When Jeremy Nienow started a Ph.D. program in anthropology at the University of Minnesota in 2003, he thought being a professor would offer him more time with his family than his travel-heavy job as an archaeologist. But academia turned out to be not as Nienow had imagined. Now graduated, Nienow teaches six courses as a part-time instructor at three different institutions. He spends much of his time on weekends grading papers instead of with his daughter. He jumps from one campus to another, has no office and does not receive either health or retirement benefits.
“I take work wherever I can get it, in any form I can get it,” he said.
Nienow is among 391,000 part-time or “adjunct” faculty at community colleges and public universities, positions that have increasingly replaced full-time, tenure-track jobs. Despite being the source of most of the teaching at colleges, these short-term appointments pay only about a fourth as much, per course, as tenure-track positions, seldom come with benefits and offer little job security or possibility of advancement. Like Nienow, many adjuncts and part-timers are obliged to travel between campuses to scrape together a living, unable to pursue the types of research questions that first attracted them to academia.
“I have absolutely no time for research,” Nienow said.
The percentage of “contingent faculty”–a term that includes part-timers and full-time, non-tenure-track lecturers–on university payrolls has risen from around 43 percent thirty years ago to 70 percent in 2005. The rate of these hires at many colleges has only accelerated amid the economic downturn. To cash-strapped educational institutions increasingly run like corporations, adjuncts and part-timers are cheap labor–stopgaps in university budgets.
“We’re the flex faculty,” said Niame Adele, a sociologist and part-time instructor at the University of New Mexico.
Call them flexible or fungible, it is precisely this vulnerability that makes part-timers and adjuncts an expedient solution to budget shortfalls.
“The big picture is that all institutions are employing more and more ‘casual’ employees,” said Marc Bousquet, author of How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. “The crisis legitimates the option of bringing on more nontenured faculty.”
Hard numbers are not yet available, but experts say the recent trend cuts across public universities and community colleges. Two-year institutions across the country–long at the forefront of the “perma-temp” trend in higher education–are replacing full-time faculty with part-timers or adjuncts to meet budget goals. The University of Connecticut, facing a 10 percent cut in state funding and a 22 percent drop in its endowment, is looking at hiring adjunct faculty to shore up course offerings and keep student-faculty ratios low. In Tennessee, Charles Manning, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, proposed what he called an expansive “new business model” for state colleges: in addition to hiring more adjunct professors and putting full-time staff in “advisory roles,” he suggested that students get tuition breaks for taking courses online and that advanced students take on some of the teaching load.