Father James F. Keenan, SJ

The scandal of ‘contingent’ faculty

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

In my Feb. 11 column, I wrote about race and diversity on U.S. college campuses. Now I want to look at another campus population, the faculty. 
In higher education today, we distinguish between two types of faculty. On the one hand, there are tenured faculty and new professors hired to apply for tenure at the end of their six-year “track.” On the other, there are those classified as “contingent” or “adjunct faculty.” 

By all estimates they now are the “New Faculty Majority,” as an advocacy organization for contingent faculty calls itself. Indeed, in America there are more contingent faculty teaching than tenured and tenure-track faculty.

This situation is new. Since 1992, the average amount of time for tenured professors’ teaching has diminished. As Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University notes, “the decline appears to have resulted from a reduction in the number of classroom hours required of the (tenured) faculty.” This reduction arose as a tradeoff for increased demands on tenured faculty to publish and to handle more administrative tasks.  

Bok adds that emphasis on research has made faculty much more specialized and that therefore “most faculty members prefer to teach the kinds of specialized courses and seminars that are aligned with their scholarly interests. Not surprisingly, teaching what professors know best does not always coincide with what undergraduates most need.”

As a result, many of the courses that today’s students need, like introductory and foundational ones, “core” courses and a host of other basic courses are taught by contingent faculty. 

Adjuncts work as they do not because it’s lucrative, but because they find teaching rewarding. Some may lament that they do not teach as well as tenured faculty, but that is not true. In fact, a recent study from Northwestern University found “consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from non-tenure-line professors in their introductory courses.”  

The differences between full-time and part-time contingent faculty are remarkable. For years, universities have been hiring part-time contingent faculty but are only now in the process of doing it, in some places, rightly. For instance, a few major universities have recently provided greater professional and financial security to contingent faculty by hiring them full time and giving them entry to a new system that parallels the tenured and tenure-track faculty: they have multi-year renewable contracts, promotions, merit-based raises, health-care coverage and in some cases, voice and vote in the department. These contingent faculty are not in the majority in the United States today. 

Most contingent faculty work part time. Many public and private universities, especially community colleges, depend on contingent faculty who are willing to work according to whatever terms the college or university offers. Years ago, the New York Times published the story of one typical part-time contingent faculty who taught nine courses at five different colleges. Her commute was about 200 miles a week and she either shared an office with 16 other adjuncts or had no office at all.

Stories of the impoverishment of contingent faculty are embarrassingly common. In 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported stories of adjunct professors needing food stamps, welfare and Medicaid. In 2013, CNN referred to contingent faculty as “the working poor.” As the Democratic Staff Report of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce concluded in January 2014: “In short, adjuncts and other contingent faculty likely make up the most highly educated and experienced workers on food stamps and other public assistance in the country.” 

Most tenured faculty do not know the actual working conditions of their adjunct colleagues. This is because university decision-making is marked by a considerable lack of transparency and accountability. Not only that, but every department has its own hiring policies that are decided by the dean. A department chair simply carries out the dean’s decisions, often not knowing how other departments proceed. 

Most tenured faculty do not (yet) show much interest in the working conditions of their colleagues. Such is the situation today at U.S. colleges and universities that teach ethics, but have not realized (yet) that they need to practice ethics. 



  • colleges and universities