-time faculty is higher than in English and foreign languages, but slightly lower than anthropology, art history, and philosophy. Of course, aggregate data conceal enormous variations by type of institution. The highest incidence of adjunct employment was reported in two-year colleges, where nearly 60 percent of the history faculty is employed part time.

Part-time faculty enjoy far fewer benefits and professional opportunities than full-time colleagues, and those paid by the course rather than a percentage of a full-time salary receive the fewest of all. In history departments (and the results are broadly similar across the disciplines), a large majority of those paid by the course have no access to health coverage or retirement plans; indeed, over three-quarters enjoy no benefits whatever. A large majority have no guarantee of annual salary increases, no voice in departmental governance, and no access to funds enabling them to attend professional meetings. The average salary for adjuncts paid by the course was $2,480 per class. One does not need a PhD in mathematics to calculate how many classes such a historian would have to teach to earn a decent living, or to realize that it is impossible for most adjuncts to function as research scholars or keep up with historical literature under these conditions. It is also a cause of concern that women historians are considerably more likely to be employed part time than men.

The data gathered in the survey reveal that institutions throughout the country are flagrantly violating the AHA's guidelines on professional conduct and on the proper treatment of part-time employees, which state, in part, that historians employed part time should enjoy compensation and fringe benefits proportionate to those of full-time colleagues and should enjoy a voice in departmental governance. The survey as well as the growing number of full-time nontenure-track jobs now being advertised suggest that the very future of tenure is today under threat. Tenured faculty should not believe that the conditions of adjuncts and full-time nontenure-track instructors have no bearing on their own status or on the future of history as an academic discipline.

In 1999, as AHA president-elect, I headed an ad hoc committee on part-time employment. Last January, the AHA Council voted to enlarge the committee and make it a permanent part of the Association's structure. This year, under the chairmanship of Professor Maxine Lurie of Seton Hall University (herself a veteran of the part-time labor market), the committee has discussed at great length what the AHA can do to affect the proliferation of part-time employment and to enhance the standing of historians who, from choice or necessity, continue to work as adjuncts. The committee will meet at the annual meeting in January to continue our deliberations and will also sponsor a panel session on the subject and an informal reception for part-time faculty. We hope that the committee will come to serve as a voice within the Association for adjuncts and a vehicle for integrating them more fully into AHA activities, much as the committees on minority and women historians do for their constituencies.

Ultimately, however, our goal is not simply to improve the conditions of adjuncts but to reduce the reliance of colleges and universities on part-time teachers of history by expanding the number of full-time tenure-track positions. This will require cooperation with other professional associations, the lobbying of state legislatures to secure increased funding for higher education, and a campaign to make the public aware of the educational costs of the current situation. One may even entertain the hope that after a presidential campaign in which education played a very prominent role, whichever candidate emerges victorious (this column is being written before November 7) may be receptive to the idea of expanding the number of tenure-track positions in higher education. If the federal government can with great fanfare provide the funds for local communities to add tens of thousands of individuals to local police forces, perhaps it can be persuaded to devote similar resources to strengthening the teaching of our college students.

In a number of cases, however, improvement in the condition of adjuncts has come from the efforts of these employees themselves. This is somewhat surprising, considering the existence of a large "reserve army" of unemployed scholars and the conditions under which adjuncts work, which do not seem conducive to collective action. Yet our committee has learned of many instances in which adjuncts have successfully established unions and engaged in effective collective bargaining. Since so many are employed by public colleges and universities, they are often able to enlist local political leaders on their side.

The AHA is not a union nor is it equipped to engage in union organizing. A few years ago, however, the Council unanimously approved statements affirming the principle that all academic teaching staff have the right to collective bargaining, free of the threat of reprisal, if they desire to have their interests represented in this way. The evidence that has come before our committee suggests that unionization is indeed a highly effective way for adjuncts to improve their conditions and to obtain access to tenure-track positions.

It would be entirely wrong to stigmatize part-time historians as second-class teachers and scholars. The point is that the conditions under which they work often make it impossible for them to act effectively as educators. In the long run, excessive reliance on part-time teachers compromises the nature of higher education.

Clearly, the problem of part-time and nontenure-track employment is not one the AHA can solve on its own. It transcends history as a discipline and indeed in some ways reflects global economic changes that have increased reliance on contingent workers and exacerbated differences in status between established and newly hired workers in many areas of employment. But the magnitude of the problem ought not to promote a sense of resignation or futility. Overreliance on part-time faculty is an instructional issue, a labor issue, an issue of simple justice, and ultimately a threat to the practice of history as a discipline. The AHA has a responsibility to work, in conjunction with like-minded organizations and with part-time academic instructors themselves, to do what it can to address the situation revealed in the responses to our survey.

—Eric Foner (Columbia Univ.) is president of the AHA.