Publication Date

April 1, 2008

Perspectives Section


Calvin Coolidge was right. It seems that even inside the walls of our country's most prestigious colleges and universities, "the chief business of the American people is business." Academic departments at both two-year and four-year institutions are increasingly being managed like big-box retail chains. Their survival and growth depend on a steady influx of cheap, exploitable workers.

Consider Iowa State University, for example. According to research compiled by the American Association of University Professors, most of the classes offered at Iowa State in 2006 were taught by either part-time instructors (those who were paid by the class) or contingent faculty, a category that includes temporary full-time employees, grad students, and postdoctoral fellows.

Iowa State is hardly unique. For more than three decades, colleges and universities across the country have been increasingly relying on part-time and nontenure-track employees to shoulder the lion's share of teaching responsibilities. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education shows a substantial increase in the number of part-time faculty at all institutions since 1975 (from 30.2 percent to 46.3 percent) coupled with a simultaneous drop in the number of full-time tenured professors (36.5 percent to 24.1 percent).

The numbers from history departments reveal a similar trend. A survey conducted by the AHA in 1981–82 found that part-time instructors at that time constituted barely 5 percent of the history faculty nationwide. Twenty years later, the number had jumped to nearly 30 percent. While this expansion of cheap labor translates into a better bottom line for administrators, many of the part-time instructors themselves are struggling to earn the respect and financial security enjoyed by their tenured peers.1

On many campuses, contingent faculty and adjuncts are treated like part-time retail workers. A survey conducted by the AHA in 2000 shed light on some of the problems they face: outdated equipment, job insecurity, lack of support for research trips and conferences, and limited prospects for career advancement. Of course, the same survey also indicated that not all of these workers are unhappy; some reported a high level of job satisfaction. But evidence from subsequent surveys suggests that most of these contented instructors were able to overlook the less pleasant aspects of part-time pedagogy because they derived the bulk of their income from sources outside the academy. School administrators seem either unable or unwilling to differentiate between adjuncts who depend on per-class stipends for survival and those who view their paychecks as icing on the cake.2

The result of this indifference, whether willful or not, has been the steady growth of a largely invisible underclass of struggling instructors whose concerns are rarely addressed by the academy. The AHA's survey of 380 temporary and part-time history professors revealed that fewer than a third have a way to file a formal complaint. Nearly 20 percent reported that they "didn't know" if their school had a grievance policy. But even when such policies are clearly spelled out, part-timers often feel afraid to say anything that might jeopardize their positions. As one adjunct put it, "any complaints, and you are neverfired. You are simply never rehired.” Teresa Knudsen believes she lost her adjunct job at Spokane Community College (SCC) for speaking out about the plight of part-time teachers. In February 2005, she published an op-ed piece in a Spokane newspaper that described Washington’s community college network as a “state-run feudal system.” Shortly afterwards, said Knudsen, she was called down to the dean’s office and told that her comments had offended SCC’s full-time faculty members. The following December, she was let go, though SCC administrators deny that Knudsen was fired because of her political views.3

But it's an indisputable fact that community-college deans, like corporate executives, rely heavily upon part-time help. A survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW), a consortium of 25 academic societies concerned with adjunct issues, found that 58.5 percent of the history instructors at two-year colleges are employed on a part-time basis. And while four-year colleges and universities can claim a much lower percentage (18.1 percent), it turns out that this figure is somewhat misleading since it excludes the graduate students who make up 22.1 percent of their teaching workforce.4

The consequences of this overreliance on part-time and temporary labor can be harsh for teachers and frustrating for their students. More than 77 percent of the history departments participating in the CAW survey admitted that they do not offer health benefits, a retirement plan, or life insurance to adjuncts. Not surprisingly, many part-time instructors have to work two or more jobs just to make ends meet. And the time they spend traveling from job to job is time lost from meeting with students or preparing lesson plans. The quality of instruction at universities suffers as a result. Moreover, the high turnover rate among adjuncts and contingent faculty means students are frequently unable to establish mentoring relationships or obtain letters of recommendation. The short-term financial gain administrators receive from relying on adjuncts is undercut by the long-term damage to their schools' primary mission, which is to educate students and generate cutting-edge research.5

So what can be done to improve the quality of life for adjuncts and contingent faculty? In 2003, the AHA and the Organization of American Historians issued a joint resolution which listed a clear set of guidelines for departments to follow. First, the resolution recommends that part-time and temporary teachers be eligible for raises and promotions after a clearly defined probationary period. Second, it acknowledges that part-timers and temporary workers deserve access to the same benefits their tenured colleagues enjoy such as health care, parking spaces, photocopying services, and research grants. Third, the OAH and the AHA strongly feel that administrators should limit the number of adjuncts and contingent faculty (including graduate students) they hire to teach courses. The guidelines state that part-time teachers should make up no more than 40 percent of the instructors at community colleges, 30 percent at research institutions, and 20 percent at four-year colleges.6

Schools intent on maintaining the current status quo with their nontenured faculty may very well suffer the same fate that many corporations have in recent years. Those with a long track record of mistreating employees have become pariahs in many communities, spawning negative press reports and prompting workers to begin joining unions. College administrators who want to avoid similar hassles need to embrace policies which treat all of their instructors, including part-timers and contingent faculty, with dignity.

—Andrew Bell recently received his PhD in American history from the George Washington University and worked as a research associate at the AHA.


1. AAUP Contingent Faculty Index 2006 (Washington, D.C.), 22; U.S. Department of Education, IPEDS Fall Staff Survey, “Trends in Faculty Status, 1975–2003,” in AAUP Index, 5; Robert B. Townsend, “The State of the History Department: The 2001–02 AHA Department Survey,” Perspectives 38 (April 2000) .

2. Robert B. Townsend, “Federal Faculty Survey Shows Gains for History Employment but Lagging Salaries,” Perspectives 44 (March 2006) ; Robert B. Townsend, “Part-Time Teachers: The AHA Survey,” Perspectives 38 (April 2000) .

3. Ibid; Shawn Vestal, “Teacher Says She Lost Job for Speaking Out,” Spokane Spokesman-Review, February 21, 2006.

4. Robert B. Townsend, “Part-Time Faculty Surveys Highlight Disturbing Trends“,Perspectives 38, Vol. 7 (October 2000).

5. Ernst Benjamin, “Reappraisal and Implications for Policy and Research,” New Directions for Higher Education 123 (Fall 2003): 79–113.

6. See statement by AHA/OAH Joint Committee on Part-Time and Adjunct Employment Standards, May 5, 2003;

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