About ten days ago, the New York Times published an article on the rising numbers of adjuncts in academia. The article starts as follows: "Professors with tenure or who are on a tenure track are now a distinct minority on the country’s campuses, as the ranks of part-time instructors and professors hired on a contract have swelled, according to federal figures analyzed by the American Association of University Professors." Later, we learn that adjuncts now "account for nearly 70 percent of professors at colleges and universities, both public and private." The number made me pause because the percentage of adjuncts at my institution is in the high single-digit range, which we take much pride in because that is about a third of the percentage of adjuncts in our peer group (about 25%). And then, suddenly, 70 percent of professors are supposed to be adjuncts?
Obviously, the first question I asked myself is: how did they get that number? I found the report this data was taken from online, and the aggregation of numbers from all colleges and universities (not just public and private, but also two-year and four-year, research universities and community colleges) creates an effect that is much similar to saying that everyone at Goldman Sachs including the janitors makes millions every year. Higher education is a collection of very different places - according to the Carnegie Foundation, the most selective institutions granting four-year undergraduate degrees (where one would assume New York Times subscribers are most interested in sending their progeny) represent less than 8 percent of all colleges and universities (273 out of 3501, see this document), and the percentage of kids taught there is even smaller, because the other institutions enroll larger numbers of students.
There is a long way to go before the tenure track disappears, as the article would make us believe, in places where people have come to expect tenure-track or tenured faculty to teach their children, and become very vocal if the teaching doesn't meet their expectations of what tuition should buy. (As mentioned in my previous post, it doesn't mean that Ivy League institutions don't use adjuncts either.) When it comes to the less selective colleges, I am not sure to which extent students are aware of the tenure issues, and of what they can do about it. After all, the appeal of community colleges is that you can get a solid education without parting with the eye-popping amounts of money required by four-year institutions. In turn, such places lack the money to make a long-term commitment to individual faculty members, which is exactly what tenure is about.
Let me mention before I continue that some adjuncts complement the teaching undergraduates receive in ways full-time faculty cannot; this is particularly the case for Master-level courses where industry professionals share their own insights into, say, lean manufacturing or risk management - the presence of someone with real-life experience can help motivate students and convince them that, yes, what they are learning in the classroom will be useful later on. Those adjuncts are people with full-time jobs who teach without having to, because they enjoy the interaction with students. The real focus of the Times article was the adjuncts who have to make a living by teaching here and there at minimum hourly rates - the former (Caucasian) retail store manager who teaches six Spanish introductory-level courses at four institutions, the man who has been teaching philosophy as an adjunct for 17 years. The use of adjuncts is a problem for the students who deserve high-quality education no matter which semester they take a course (the one when the course is taught by an adjunct and the one when it is not), but the "sob-story" angle to the adjuncts' working conditions annoyed me to no end. Quite simply, people who try to make a living from adjunct positions are people who are not in fields marketable to industry. Going into such a field was their choice. They knew the odds were low for them to get a full-time position and they took their chance anyway. In contrast with computer science, where I can understand that students who graduated before the dotcom bust might now feel cheated of the career opportunities they thought they would have, there has never been any doubt that majoring in philosophy was not the best strategy to pay your bills.
My grandmother was a refugee who arrived in France at age 7 with nothing but the clothes on her back and didn't even speak a word of the language; throughout her life she was a cook at an elementary school. My grandfather painted cars for a living before robots replaced humans, and before people knew anything about safety procedures; he died in an hospital with his lungs scorched by the toxic fumes he had inhaled for years. That's where I come from. I've always liked literature and when I graduated from high school (which in France is when you decide what kind of major you want to pursue in college) I could have studied literature rather than engineering; I certainly would have enjoyed discussing famous texts more than studying fluid mechanics. And yet it was always out of the question, because a degree in engineering would let me earn a living and a degree in literature would not. Maybe these adjuncts' choice can be explained by the American myth of self-fulfillment, where you have to do things you like 24/7, but I find it incredible that in a country that emphasizes individual accountability to such an extreme degree when it comes to happiness, nobody is pointing out that the reason adjuncts are not well-paid is that there is too much supply of people just like them and not enough demand, and that they brought it all upon themselves.