the real story behind the adjunct labor market in academia
For many years, I believed a common story about part-time laborers in the university system. I believed that administrators had slowly cut back on full time tenure track jobs and replaced them with an army of low paid part timers.Tenure was under attack and it will soon disappear. That story isn’t right.
Writing in Liberal Education, the academic journal of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, Phil Magness argues that there is no evidence of a cut back in tenure track lines and that adjunctification is mainly about the growth of for-profit colleges. Magness uses data from the Digest of Education Statistics to make the following arguments:
- Aside from graduate students, there are three types of academic laborers: tenure track faculty, full time contingent faculty, and part time contingent faculty. Most people lump the part-timers and full-timers together but they are very different. Full timers make a lot more money, they have job stability, and benefits. When people think of the term “low paid adjunct,” what they mean is part-time contingent laborers.
- It is actually true that the % of faculty who are full timers of any type has dropped from 80% to about 50% (Figure 1) but…
- Part timers are not the majority of laborers in most types of institutions, with two massive exceptions: 2 year institutions (65%) and for-profits (93%). That is not a mistake, almost all for-profit teaching staff are part timers. (Table 1)
- There has been a tremendous increase in the number of for-profit colleges.
- The ratio of full time faculty (tenured and permanent lecturers) to students has not decreased over time. It’s been about 25 to 1 for about 40 years. (Figure 7)
- Tenure is relatively stable. The proportion of schools by category that award tenure to their faculty changes moderately over time. For example, 90% of public 4-year schools award tenure as do about 60% of privates and junior colleges. These numbers fluctuate a little over time. For-profits have tenure systems less than 10% of the time and that number is decreasing. (Figures 5 and 6)
- Being an adjunct is mainly about having an MA degree (40%). Only 30% have completed the PhD. (Table 2). In unpublished work, Magness also notes that adjuncts are disproportionately concentrated in the language arts and other humanities.
To put it bluntly, the “tenure is under attack” story is completely wrong. There is literally no evidence to support it. Instead, adjunctification is about two processes. First, for-profit colleges have expanded greatly and they need armies of cheap labor. Second, cheap labor is supplied by humanities scholars with MA degrees and, to a lesser extent, doctoral degrees. Otherwise, there is a very stable core of full time lecturers and tenure track faculty. This is true across time and most institutional types. Thus, adjunctification is about the over-production of humanities graduate degrees driving down labor costs in for-profit colleges. Savor the irony.