Saturday, May 25, 2013

When Tenure-Track Faculty Take on the Problem of Adjunctification

by Jennifer Ruth, Portland State University

I am part of an unofficial group of tenured faculty at a state institution that relies on many non-tenure-track faculty, but we are not the tenured faculty Ivan Evans refers to in his piece “When the Adjunct Faculty are the Tenure-track’s Untouchables.

When we went on the market, getting a tenure-track job already meant you were the one person standing in the rubble-strewn city of your profession. There was no denying the corpses. At the very least, we understood that luck played a bigger role in our fate than merit had. We hadn’t earned something so much as been spared something else—namely, the miserable life of the freeway flyer. And we drew the obvious conclusion from this, the survivor’s-guilt conclusion: we would prove worthy of these tenure-track jobs only if we dedicated ourselves to creating more of them for others. We would fight the neoliberal adjunctifcation of the professoriate in the name of our no less talented but less fortunate friends.

And so we did. Before we were tenured, we began working together on our campus to overcome the defeatism pervasive at the time – the defeatism that said, the erosion of tenure is bigger than us, it’s bigger than academia, it’s the post-70s outsourcing economy. To fight it would be to drown ourselves trying to swim upstream. For months, every other week, three of us would invite a new handful of people we considered influential on campus to have drinks– tenured faculty and chairs, people who were positioned to do something about the problem. It’s not that we were excluding non-tenure-track faculty – far from being our untouchables, they were our friends with whom we had coffees, lunches, dinners; with whose kids our kids shared playdates—but rather we took seriously what some of them were saying, which was You guys have the power, and thus the responsibility, to reverse this trend. We don’t.

The work of the group we formed exceeded our expectations. Here’s a few of the things we did:

1) We introduced two motions into faculty senate: the first motion establishing a committee to rethink the Senate so that it could exercise a stronger voice in shared governance with administration; the second motion to shift our percentage of tenure-line to off-tenure-line instruction to 70/30 in 5 years. The first motion passed; the second was tabled.

2) We lobbied the administration to redefine about 20 jobs that were originally advertised as non-tenure-track to tenure-track.

3) One of our group, who was chair of her department, organized chairs-only meetings for chairs to strategize on the issue (all the meetings heretofore had been in the Dean’s presence).

4) We showed graphs at Faculty Senate meetings that demonstrated the magnitude of the problem. We drew what we called a “line of shame” through one such graph, with those departments that had grown the most through off-tenure-line labor falling below the line and those that had resisted the temptation above the line.

And when we got tenure, we stepped up our game by assuming positions in our departments. As department chair and directors of programs, those of us in the English department  created two new tenure lines and converted a fixed-term position when someone retired into a tenure-track position. Within two years, we had three new tenure lines that were not simply replacing retiring tenure-track faculty. During a period of budget cuts when retirement-replacement searches in other departments were being cancelled (and the lost SCH surely made up through contingent labor), we made sure that we never lost a search. In other words, we lost no ground. Instead, we made practical and considerable advances. 


1) The Director of Literary Studies Amy Greenstadt re-arranged classes so that we had fewer that were under-enrolled, buying us cultural capital with the Dean.

2) I refused to sign some adjunct contracts and made it clear that we wanted to help the College meet its SCH (student credit hour) goals but not by adding any more adjuncts or full-time, non-tenure-track faculty – only by adding tenure-track faculty.

3) We encouraged, cajoled—and in one case, brought in a lawyer to convince—a few of our faculty who had gotten sweetheart deals over the years to give up these deals and return to the course-loads the rest of us carried.

Over a period of two years, through careful scheduling and fewer course releases, we increased our SCH by 2% while using fewer adjuncts. We also improved our graduate programs by offering more grad-only small classes. We made sure the Dean knew all these things so that he understood that we were accountable, that if he provided us the resources to hire tenure track faculty those resources would not be squandered.

I remember sitting in the office of the chair of the philosophy department and crowing about a success. We had received permission from the Dean to make two tenure-track hires rather than one out of an already-progressing search. It had been a dramatic couple of weeks. My office staff had helped me develop graphs and tables, and my directors and I had composed arguments and timelines (lines per SCH, budget numbers, hiring trends over the years, etc.), all of which I presented to the Dean and his staff.

I thought I had a fail-safe case for new tenure lines to accommodate the growth in the student body we’d experienced over the years. When I finished, the dean said, “We’re not giving you any more tenure lines.” I don’t remember what I said or did, but I do remember that the dean’s secretary called me later that day and said, “That grand exit was a little over the top.”

Over the next week or so, I wondered if she was right. But when Amy, the Director of Literary Studies, gave me something more specific to propose– a way to turn one replacement tenure-track search into two lines, saving money on the search—I knocked on the Dean’s door. He agreed that if we continued to work with the college on its initiatives and were careful budget-wise, he’d work with us towards our goal. Telling the philosophy chair about it that day, I suddenly felt silly. All that drama for one line! One miniscule drop in the national bucket! Was I foolish to get so worked up over something so relatively small? The philosophy chair said, “It’s not small to the person who gets the job you guys created.” Right, I thought.

A few people made the connection between the work we were doing and the amazing new colleagues walking our halls but many did not. The new hires themselves were coming in the right way and, thus, were rightly feeling obliged to nobody.

We could with confidence claim a whole army of new enemies, however. Weirdly enough, none of these enemies were administrators. Administrators knew we were trying to improve our department and, even when we aggravated the hell out of them, most of them had the grace to acknowledge that what we were doing was only what we in fact should be doing.

No, the people who now disliked us were some of the people who’d once been our closest friends: those people whose sweetheart deals no longer existed; the tenure-track faculty whose under-enrolled classes were now fully enrolled so they had 35 papers to grade instead of 20; the man whose program relied on adjuncts and so was always, if only temporarily, imperiled by my resistance to signing adjunct contracts; full-time, non-tenure-track faculty who understandably felt that my commitment to growing tenure lines implicitly jeopardized their job security (it didn’t but it’s easy to imagine how they’d feel it might); non-tenure-track faculty serving on Faculty Senate (at our institution, non-tenure-track faculty are involved in governance) during the year we introduced the “line of shame”; tenure-track faculty who had joined the profession to—god forbid—write books and teach, not to take on the Sisyphean task of rebuilding the profession, but who felt a little guilty about this. Many of these people hated our guts.

In the beginning what we were doing felt good. We were listening to our non-tenure-track colleagues and we understood what it meant for them to be without academic freedom, without job security. We were not quislings! We were on the side of the righteous!

But after a while, as the political skirmishes got uglier, our reasons for why we were doing what we were doing began to change. We began to care less about the terrible circumstances of our non-tenure-track colleagues. We began to care less about doing “the right thing” by the next generation. By the end we were fighting for the quality of our own jobs. It sucks when non-tenure-track people feel threatened when you feel you have proven your commitment to them, it sucks to have tenure-track people mad at you when you won’t create a non-tenure-track job for their spouse, it sucks to sit in a meeting in which a non-tenure-track faculty member openly uses his or her job security as a reason for making a curricular change to our major requirements instead of citing reasons intrinsic to the discipline or our pedagogical goals.

By the end, we just wanted to sit in a room of peers (fellow tenured faculty) and apprentice-peers (tenure-track) with whom we could debate ideas and feel like we were all on a reasonably even playing field. If we won an argument, we knew it was because we’d actually made sense not because someone felt subtly coerced. If we all fought bitterly about the curricular area of our next hire, nobody afterwards could claim that they were scared we’d retaliate against them for disagreeing with us by not rehiring them the next quarter. We could call each other all kinds of names for being so benighted as to think we needed a modernist when we obviously needed a medievalist but we couldn’t call each other “neoliberal managers” or pull out the trump card of “retaliation” when our feelings got hurt.

In his history of academic freedom in America The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand writes, “Coercion is natural; freedom is artificial.” The tenure system is an elaborate construction. The hiring process is ridiculously strenuous but that’s what keeps it from being a system based on patronage. By the time you get your job and then achieve tenure—after interviewing, having many people read your work and references, giving a job talk in front of a dept., undergoing evaluations by committees and external reviewers—you feel legitimate. Even when you know chance played a big part, you nonetheless don’t feel you owe your luck to any particular person. That’s often not the case when hiring off the tenure-track. When we hire off the tenure track, we create complex networks of obligation; we create potential fiefdoms. At the very least, we make our world more vulnerable to corruption: I protect your job security, you vote for me. I give your girlfriend these adjunct sections, you feel indebted to me. Hiring on the tenure track has its opportunities for patronage, of course, but there are more steps, more bureaucracy, more people involved at every stage. As a result, the kind of direct-unmediated power of boss-employee is diffused in a way that it isn’t with off-track hiring.

By the time we’d finished our terms as chair and directors, we were fighting because we’d come to understand how valuable the tenure system is for the culture in which we wanted to work. We didn’t want to work within a new old boy’s club, where people got jobs because of who they knew or whose back they scratched. We wanted to work with people who could say “no” to us when they disagreed with us without then feeling resentfully defensive with us. We wanted to work with people who could say what they really thought without worrying that someone else’s job security might be indirectly affected by their opinions. We wanted the preciousness of a world different from most workplaces, a world of peers who make decisions together and argue with one another in the context of academic freedom.

I sympathize with Ivan Evans’s despair. The lack of collective will among TTF in what is a struggle that affects us all is deeply frustrating. But what if we got a better handle on the multiple variables involved? The national statistics are the outcome of numerous interactions between non-tenure-track faculty, tenure-track faculty, chairs, deans, and provosts. If we don’t want the future that inertia is busy building or even if we want to protect the vestiges of academic freedom we have left, TTF are going to have to grapple honestly with the compromised culture that has already developed with non-tenure-track hiring as well as with the financial problems administrators face--at least at institutions like my own which rely almost entirely on tuition and have lost state support over the years.

We don’t deserve to all be adjunctifed—if only because universities without academic freedom translates to a less free society—but I worry that we are more likely to be if we let the few sadistic professors and knife-twisting administrators distract us from the much more difficult, because more intimate and more ethically complex, politics of painstakingly changing what is in many places now our status quo.


  1. I think this brings up an important problem and some useful ways of dealing with it. Thank you Jennifer.

  2. Yes, thank you Jennifer. At New Faculty Majority, we appreciate adjunct supporters among tenured faculty like Peter Brown, Seth Kahn, Jonathon Rees and others ~ including Chris N who was the first major academic blogger to give us recognition.

    This is going to take a group effort ~ when we take off on the tenured faculty, including, alas, higher ed media comment trolls, that deserve it, please remember it is not about one like you and Chris. For my part, I will try to mention that more often too...

    PS I just sent this link to the NFM board

  3. Thank you so much Vanessa. Taking on this battle on one's own campus threatens the status quo, and sometimes even the people who are the most unhappy with the status quo get upset because nobody can guarantee the future. I was really shaken by some of the animosity we encountered, but I take heart in comments like yours.

  4. Thank you, Jennifer. When you were Chair of the English Department at PSU I felt like I was a respected free agent of academe (adjunctified but respected). You somehow managed to keep me employed year round, and I stepped in to cover Lorraine Mercer's courses when she was ill. Then it all ended: you stepped down, Greg Jacobs retired, and I went from making $36,000 a year to $0. Since your departure, I have not been assigned a single course. Shocked by the loss of income and respect, I sent emails to the new chair and interim adjunct coordinator, but I did not receive a response. Nothing, and no recourse to unemployment either. Talk about sucking!

    On the positive side, I am no longer eager to conform and accept adjunctification. I blog about inequality and exploitation in American Higher Education at, and I have a book in the pipeline.

    I applied to the latest PSU TT Rhet /Comp advertisement, and, as expected, I wasn't contacted for a preliminary Skype interview.

    Anyway, thanks for your years of support and continued activism on others' behalf. I've seen a lot in my years at PSU, first as an undergraduate then as a masters student/graduate assistant for the English Dept., and finally as an adjunct upon completion of my Ph.D. Your ethos and conviction to the discipline and fair administration is unique and much appreciated. I wish the department as a whole shared your quality of character.

  5. Good post and useful. I wonder how hard it would be to get tenured and tenure line faculty to strike to move adjuncts to tenure track???

    Tenure track is *really* the only answer, all the talk of being nice to adjuncts, taking them to lunch, etc. is totally inadequate although in a department where they are not spoken to I guess it is a step.

  6. At my school and probably others, when they make new F/T lines or lecturers they never hire those of us who they have used up....

  7. Thanks for this excellent post, Jennifer, and I appreciate the followup comments as well. A few thoughts come to mind. You mention the need to get a handle on the multiple variables involved. It does seem that to address this more fully will require prolonged examination of the issues involved. For example, does there need to be better analysis of how many hours F/T tenured / tenure-track professors (or lecturers) should be expected to work, rather than going at it from a 'need' standpoint? I know there is a perception that professors 'have the summer off, after all,' but of course, this isn't actually the case, since this time tends to get filled up with conferences, research and writing, and designing new courses.

    How many other employers can say to their employees that because of budget constraints and work volume, they simply 'need' them to work 70 hours per week as a norm? If tenured jobs added up to a genuine 40 or so hours a week, rather than the 60 or 70 or more that is often the case, how many more tenured jobs would become available?

    If the work hours of professors are then analyzed in conjunction with an analysis of the needs of students, what additional insight would be gained? For example, for students to have a meaningful, transformative education, do they need to have some relationships with their professors, or is an alienated experience in which students feel invisible an acceptable quality of education?

    To provide the quality of education needed in a way that isn't exploitative or often outright ruinous of those who teach does take money, and students simply cannot be expected to pay what it costs, anymore than we want to start charging membership fees of hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to belong to public libraries. These must be funded as a public good. Otherwise, it will become impossible to sustain disciplines like literature, history, etc. because students will feel so highly pressured to choose lucrative majors if they must graduate with enormous debt.

    I believe that solving part of these issues will require addressing them as a whole. Tenured professors, of all people, should be able to analyze well enough to know that workers have to organize in order to not be played against one another. In this case, there needs to be mass, sustained solidarity between those who teach (tenured, nontenured, grad students); students; administrators who DO actually want a high quality of education at their institutions that isn't exploitative of professors, other workers, or students; and many other people in a state (or in the nation) who do or could come to recognize education as a public good.

    I think your post here is vital in helping us all face more of the realities involved in attempting to change things. Thanks for all of your work. (I should add that I write this as a graduate student, not as a tenured professor.)

  8. Excellent post from Jennifer and excellent comments – thanks, all. In the spirit of the discussion, I have one emendation: Jennifer refers to rearranging “under-enrolled classes” so that there were fewer of them. I’ve certainly witnessed the proliferation of classes and the impact on the number of faculty needed. I appreciate the challenge of getting that under control. But I’ve noticed that the definition of “under-enrolled” can vary significantly, depending on how much the university thinks it needs to make from each class during any given fiscal year. Where I’m situated, if there are only three students enrolled in a class, the university makes a profit. If there are six, the university’s profit is over 60 percent. But the threshold can vary from five to six to ten to 12. And it’s never determined according to (1) what particular students need, (2) what’s best for the educational content of a course, or (3) what’s best for the format in which the course must be taught. Sometimes the threshold is a kind of secret! If the university has failed to rationalize its course offerings, and finds itself needing to go forward with an “under-enrolled” course, the policy is to cut the pay of the adjunct asked to teach it. The adjunct is the individual with the least responsibility for the situation. The adjunct is doing the university a favor! So when I hear the phrase “under-enrolled,” I get my dander up.

  9. Thank you for this excellent piece. As someone coming onto the market, I really appreciate the work you have done (and are advocating). More than that, I appreciate the courage you all show as activists on this issue. Activism has costs that are difficult to pay. Thank you for paying them.

  10. Thanks Jennifer. You raise many important and complex issues. Speaking as a university administrator, I think one also has to factor in the increasing worry among those responsible for balancing academic finances about how online options may cause younger, non-elite universities like ours to potentially become obsolete, as we've seen in many other industries. That concern does not justify ignoring the plight of NTTF, or the problems NTTF can cause for TTF (as you've articulated).

    None of us can know what public universities are going to look like in ten years, but those teaching then may look back with nostalgia at today's debates, while grappling with more acute issues of fiscal survival for the entire enterprise.

  11. Thanks for this wonderfully thoughtful piece. Your experience shows what a hard thing it is in practice to alter the distribution of teaching jobs when your colleagues are all invested in the status quo, however much everyone bemoans it. I wish you luck, and I hope others are able to follow your example.

  12. Not to be a contrarian, but I would like to look at a different aspect of what seems like a never-ending plight for scores of adjuncts. What I would like to discuss is the expectations and the value (that is, market value, not the intrinsic one!) of PhD's in different fields. The reason I am bringing this up is that time after time I am struck by descriptions of misery in which many 'freeway fliers' find themselves. I was also somewhat struck by Jennifer Ruth's sentiment expressed here:
    “When we went on the market, getting a tenure-track job already meant you were the one person standing in the rubble-strewn city of your profession. There was no denying the corpses. At the very least, we understood that luck played a bigger role in our fate than merit had.”
    The reason for my surprise/disbelief/dismay is that this sentiment is not uniform throughout various academic disciplines. In fact, you can see that from the comments to the previous post on this blog (the one about the academic “caste system”). Adjuncts seem to be playing very different roles in different academic disciplines/departments.
    I realize that a full picture can never be based just on personal anecdotes, but at this point personal anecdotes is all I can offer.
    I got my PhD in one of the 'hard sciences' around the turn of the millennium, my school's PhD program was not ranked in the top 10, but consistently in the top 15 (and never below 20). Translation: not MIT, Caltech or Harvard, yet still quite decent. Out of 25 or so graduate students in my class, five of us ended up with faculty positions: three in the US, two in their countries of origin, all five by now tenured. One more person is a researcher in a national lab. Two more people tried the academic path: One is now a research faculty (another 'lower caste' not well known in the humanities: researchers supported purely by grants and without job security), still trying to convert his position to permanent. Another one has gone through the postdoc 'crucible' and left to start a company, but not before getting a tenure track offer – simply not from the school he was willing to consider.
    Everyone else did not even bother and went on to have careers outside academia, from industrial research to various software engineering jobs to finance, and never looked back. (Needless to say, we, the once who “stuck around”, are very far from being the best remunerated people in the cohort.) To the best of my knowledge, *no-one* qualifies as a corpse in the rubble-strewn wasteland. And no-one is an adjunct.
    That is not to say that adjuncts are not unheard of in my field. I was an adjunct myself for a short period of time, filling a few-months gap between my Ph.D. and the start of my first postdoc appointment. One of my own students has done the same thing upon receiving her Ph.D. – to beef up her teaching resume. The number of lecturers my department hires routinely fluctuates between 0 and 2 or at most 3 (while the number of T/TT faculty is over thirty). I tend to think this is normal and perfectly acceptable: there are always fluctuations in the number of available faculty (sabbaticals, special fellowships, teaching buy-outs etc.). If anything, seen from this perspective, the unionization of adjuncts makes me wary: any attempts to regulate temporary stop-gap measures removes the flexibility which is essential if these are indeed stop-gap measures and not a ubiquitous pattern of abuse. We already saw this reduced flexibility with hiring postdocs following their unionization and, if anything, the postdocs ended on the receiving end of this, at least in my field. (E.g., I can no longer hire my graduate student for two months in the summer following his graduation before he starts his first “real” postdoc elsewhere. This would clearly benefit both of us and him in particular, but the union rules win -- we are paying for someone else's sins.)

  13. (continued)
    I fully understand that my field may not be representative. I do not believe we have a pattern of systematic abuse of either postdocs and lecturers (and I have been on all sides of this). It also seems from many a post that such systematic abuse of lecturers is a norm in other disciplines, particularly in some humanities. I will also buy that it is hardly their fault as the administration starves them of the much needed faculty positions. This is, however, only tangential to the main issue I'd like to raise; I simply brought this up to explain why people in different fields perceive the adjunct issues very differently.

    The main question I have is about the expectations that people in different fields have for their degrees. As my personal graduate school experience shows, a Ph.D. in my field comes both with not an unreasonable chance of landing a faculty position, but even more importantly, without this being considered the only acceptable (or even most acceptable) outcome. Certainly, there is no denying the role of luck (although I don't think it was nearly as essential in my case as Jennifer Ruth makes it sound in her post). The thing is, there were always other options and being a long-term adjunct was never one of them. If anything, my biggest piece of luck was being interested in and being reasonably good at something that the present-day society considers valuable. Which brings me back to my question: What expectations did you have entering your respective graduate schools? Does your Ph.D. have any market value outside academia, not as piece of paper but as a certain experience and set of skills? Did your advisers have an 'adult talk' with you at the start of your program grounding your expectations in reality? (Mine had, and while I didn't really listen, I still think it was very important.) Do those of you T/TT faculty who read this blog have these conversations with your Ph.D. students?

    I am really not trying to sound callous or blame the receiving side, yet it seems to me that the deplorable adjunct conditions described here would not persist without a constant influx of willing victims. While I am all for making working conditions dignified for everyone, am I wrong in suspecting that there is chronic overproduction of PhD's in a number of fields? When combined with unreasonable expectations, this seems like a recipe for shattered dreams and economic misery down the road.

    P.S. My close family member is currently working on doctorate in History. The thing is: he is middle-aged, has a decently paying freelance job and hence financial insecurity is not an issue. He always studied History as a hobby and now wants to have a degree in it. He never had any illusions that this would lead to any gainful employment, and I do not see him falling into an adjunct rut. Maybe when he is retired – out of love rather than necessity, unless of course the union rules, seniority etc. will make it impossible.

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  15. Such a great piece, explains a lot about the surprising dearth of faculty solidarity in an era of adjunctifcation. One would expect tenured faculty to use their positions "for good", but the dynamics you describe -- all the other sorts of networks formed by the bulk of hiring being done off the tenure track -- have exactly these pernicious consequences.

  16. Very precise and thoughtful article albeit disheartening.

    Raises the key issue: one must strategize for dealing with formidable bad behavior, self serving acts, and outright resistance from TT faculty if organizing on behalf of adjuncts as a dept.

    Is there any way this site can weed out all the spam posts --- quite ironic to allow so many plagiarism services to post....

  17. Brilliant topic with different way of writing I am very impressed
    to visit here. Its highly appreciable job. Keep it up.

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