Professors with No Name

No commonly accepted name is used for the various types of professors who teach off the tenure track.

“Part-time” is really a misnomer, since it implies only a reduction from full-time but not any actual qualitative differences, while many of those labeled “part-time” may work full time at one college, or else teach full time by cobbling together part-time jobs at several colleges. And some of those who teach off the tenure track actually do hold full-time positions, either as teachers or researchers.

“Adjunct” is a common term, both inside and outside the academy.19 Webster’s first definition, “something joined or added to another thing but not essentially a part of it,” does not apply, given that adjuncts make up the majority of professors and are indisputably integral to the nation’s colleges.20 And Wikipedia’s definition of an adjunct professor as one who “does not hold a permanent or full-time position at that particular academic institution” certainly is not reflective of adjuncts who have taught for several decades at their institutions.21 While the Free Dictionary defines “adjunct” as “something attached to another in a dependent or subordinate position,” this definition might suggest the false impression that only a few professors, not the majority, fall into this category.22

The word “contingent” is another widely used term among adjuncts themselves, having been inserted, after much debate, into the moniker of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), which has held biennial conferences in different cities since 1998. The word “contingent” does have the advantage of describing the precarious nature of all those professors who teach off the tenure track, with their unpredictable income depending on enrollment and various funding sources.23 But one definition of “contingent” surely does not apply in many, perhaps most, cases: “not necessitated: determined by free choice.”

“Lecturer” is another term for those who teach off the tenure track. Where colleges have ranks, it is usually the lowest rank. It can be applied to both full-time and part-time teachers, including graduate students.

Perhaps the most all-encompassing term is simply “non-tenure track,” which makes clear the one thing that all of these professors have in common: they have been denied entry into the world of the tenure-stream professors. But it is not simply a lack of tenure that differentiates the two tracks. Virtually every aspect of employment is entirely different and unequal between them. Indeed, many of these professors, given how long they have taught, have been misclassified as “temporary” employees. While such a misclassification has hurt them, the colleges and the tenure-track faculty have benefited immensely.


The Two-Track Labor System

When people hear the words “part-time” or “temporary,” they usually assume that the worker is simply working fewer hours, for a short, definite term, perhaps to filling in until the employer can hire someone for a full-time, permanent position. But people often do not imagine that such an employee would receive much lower pay and be treated differently in every other way.

Yet the two-track system in academe does set up two entirely separate, but unequal, tiers in which the upper tier, the tenure track, is treated in a vastly superior manner to the lower tier, the non-tenure track, which is treated as inferior. Contingent faculty are often not temporary, some having worked for decades, and there is no automatic advancement to the tenure track.

In this section, I detail the many areas where the salaries, benefits, and working conditions of the contingent faculty differ widely from those of the tenure-track faculty. With a couple of exceptions (i.e., among members of the Vancouver Community College Faculty Association and the California Faculty Association), these vast disparities exist whether or not the campus is unionized.



In the Washington State community college system, full-time tenure-stream faculty averaged salaries of $56,334 a year in 2011–2012. If a part-time faculty member had taught a full-time load, he or she would have been paid only $34,364, or 61 percent of a full-time salary.24 But since the average part-timer is likely to be teaching only 50 percent of a full-time load, he or she is only earning $17,182 a year, or about 15 percent above the 2012 federal poverty guidelines for a family of two ($15,130) or 10 percent below the poverty guidelines for a family of three ($19,090).

In “The Ph.D. Now Comes with Food Stamps,” Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Stacey Patton cites estimates that 360,000 people with master’s degrees and doctorates are currently receiving some sort of federal aid.25 Dr. Melissa Bruninga-Matteau, a single mother who teaches college humanities courses in Arizona, has to rely on both food stamps and Medicaid to keep herself and her child alive. “I am not a welfare queen,” she protests, adding that “I find it horrifying that someone who stands in front of college classes and teaches is on welfare.”26

To put adjunct salaries in perspective, we can compare them to average annual earnings according to highest degree attained. According to the US National Center for Education Statistics, the median salary for workers twenty-five years old or older with less than a ninth-grade education was $17,040 a year in 2010; the median for those with some high school, but who did not graduate, is $19,370; the median for high school graduates was $28,070; the median for some college, but no degree, is $31,640; the median for those with two-year degrees was $36,390.27

Assuming the average adjunct who teaches halftime in the Washington State community colleges is able to earn $17,182 a year, he or she would be earning more than 10 percent less than high school dropouts. If she taught full time and earned $34,364 a year, he or she would still be earning 5 percent less than the students once they graduated from the community college. But contingent faculty have master’s and doctoral degrees, earned after putting in years of hard work, deferring income from a regular job, and graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. In 2010, workers with a bachelor’s degree had a median salary of $47,970; a master’s degree would earn $58,190; a doctorate $82,200; and a professional degree $91,200. The vast majority of graduate students take on large amounts of debt in order to earn their degrees. As many find out too late, student loans must be paid back; they cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

According to the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007–2008 graduate and professional students graduated with total debt ranging from $30,000 to $120,000, with an average of $47,503.28 People earning master’s degrees graduated with an average debt of $40,208; doctoral students graduated with an average debt of $58,967; and professional degree students graduated with an average debt of $98,711.29

Thus, many graduate students who decide on a teaching career face a bleak future, with little chance of landing a tenure-track job, as well as years of poverty-level employment and tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. Given this reality for 75 percent of college professors, how can it be that statistics still do not capture the true wages of non-tenure-track faculty?

There have been few attempts to compile data on the salaries of adjunct professors. The detailed annual AAUP salary survey, which is published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, continues exclusively to list the salaries of the full-time tenure-stream faculty, in large part because the Department of Education has not collected data on adjuncts.

In Washington, the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges publishes average annual salaries for the full-time tenure-track faculty, but not for the part-time faculty. Instead, the board publishes an average “annualized” salary that assumes the part-timer is working full time. But since union contracts prevent the part-timers from working full time at any one college, the figure is highly inflated and entirely fictional.

In 2000 the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, a coalition of twenty-five disciplinary associations, conducted a survey in ten social science and humanities fields. The survey found that adjuncts and grad students were teaching the bulk of the nation’s introductory college courses. Further, as Ana Marie Cox reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “elite Ph.D.-granting institutions are just as likely as community colleges to use nontenured or part-time professors in English and foreign language courses.”30

But the results of this survey, conducted by the opinion research firm Roper Starch, may very well have overinflated adjunct salaries. In conjunction with the coalition report, the Modern Language Association (MLA) released its own salary report, which named salaries for specific colleges and universities. Many of the elite colleges (such as Brown, Harvard, Yale, and Chicago) refused to respond to the survey. The response rate was only 42 percent, when the normal rate for returns was 90 percent.

William Pannapacker, who pushed for the MLA report, noted that the colleges that did respond were “probably the best of the lot. What are the other 50 percent doing? What do they have to hide? My hunch is that unethical practices flourish in secrecy in this profession.”31

The AAUP’s annual salary report for 2004–2005, prepared primarily by John W. Curtis, director of research, was the first time the organization attempted to address the issue of contingent faculty salaries. The survey cited the work of James Monks, who used 1998 data from the US Department of Education’s National Study of Postsecondary Faculty. Monks concluded that contingent faculty of all stripes are paid less than tenure-track faculty per hour, per class, and overall. In the words of the AAUP report, “Specifically, full-time non-tenure-track faculty are paid 26 percent less than comparable full-time tenure-track assistant professors, and part-time non-tenure-track faculty are paid approximately 64 percent less per hour.”32

But there are several reasons to believe even these low wages do not fully capture the extent of the disparity. The comparison is being made to lower-paid assistant professors, rather than to the average professor’s salary; Monks excluded short-term—and thus lower-paid—contingent faculty from his data; and he did not take into account the fact that while tenure-stream faculty routinely receive extra compensation in the form of health and retirement benefits, part-time faculty generally do not.

The AAUP’s 2005–2006 report tried again to estimate adjunct salaries, coming up with equally dismal figures. The AAUP concluded that if a single adjunct living alone was allowed to teach a full-time load, he or she would earn between 140 and 251 percent of the federal poverty level of $9,573 in 2003, depending on the type of institution where he or she taught. “Part-time faculty members with families to support would find their incomes closer to, or even below, the poverty level, which was $12,045 for a family of two in 2003, and $14,680 for a family of three.”33

While full-time faculty are paid a living wage that includes compensation for all of the hours they work, part-time faculty are usually only paid for the hours they spend in class. Thus, full-time, tenure-stream faculty are paid not only for their in-class hours, but also for their class preparation and their grading of exams, as well as office hours and curriculum development. Most part-time faculty also engage in these activities outside of class—but they are not paid for them. And nontenure faculty are almost never paid for the time they devote to research and professional development.

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