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Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System

by Keith Hoeller (Editor, Author)

Chapter 5


In 2009, Money Magazine published a survey titled “The 50 Best Jobs in America.”1 Their reporters analyzed job data and conducted an online survey of thirty-five thousand people, taking into account such factors as salaries, flexibility, benefit to society, satisfaction, stress, job security, and growth prospects. The proverbial college professor sat high on the list at No. 3, with a median salary of $70,400 for nine months’ work, top pay of $115,000, and a ten-year growth prospect of 23 percent. College teaching earned “A” grades for flexibility, benefit to society, and satisfaction, and a “B” for job stress, with 59.2 percent of surveyed professors reporting low stress.

While acknowledging that “competition for tenure-track positions at four-year institutions is intense,” Money claimed that graduate students with only a master’s degree could find a part-time teaching job: “You’ll find lots of available positions at community colleges and professional programs, where you can enter the professoriate as an adjunct faculty member or non-tenure-track instructor without a doctorate degree.”2

Similarly, the 2000 “American Faculty Poll” conducted by the academic pension giant Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF) seemed to corroborate the high job satisfaction rate for professors. “The poll found that 90 percent of the faculty members surveyed were satisfied with their career choices and would probably make the same decisions again,” reported Courtney Leatherman, in her Chronicle of Higher Education story about the survey.3

US Department of Education statistics on faculty salaries lend further credence to this portrait of the affluent college professor. In The Condition of Education 2009, the department stated that “in 2007-08, the average faculty salary was $71,100.”4 In addition, “the average compensation package for faculty was about $90,800, including $71,100 in salaries, and $19,800 [or 28 percent of their salaries] in benefits.”5

The department’s “Salaries of Full-Time Instructional Staff, 2008–09” indicates that “four-year public institutions reported that on average their staff earned an average salary of $76,126.” While there were two years (1999–2000 and 2007–2008) when professor salaries in public colleges and universities decreased by 1 percent, salaries overall increased by 22 percent, after adjusting for inflation, in the period from 1979–2008.6

There is one thing wrong with this aggregate picture, however; it ignores the one million professors who now teach off the tenure track and who make up 75 percent of all college professors. Indeed, Money’s portrayal of the professoriate has not been a true picture for the past thirty-five years.

Throughout the country, college administrators, often with the collaboration of academic unions, have gone to great lengths to keep their increasing numbers of adjunct faculty secret from students, parents, legislators, accreditors, foundations, and the public. Since US News and World Report started using the number of adjuncts to calculate their rankings in America’s Best Colleges, some colleges have not reported them to the magazine.7 Reporter Scott Jaschik writes:

If the factor that would-be students and their families care about is a percentage of full-time faculty, you can’t count on the numbers about research universities to be correct. The two universities with the top scores in this category (both claiming 100 percent full-time faculty) have both acknowledged to Inside Higher Ed that they do not include adjunct faculty members in their calculations. . . . But the two with 100 percent claims are not alone in boosting their numbers by leaving adjuncts out.

In 2004, Peter Umbach and Ryan Wells did survey contingent faculty about their jobs and found they were far less satisfied than the tenure-stream faculty: Reporting the results in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Schmidt wrote, “Adjuncts were about 7 percentage points less likely to be satisfied with their salaries, 14 percentage points less likely to be satisfied with their benefits, and 9 percentage points less likely to be satisfied with their jobs overall. Adjuncts were also 8 percentage points less likely to say yes to the question: ‘If you had to do it over again, would you still choose an academic career?’”8

Real dissatisfaction levels may in fact be much higher. In his 1987 Carnegie Foundation report, The Academic Life, Burton Clark writes, “What is certain is that part-timers slip through the cracks of national statistics in ways that cause them to be underreported. Many are ‘unrostered.’ Unless deliberately designed to find them, faculty surveys also largely miss them.”9 Adjuncts may also see little point in filling out a survey for fear their answers may not remain anonymous.

In this essay, I will paint a picture of the disparities in salaries, benefits, and working conditions experienced by the one million professors who currently teach off the tenure track. Though I have tried to use whatever data I could locate, there have been few efforts to gather statistics on non-tenure-track faculty. I have outlined the situation based on my own experience, having taught as an adjunct professor at over a dozen colleges and universities, both public and private, since 1972. I have also relied on knowledge gained through my adjunct activism on the state and national levels, and in my conversations with leading activists around the country.

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