“75% (more or less) of college professors are not tenure track:” can we get more specific on that?

This post was born out of this exchange with Marc Bousquet:

MeandMarcTwitterAs I say here, I don’t disagree with the often cited figure that 75% of instructors in higher education are are not tenure track, and it’s certainly not that I think everything is hunky-dory on the good ship academia. It’s just that I think this needs to be unpacked a bit.


But before we get there, first there is the article that started this, “Professors on food stamps: The shocking true story of academia in 2014″ from Salon. Frankly, I find this article to be pretty tabloid-y and I think it plays fast and loose with the truthiness of the “shocking” story of academia. Take this paragraph, for example:

Over three quarters of college professors are adjunct. Legally, adjunct positions are part-time, at-will employment. Universities pay adjunct professors by the course, anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000. So if a professor teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000 dollars. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage. However, a full-time adjunct works more than 40 hours a week. They’re not paid for most of those hours.

First off– and I realize I sound like an egotistical mansplaining tenured empowered pampered privileged douchebag saying this– there’s a difference between being a part-time instructor and being a tenure-track professor. Second, most institutions have several different layers of instructor-types and lumping them all into one category is both simplistic and exaggerating to make the “shocking truth” point (see below). I think the same exaggeration is happening in this article regarding the pay, the comparison to being a barista (which, IMO, is something that a lot of people trying to cobble together a full-timeish job by teaching part-time at a bunch of different places ought to consider doing), the stuff about food stamps and selling blood and all the rest.

Don’t get me wrong–I agree completely with the basic premise here, that higher education is relying too heavily on part-timers and other poorly paid and disenfranchised instructors. I’ve written and spoken about this a lot before. I’ve been a part-timer (though a long time ago) and I have a taste of what that life was like. I think higher ed administrators need to find ways to kick the addiction of cheap adjunct labor, and I think part-timers have to find ways to not be exploited. (Once again, I turn to the very smart essay “In the Name of Love” by Miya Tokumitsu for wisdom on this). I think part-timers should organize/unionize everywhere and I’m happy to say that I’ve been in a faculty union since I started down the tenure-track in 1996.

What I wonder about is this 75% (give or take) figure. It is often repeated and seems to be based on this report from the AAUP. I’m not doubting its authenticity; I’m just wondering what it means, and I wish there was more information available out there. I wish it were possible (maybe it is?) to drill down into that percentage and that claim a bit.

Here are some questions I have about this often cited percentage (and maybe there are answers out there):

  • As far as I can tell from skimming this report, this is only reported as a percentage, and not “head count” sort of number. So, does this mean there are fewer TT faculty or just that there are more NTT faculty? A bit of both? In my own simple experiences, the number of TT faculty in my department has been about the same (50, plus or minus about five, probably) for 40 or more years, but there are a lot more part-timers and NTT (we call them lecturers here) now, presumably because there are a lot more students.
  • In other words, is the claim “75% of the people teaching college classes are not tenure-track faculty” the same thing as saying “As a specific number, there are a lot fewer tenure-track faculty now than there were way back when”? I admit I am statistically impaired, but I don’t think that’s the same thing.
  • What kinds of fields are these folks working in and what are they teaching? I have a feeling that a huge percentage of these NTT faculty are teaching first year writing and/or other small group gen ed classes. For me, that raises a whole different set of questions about the ethics of this curriculum. On the one hand, I don’t agree with the Sharon Crowley et al argument that first year writing doesn’t have any tangible benefits; on the other hand, it does have pretty hard to justify labor practices since we employ so many part-timers. Do the benefits students receive from these classes justify the unethical labor practices that support them?
  • What kinds of institutions are we talking about here? Because I know the biggest growth in terms of enrollment in the last decade or two are in community colleges and for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix. I know a lot of these kinds of institutions are staffing courses like first year writing with between 85% and 100% NTT. And then there’s a whole category of institutions– often community colleges, but not always–that never gave tenure in the first place. So can we break down the percentages/numbers by institution?
  • Can we see some granularity in this broad category of NTT faculty? I mean, that’s a big category. As far as I can tell, the only thing the AAUP says they did was they didn’t include “adjuncts” in medical schools because those folks are usually physicians who have a practice associated with a medical school hospital. At EMU, we have part-timers (paid per course) and we have lecturers, which are full-time/year-to-year contracts (that are renewed about 90% of the time) with good bennies (insurance, TIAA-CREF). The pay isn’t as good as TT faculty and the teaching load is higher, but there’s no expectation to do any service or scholarship either. At U of M, there are at least three levels of NTT positions– probably more. I think this is important because while being a part-timer and getting paid $2000 for a section of fycomp is a pretty shitty gig, there are a lot of NTT positions that are pretty good.
  • What sorts of loads are these part-timers/NTT faculty teaching? Because part of the problem is too many part-timers are trying to turn their part-time job into a full-time one, and in a lot of ways, that makes matters worse.

You get the idea.

I’m not raising all of these questions to nit-pick, either. I think if we knew more specifically what this percentage really meant, then folks who want to reform the academic labor system (and I don’t know anyone in academia who doesn’t want to see some change) might have some better strategies. As it is, making the argument “we need to hire more tenure track faculty” isn’t really doing much for these NTT folks, right?


2 thoughts on ““75% (more or less) of college professors are not tenure track:” can we get more specific on that?”

  1. Steve, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for more granularity in solving this issue. This problem has very local dimensions not only on the institutional level but on the decanal and departmental level. There’s a big difference between the FYC adjunct making $2500-3000 per course and the visiting assistant professor in the school of management teaching business communication courses and making more than I do. We have “clinical” faculty ranks, which are often employed in the med school, as you mentioned. But we also use these ranks for NTT positions, and one can advance to be a “clinical full professor.” And the responsibilities for those positions vary greatly. Some might be “soft money” positions that are research based, but many are teaching-focused jobs with no research expectations. So those jobs are well-paid and have reasonable job security (better than the security of most jobs these days, though obviously not as good as tenure). At UB though, ladder-faculty roles are first and foremost research roles. If you’re STEM then you’re getting grants. If you’re in the humanities you’re publishing monographs. I don’t see us creating tenure-track roles for teaching-intensive positions and the reality is that we need more teaching than we need research.

    Now I’m not sure what that means, if anything, in relation to other, less research-intensive schools. Our NTTs might teach 4-4 and have no research expectations and have salaries comparable to TT 4-4 jobs at other institutions where the research expectations are modest in comparison (which isn’t to say that people in those jobs don’t do great and extensive research but simply that they may not be required to do so to get tenure).

    Even if we say that the FYC per-course adjunct job should be done away with, that gets complicated. Around 80% of my part-time adjuncts are post-TA grad students in their 6th and 7th years. For the most part they don’t want full-time gigs b/c they are trying to finish their dissertations, go on the job market, etc. If, in theory, we replaced their positions with NTT ones, they might not get those jobs. I.e. we might get better qualified applicants, especially given the current job market. Is that an improvement? For whom?

    None of this changes the very troubling situation that many adjuncts face and that certainly needs to be addressed. I just think that we are doing no one any favors by lumping them all together.

    1. From my point of view, I think the 80% of your part-timers that you are describing– post-TA grad students, folks dissertating, etc.– is totally legitimate. I think teaching part-time makes sense for these people, and I think there is a certain percentage of part-timers (recently retired faculty, people with actual full-time jobs who want to do something extra, people who can afford to work only part-time, etc.) who are also in the right place.

      The problem, IMO, comes in the form of the person who is frankly kidding themselves into thinking that they can make a full-time academic “career” out of teaching eight sections part-time at three different places. Those are the folks who get burned out, who get super-bitter, who are not good for students, and who are not good for themselves.

      So again, instead of waving around this ham-handed stat that doesn’t really mean anything, I’d like to see us zeroing in on this smaller group.

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