December 27, 2013

Goal Conflict and the Plight of Adjuncts

Adjuncts at colleges and universities work hard, teach the same types of classes as tenure-track faculty, but are paid very little and have almost no benefits or job security. 

In a blog post using some slightly dated data, Matt Bruenig takes a contrarian position.  Some of the key points are that many adjuncts want part-time status, do not want tenure track jobs (coupled with high research expectations) and many adjuncts have high-paying primary employment.  These adjuncts mostly teach a class or two on the side.  Katina Rogers provides some good counterpoints.  

My own personal experience with adjuncts has been mixed at Washington University in St. Louis.  In the Political Science Department we hire very few adjuncts.  In the past we’ve had a few adjuncts to cover classes, and most of them were similar to what Matt Bruenig described.  People who had employment elsewhere and wanted to teach a class or two.

More recently we have been offering different types of “postdocs” which are generally two-year appointments with a two or possibly three course teaching load.  These postdocs have been mostly allocated to our department to cover faculty on leave and to help cover a new environmental studies major in the department.  But we don’t see these postdocs as a long-term substitute for tenure-track positions.

Most of the tenure-track faculty see these postdocs as good PR for our department.  We do our best to integrate these postdocs into the department, let them give practice job talks just like our own graduate students, and hope they land great jobs. Many of these postdocs have gone on to get very good tenure-track jobs and I hope they would say that they benefited from their experience at WashU.  Adjuncts don't seem to have it so bad.

Last year I was assigned to review a “shop” housed in the humanities.  I use the word “shop” because there are many programs that are either housed outside of departments or bigger than departments.  This is often the case for university-wide writing courses or the teaching of foreign languages.

I was stunned at seeing this side of the university.  There were literally dozens of poorly paid instructors living the classic caricature of the plight of adjuncts.  Seasoned educators, mostly with Ph.D.s in hand, were paid shockingly low salaries with essentially no benefits or job security.  In most cases the instructors were told a few weeks ahead of time if they would be able to teach a section or two. 

These instructors lacked ownership over the classes that they taught. For these shops the curriculum and often the syllabus are designed by someone else.  While the instructors have some mechanisms of providing input, these feedback mechanisms don’t seem to take into account the enormous power asymmetry between adjuncts and heads of these programs.  Imagine a newly minted Ph.D., uncertain about his or her classes in the future, complaining to a very senior faculty member or administrator about the content of the course they designed.

I quickly realized for every two or three postdocs in political science, economics, and anthropology, there are dozens of adjuncts teaching English, Spanish, French…

This program at WashU had unique strengths and weaknesses, but I there are some systemtic problems for these shops built around adjuncts at any university.

The budget reality is that these are very big programs done on the cheap.  Obviously the University could spend more and hire more tenure-track faculty. But if the university was going to spend more, where should it go?  More faculty?  How about merit-based scholarships to low-income students?  What about further student services, ranging from tutoring to health services?  These are all worthy ways to use money.

Rather than debate these hypotheticals, let’s just assume the university isn’t going to radically change their model of spending and will just shift hiring priorities.  

Each year WashU has about 12-15 total hires in the arts and sciences.  Replacing all of these shops on campus with tenure track hires would probably take a few years of exclusively hiring in these departments.

Even if we allocated every single hiring line to one or two departments for five years it isn’t certain any department could implement hiring at this scale.  We generally think that our department (around 30 faculty members) would struggle to do our due diligence in anything more than three searches a year.  In reality, I think having two searches in a year is pretty taxing.

Equally important is the goal conflict at the university.  The university allocates hiring for a number of reasons, and covering undergraduate classes is one of them.  But goals of research, service to the university, training of Ph.D.s, and public outreach are all important.

Replacing these adjuncts with tenure track faculty would require a massive reallocation of resources.  At WashU this would mean a major reallocation of faculty hiring from the social and natural sciences to a small number of departments in the humanities.  New initiatives such as those on energy or economic development, and recently discussed resurrection of our Sociology department would all be shelved.

At WashU one of our top humanities departments is our German department.  Not only are they top notch researchers, they are probably a model department in providing service to the university.  But enrollments of German courses are quite low, and thus under this reallocation they would probably receive no new hires.

These are just some off the cuff thoughts, but I think what everyone can agree on is that these are huge programs with very poorly paid adjuncts.  But rectifying this requires either new money or a major reallocation of resources.

The obvious point is that there is goal conflict within any organization.  A major challenge for the university is when the demand for teaching doesn’t map onto other priorities of the university.  Adding more money to the university doesn’t solve this goal conflict.  

How does the university address this problem? I have no idea.  But I can think of at least one simple budget neutral proposal to at least address the job insecurity of adjuncts.

Given the massive demand for certain types of courses, there is no reason why adjuncts couldn’t be provided long-term contracts. While demand for courses varies from year to year, it doesn’t vary that much.  The university could probably provide 5 year contracts for 75% of the adjuncts in a writing or language problem.  Accidentally paying one extra adjunct or two in a year isn’t a major cost.

So this is a pretty small proposal for a major problem.  But most of what I read about adjuncts had no resemblance to the role of adjuncts in the social and natural sciences at my university.  I've just learned about the problem.  That is at least a starting point to help solve it.


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A very thoughtful post, and I'm glad I found it. I'd like you to consider benefits-eligible contingent faculty, too (non-tenure-track full-time or half-time, primarily, on repeating semester or one-year contracts). I've heard from some colleagues that they taught for long enough to be vested for tuition reimbursement for their kids, and then--lo and behold--when they're a year or two from needing it, their job gets cut for a semester or year. When they're hired back, they have to wait another 7 years to get tuition benefits, just enough time that they can't use it. The salaries for full-time lecturers are abysmal, as well. Almost all of us would qualify for Obamacare tax credits, because we're "low income." I'm sometimes floored that my students' entry-level salaries are routinely more than twice mine. The only raises available are cost-of-living increases, and even those don't show up every year. Most of us work second jobs outside of our primary job, unless we have very well-employed spouses. While I'm grateful to have health insurance and tuition reimbursement for my kids (should the university choose not to create a gap in my employment), and I know this makes my situation much more stable than my adjunct colleagues, it still has its issues.

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