Why the backlash against adjuncts is an indictment of the tenure system

BY Denise Cummins  August 29, 2014 at 12:29 PM EST
Photo by JulianBleecker.

Photo by JulianBleecker.

Editor’s Note: We’ve devoted a lot of Making Sen$e coverage to the struggles of adjunct professors, who make an average of $2,500 per course and often balance part-time teaching loads at multiple institutions to make ends meet. But many adjuncts used to make as much, and still teach as much and publish as much as tenured professors.

The backlash against adjuncts, Denise Cummins writes, is in part an acknowledgement from full professors of just how meaningless the tenure division is; they know their adjunct peers are just as qualified to be sitting in their offices as they are.

Cummins is a research psychologist who has held faculty and research positions at Yale University, the University of California and the University of Illinois, and is an elected fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. She’s written for the Chronicle of Higher Education and blogs at Psychology Today.

Making Sen$e first explored the tenure-adjunct divide in our segment on the graying of academia, where we met adjunct Joe Fruscione, who, like many adjuncts, found himself locked out of tenure-track positions because older faculty are staying on the job longer. We followed Joe in our deeper look at “adjunctivitis” on the NewsHour, and since leaving academia, he’s written about why students and parents should care about the plight of adjunct professors.

Cummins adds to those appeals, pointing out how the tenure system discriminates against adjuncts and women pursuing full professorships.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor


American colleges and universities are undergoing an historic upheaval. The major players in this upheaval are adjunct professors – Ph.D.s with excellent training and credentials who, by choice or by necessity, are working without tenure. They now account for over 70 percent of instructional faculty.

We weren’t all part-timers

The repeated assumption is that “adjunct” necessarily means “part time.” Not so. Many are full time workers with benefits. And their very existence threatens tenure faculty because their success shows it is possible to work without the possibility of tenure and still become internationally respected scientists, outstanding scholars, and instructors who earn consistently high teaching evaluations.

“I was full time. I had benefits. I made as much as some of the full professors.”

I know whereof I speak because I was an adjunct for many years at different institutions. I was full time. I had benefits. I made as much as some of the full professors. I had a decent teaching load — a little higher than the tenure stream, but not much. Over the course of two decades, I amassed a considerable body of research publications, received invitations to speak at top universities and research institutions in America, Great Britain and Germany, and was elected as a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science in recognition of my lifetime contributions to the field. I launched several very successful high-enrollment courses, and won praise from students in each. In a rational world, these accomplishments would mark me as a valuable employee and departmental asset.

But then came the economic downturn of 2008. State funding for higher education dried up and it became necessary to institute major budget cuts. That is difficult to do when the majority of faculty members hold tenure. Golden parachutes were offered to lure highly paid senior faculty to retire. Administrators found they could hire quality Ph.D.s for next to nothing in part-time positions with temporary contracts because there were so many Ph.D.s chasing so few jobs. And because these individuals had no choice but to accept such terms, the term “adjunct” became synonymous with “inferior academics whose duties should be restricted to ancillary teaching staff.”

And then things got just plain ugly. Adjuncts like me were seen by administrators and tenure faculty alike as enjoying too many perks, and a campaign was launched to “put them back in their places.” At my home institution, the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, the Board of Trustees Governance Statutes forbid lecturers and adjuncts to serve on internal governance committees, nor may they supervise graduate student education, even if their credentials rival those of tenured professors. They are forbidden to compete for internal research resources and may be excluded from teaching award competitions (despite doing most of the teaching). They are forbidden to hold research affiliations with the university’s prestigious Beckman Institute regardless of their research activity or accomplishments. This means that tenure stream faculty not only monopolize the lion’s share of departmental resources, they double their command of research and office space by holding affiliations with the Institute.

In my own case, administrators decided to summarily increase my teaching load, and to take away my office and laboratory. These were considered perks that rightfully belonged only to tenure stream faculty. After appeal, it was decided that I would be given temporary lab space but only insofar as I maintained a high level of research productivity — while simultaneously shouldering an increased teaching load.

I am a scientist. Curtailing my research hit me hard. Fortunately, I was in a position to simply retire. Many of my adjunct peers are not.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that mine was not an isolated case. Instead, what happened to me was part of an abrupt change in policy taking place in colleges and universities across the country. After perusing the 2014-2015 Academic Almanac, a “state of the industry” report published by the Chronicle of Higher of Education, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the reigning collegiate strategy is to take from those below in order to maintain or increase benefits for those on top.

The growing ranks of low-paid, temporary adjunct positions have encouraged exploited faculty to assert themselves through labor-organizing efforts across the country. Because colleges increasingly rely on adjunct labor, new Ph.D.s cannot find tenure-track jobs. In response, graduate programs have begun counseling Ph.D. candidates on how to find jobs outside of academia, and have themselves become targets of criticism for admitting too many students when job prospects are so poor.

This is what those on the bottom of the hierarchy are facing. For those on top, things look quite different. According to the Chronicle’s report, average salary increases for tenure-stream faculty members rose by 2.2 percent to $86,293. Among college presidents, the median compensation at public colleges was $478,896 in 2012-13. The report wryly notes the rise of the million-dollar college presidency, a phenomenon that was unheard of at public institutions less than a decade ago.

In the midst of this historical upheaval in higher education sits the 800-pound gorilla that no one wants to acknowledge: We got into this mess because of the tenure system, and we won’t get out of it until we revoke or dramatically revise the tenure system.

Why (not) tenure?

Tenure was established in the late 1700s to protect academic freedom at religious schools, but one need not have tenure to protect academic freedom. Unionizing would accomplish the same thing. Just look at the United Kingdom and Canada, where tenure was abolished in 1988. Yet British universities continue to enjoy high rankings according to the Times Higher Education, which lists the top 200 universities in the world, and the High Impact Universities Research Performance Index. According to Philip Altbach, a tenured professor of education at Boston College and contributor to the volume “The Questions of Tenure,” “the loss of tenure in the UK was more a symbolic loss than a real one.”

Tenure no longer constitutes the last bastion of protection for freedom of speech. Instead, it now means a guaranteed job for life — a privilege enjoyed by no other segment of the U.S. workforce. And there is a groundswell of academics who believe it has not only outlived its usefulness, but is unconscionable.

A survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA showed 32 percent of faculty (and almost half of women faculty) agreeing that “tenure is an outmoded concept” (p. 49). Even well-respected tenured faculty are against tenure. Mark Taylor, chair of the religion department at Columbia University and author of “Crisis on Campus,” has promoted the end of tenure, as has Andrew Hacker, professor emeritus of political science at Queens College and co-author of “Higher Education: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It.”

College students and their parents should also keep this in mind: There are no safeguards in place to ensure that tenured faculty remain abreast of current developments in their fields. Unlike other professions, tenured professors need not log required hours of continuing education in order to maintain a teaching license in the way, say, physicians must do in order to maintain their licenses to practice medicine. Once tenured, there is nothing preventing professors from simply retiring at full salary — teaching the same courses with the same (now outdated) materials they used when they were assistant professors, falling behind in their fields by never publishing another paper or attending academic conferences, and avoiding committee work. Since they cannot be fired, the biggest threat against them is a raise refusal.

Squeezing women of a certain age

“My tenure clock was restarted so that I had to go the entire six years to tenure, and no female scientist started a family in those days before achieving tenure. You do the math.”

There is one last reason why the tenure system is unfair, and should be put to rest. It disproportionately holds back female academics. Put simply, the tenure clock overlaps exactly with the biological clocks of both men and women, and women are usually the hardest hit.

First Lady Michelle Obama put it this way in her 2011 address to the National Science Foundation:

Women account for 47 percent of new Ph.D.s in the sciences, but only 28 percent of tenured positions… Family formation, notably marriage and childbirth or adoption of children, accounts for the major loss of female talent from the job pool between receipt of Ph.D. and achievement of a tenured position in the sciences.

I can put a human face on that statistic. I did not go straight on to graduate school after college. Instead, I worked as a financial analyst for several years before deciding to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology. I completed the Ph.D. at the age of 30. As a newly minted doctor, I received job offers from every place I applied, and I chose an assistant professorship at Yale. When I was 34, I left that position to take another assistant professorship at the University of Arizona so that I could live with my husband, a tenured professor. Although I negotiated my tenure clock, my teaching load, and my laboratory space, the university reneged on each of these. My tenure clock was restarted so that I had to go the entire six years to tenure, and no female scientist started a family in those days before achieving tenure. You do the math.

As I closed in on 37 years of age, I began showing signs of infertility, so my husband and I decided it was now or never. Like many of our generation, we underwent grueling infertility treatments and medical procedures, all to no avail. While pushing for tenure, I was also managing huge hormone swings from the hormone injections I was receiving, as well as grieving every time I suffered yet another miscarriage in the first month or two of pregnancy. When I finally collapsed from exhaustion, I decided I couldn’t do it all. I resigned my tenure track position, swapping it for a combined adjunct and research position that considerably lightened by load. My husband and I terminated infertility treatments. We adopted two lovable orphans who are now equally lovable and successful millennials.

The surprise came when my children entered elementary school and I decided to re-enter the tenure stream. I had a strong publication record to my credit as well as excellent teaching evaluations. Meanwhile, many of the people in my cohort at the University of Arizona had achieved tenure with accomplishments considerably weaker than mine.

But unlike them, I had the stigma of “adjunct professor” to my name. It didn’t take long to realize what that meant. To put it colorfully, being an adjunct is like having a scarlet A sewn onto your shirt: It is a mark that keeps you forever out of the tenure stream.

“To put it colorfully, being an adjunct is like having a scarlet A sewn onto your shirt.”

One senior female professor put it this way when I asked for advice about getting back onto the tenure track: “You’ll never get another tenure-track position because you wasted the first one.”

Another colleague I had known for years phrased it less delicately: “The problem is that you haven’t accomplished anything,” by which he meant I had not climbed the academic ladder like he had.

When the backlash against adjuncts arose at the University of Illinois, I asked my department head for a frank assessment of my chances of getting a tenure track position in psychology, which is consistently ranked in the top five psychology programs in the country. He told me, “There is no point in your applying for a tenure track position because you would not be competitive.”

This was a particularly jarring comment given that my H-Index (an objective measure of research productivity) was equivalent to that of all of the associate professors in his department and some of his full professors. Not to mention that my most recent book was well endorsed by heavy hitters at elite academic institutions. My strong teaching evaluations in the high-enrollment courses I had added to the curriculum didn’t seem to count for much either.

Such is the prejudice against adjunct professors. If an adjunct with credentials like mine can be so summarily dismissed as “inferior” by my peers, how can younger adjuncts, who have been denied research resources while carrying much heavier teaching loads during most of their careers, compete for jobs in academia?

But more importantly, doesn’t the existence of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of adjuncts like me count as evidence that tenure is unnecessary for achieving scholarly and teaching excellence? I think it does, and given the ferocity of the backlash against adjuncts like me in the academy, it is plain that my tenured colleagues think so as well.

Watch Paul Solman’s report on “adjunctivitis” below: