Publication Date

May 1, 2015

The Coordinating Council for Women in History long has addressed problems facing women in academia, including the issue of contingent and adjunct faculty. The total contingent workforce has grown significantly, from 57 percent to 70 percent during the period 1993–2011; women now compose between 51 percent and 61 percent of this contingent workforce, depending on field and institutional type.2 At the AHA annual meeting, the CCWH has sponsored roundtables on contingent labor; here we summarize our 2015 panel in New York.3

For the majority of new positions, the conditions of labor in higher education that the terms adjunct, contingent, visiting professor, and postdoc describe mirror what is happening to all labor in the United States. We live in a world of “feminized labor,” historically characterized by low wages, minimal respect, and temporary positions. Labor has been feminized by the destruction of what was known as the standard employment relation—that is, a 40-hour workweek, paid overtime, long-term contracts, benefits, raises, and job ladders.

Adjuncts are “feminized” by their position as flexible, low-paid workers, a paradigm designed to cut costs. Part-time or contingent instructors are the majority of the teaching staff at universities and colleges. Despite this, work conditions conspire to make them feel isolated. Many teach at multiple institutions to earn a living, never establishing connections within their departments. Adjuncts frequently cover large lecture classes at odd hours and have little contact with colleagues. They generally have minimal input in the area of faculty governance. Some internalize the lack of respect, choosing not to address their situation head on because it is painful. They fear losing classes.

Should Tenured Faculty Care?

The conditions of adjunct faculty directly affect tenured faculty, who usually teach smaller classes and fewer undergraduates yet must shoulder the burden of faculty governance and administrative duties. With fewer tenured and tenure-track faculty available, their administrative chores increase. Contingent faculty need a voice in governance, but should be compensated for work beyond the classroom setting.

By not fighting the stratification of the workforce, tenured faculty fail as mentors to our graduate students. Unless they fight for long-term tracks for adjunct and contingent workers and ensure that they receive travel and research monies, they are training their students for nonexistent jobs and poor conditions of labor, leaving them a world devoid of professional standards.

Tenured faculty at a unionized university could see their contracts suffer unless they join in solidarity with other workers; there isn’t much incentive to treat the labor aristocracy well if they are being killed off. The proof of this solidarity appeared in the University of Illinois at Chicago victory last year in which all levels of faculty won (though with separate contracts).

Finally, tenured faculty become part of the problem unless they actively oppose the growing inequality that marks this era. Will you be complicit in a system that abuses adjunct and contingent instructors, or will you take responsibility for fighting for decent pay, benefits, fair hiring practices, research and travel funding, and other professional development? Why do we have tenure if not for the freedom (or luxury) it affords to avoid acts that contradict our consciences?

Collaborating for Change

Contingent faculty have few options. Labor unions represent an obvious form of formal alliance, yet not all unions have the same priorities or memberships, making alliances within institutions for all faculty difficult. Alliances between institutions are also important. When faculty and staff at Portland State University won substantial concessions in contract negotiations last spring, mere hours before the strike deadline, support came from peers at Washington State University Vancouver, who were not yet unionized. The successful efforts at PSU reinvigorated supporters at Washington State, who now know unions can make a difference.

Students can also be allies. Although college and university administrations may feel that faculty can be easily replaced, such institutions cannot operate without students or ignore their demands without losing credibility. At PSU, student organizations understood that “faculty’s work environment is students’ learning environment.” Students recognized that their education suffers when adjuncts have no office space, supplies, institutional support, or time. Students who understand the problems will fight for the integrity of their own educations.

Parents need to understand that intro classes are usually taught by underpaid and overworked adjuncts who have little institutional support and who may be gone the next semester and hence unable to write recommendations. If nothing else, we must work to get students and their families to ask the necessary questions:

  • What percentage of your faculty are adjuncts? Approximately how many of your faculty have to teach at other schools?
  • How much do you pay adjuncts per course? How do adjuncts’ salaries compare to those of full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty?
  • How many, if any, tenured professors teach first-year students?
  • What are the salaries of the school’s upper-level administrators, and how many (if any) courses will they teach this year?
  • How is there funding to install posh new facilities or pay star professors who don’t teach freshmen, yet not enough to pay the majority of our children’s professors a living wage or give them meaningful, full-time positions?

Armed with answers, parents can join the larger conversation about educational priorities on campuses and in wider public forums. For alliances to work, they have to serve all parties involved—tenured faculty, adjunct and contingent faculty, students, and their parents. As educators, we all have a real stake in the outcome.

Adjunct Action, the campaign that unites contingent faculty at campuses across the country to address the crisis in higher education and the troubling trend toward a marginalized teaching faculty, is a good example of collaboration. By coming together in Adjunct Action, we have the power to build a market-wide movement to raise standards for faculty and students alike. Organizing across campuses throughout high-density cities like Boston, Chicago, and Washington, DC, shows solidarity within the profession and strengthens the opposition to the feminization of labor that is occurring on every campus in the nation. Adjunct Action is a project of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and home to over 22,000 unionized adjuncts, who have won better pay, job security, evaluation processes, and access to retirement benefits.5

Eileen Boris, CCWH co-president, 2004–06, is Hull Professor of Feminist Studies and Professor of History, Black Studies, and Global Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara; Susan Wladaver-Morgan, CCWH co-president, 2010–14, is former associate editor of the Pacific Historical Review; Sandra Trudgen Dawson is an instructor at Northern Illinois University and a researcher for SIEU, Local 73.


1. Adjunct refers to a faculty member employed by a college or university for a specific length of time and most often part-time. Contingent faculty includes both part-time and full-time non-tenure-track faculty.

2. Ashley Finley, “Women as Contingent Faculty: The Glass Wall,” On Campus with Women 35, no. 3 (winter 2009),

3. The Adjunct Problem: Collaborating for a Solution: “Don’t Sit Back: Organizing for Change,” Kate Bullard, Adjunct Action Network/SEIU; “One Paycheck Away from Becoming Homeless: The Plight of the Adjunct,” Jesse J. Esparza, Texas Southern University; “The Life of a Freeway Flyer: Adjuncting in Southern California,” Amy Essington, California State University, Fullerton; “Welcome to Feminized Labor: Precarity for All,” Eileen Boris, University of California, Santa Barbara; “Finding Allies and Building Alliances in Support of Adjunct Faculty,” Susan Wladaver-Morgan, co-president, CCWH. The presentations will be on our website at

4. Jennifer Ruth, “Why Are Faculty Complicit in Creating a Disposable Workforce?” July 13, 2014, at

5. See

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