How can we reform the adjunct system?

How can American academia’s adjunct situation be improved?  What’s the best way to address this humanitarian crisis?  Can we fix this labor disaster?

This question surfaced during a Twitter discussion today.  Several of us were criticizing the increased casualization of academic labor, and saw few ways forward.   Then VCVaile wondered,

hard to change attitude but is it impossible? what would it take?

asking the question

This is a great question. Indeed, it should be one of the leading questions for academia to answer today.

How, then, can we improve the situation of adjuncts?

Let’s brainstorm.  And let’s seed the storm with some ideas:

1. State governments could be the hero here.  One common suggestion (one I’ve made) is that we need to reverse the decline in state support for public higher education.  Simply put, if states stopped cutting their subsidies but, instead, increased their support for colleges and universities, we could expand the ranks of tenure-track faculty back to Baby Boomer levels.

Naturally this isn’t happening, except for rare exceptions, like oil-rich North Dakota.  State budgets are being squeezed by all kinds of forces, economic, ideological, and political.  Moreover, the politics simply aren’t there to reverse the course of defunding.  Additionally, private institutions wouldn’t be directly affected, although the overall market could pull them along.

But maybe, just maybe this adjunct reform could occur if the US economy started growing at a serious level and/or if we see a change of political climate.

2. Dean Hayes (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) argued that change is, in fact, possible if academics decide to improve the lot of adjuncts.  Specifically (and extracted from a series of tweets):

[I]t is possible

1. to maintain a TT majority-

2. to insure that NTT is a viable career option w salary, promotion—and job security, and

3. pro-rate PT salary on FT salary. It can be done.

I appreciate Hayes’ engagement on this topic, but am not sure I follow it.  By “TT majority” does she mean a political majority of tenure-track faculty, devoted to reform?  Or does she mean preserving a campus population where the majority of teaching positions are t-track (not the case, generally)?    Either way, Hayes seems to call for improving the status of adjuncts short of offering them tenure: better compensation, some advancement, security.  Perhaps adjuncts will evolve into lecturers, or full-time instructors will multi-year term contracts.

EDITED TO ADD Accidental Academic asks us to consider “pro-rated PT against FT salaries.”  In the comments section to this post Jack Longmate describes a situation where “all faculty, whether full-time or part-time, whether permanent or probationary, are paid according to the same 11-step salary schedule; that is, there’s equal pay for equal work”.

Is this adjunct 2.0 model possible? I imagine adjuncts organizing into unions is one way forward, assuming said organization works, and that campuses accept collective negotiation.  Brave groups like the New Faculty Majority can help here.  Maybe the AAUP could step up.

3. Imagine if PhD production drops.  That would eventually reduce the flood of well-credentialed grads, taking instructor supply down.  If supply and demand laws maintain, we should expect compensation to rise.  Maybe tenure will return as an extra later of compensation.

How could this happen?  We know research-1 universities are apparently pleased to keep on churning out graduated into a horrible market.  We know professional organizations, like the MLA, don’t want to stop this flow.  But perhaps these institutions will have a change of heart, once the optics become too unbearable.  Maybe another federal administration will encourage them to do so. Alternatively, the number of students applying to grad programs might shrink, as the future of adjuncthood presents too appalling a specter.

One economist thinks this PhD production drop might well occur once enough would-be professors make a rational economic decision.

4. Could a change in campus rankings drive administrations to improve the adjunct lot?  Rebecca Schuman raises this approach, asking US News and World Report to draw more attention to an institution’s faculty adjunct proportion.

If a college or university’s ranking—and concurrently, as others are calling for, even its accreditation—could be openly and seriously damaged by the overuse of contingent faculty, then and only then would students and parents actually begin to care, and they’d vote with their tuition. And then and only then would administrations actually begin to … well, “care” isn’t the right word. Let’s say they’d finally find something about contingent faculty to be concerned about, other than the union.

EDITED TO ADD – 5. What about cutting administrative expenses and diverting funds to better compensate adjuncts?  One way of doing this involves, as Accidental Academic suggests, “outsourc[ing] senior admin”.


Those are five ideas.  Which one or ones appeals to you?  Do you have another idea to offer?

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40 Responses to How can we reform the adjunct system?

  1. Reblogged this on National Mobilization For Equity and commented:
    Please add your ideas to Bryan Alexander’s brainstorming list about reforming the adjunct system, which he refers to as a “humanitarian crisis”

    • Thank you for doing that, national.
      I hope we elicit some ideas.

      • VanessaVaile says:

        Hi Bryan…actually, that would be me again. Peter Brown drafted me to help with the page. I told Jack to come over too and post about Program for Change. I see he did. Plus I posted to the adj-l list and the largest adjunct group on Facebook (Con Job)


      • Oh good!
        Any thoughts from the email list discussion, Vanessa?

        • VanessaVaile says:

          PS I’ll nudge again ~ there’s a bit of a brouhaha going on at the moment, unruly adjuncts resisting union exhortations not to be divisive


        • VanessaVaile says:

          none so far except Jack Longmate. He’s on it, but I contacted him directly to post about the Program for Change. Some from the Colorado Conference AAUP should too because they have been working on legislative solutions, most recently, Front Range Community College Chapter, AAUP, which made it through the 1st committee hurdle, lost in appropriations, but going out again this session.

                        Front Range Community College Chapter, AAUP Formerly known as the Colorado Adjuncts, the FRCC chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) welcomes all full-time and part-time Colora… View on Preview by Yahoo  

                        HB 12-1144 Signed Into Law By Governor Hickenlooper “It’s a Law.”  So proclaimed Governor John Hickenlooper after signing HB 12-1144– the enforceable contracts for contingent instructors bill–this afternoon at the … View on Preview by Yahoo    Before that Don and Suzanne Hudson worked on legislation for lecturers, HB 12-1144 Signed Into Law By Governor Hickenlooper


  2. I’m definitely an advocate for addressing the stability and benefits for current adjuncts by creating more full-time and benefitted teaching positions that aren’t necessarily tenure track. I’m torn about long term contracts, as this is something very few administrative positions get (unless you are unionized). I’m currently a senior level “manger” and work in an at-will position, and this works well for me. I suspect there would need to be a middle group between at-will and permanent appointment.

  3. jjpulizzi says:

    Some of my thoughts on your points.

    tl;dr — Either everyone is TT or no one is.

    1. I agree—more public funding to support higher education would be excellent. However, just giving more money isn’t enough, as it needs to be spent on instruction and supporting the faculty’s research and pedagogical development. As others have noticed (including Bain Capital), universities have been cutting FT/TT faculty for decades, but tuition and expenses continue to rise well-above the rate of inflation. More of that money is being spent on overhead, like administrative costs, athletics, and student services.

    2. Giving adjuncts and other contingent faculty better pay, job security, etc. in order to make it “a more viable career” seems like the humane thing to do, but the fact that being off the tenure-track needs to be a career already accepts as a fait accompli the need for massive numbers of contingent faculty. It used to be that institutions said adjuncts were professionals in their field who just wanted to teach a class here and there, or were artists/writers/etc able to make intellectual contributions to the university community but who didn’t follow the traditional academic path or have a PhD.

    Reading Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works makes that idea seem a bit naïve. Universities prefer the flexible labor that contingent faculty offer because it allows them to efficiently allocate the scarcer funds available for instruction. Being NTT already is a career for most academics, and indeed, the only one they are ever likely to know.

    I think TT faculty have been reluctant (knowingly or not) to help improve the job security of NTT faculty (to make it a more livable option), because the more attractive (or less hellish) the non-tenure track is, the more legislators, admins, and others can question why one needs tenure in the university at all. I’m not saying we have to have tenure, as other countries don’t while maintaining academic freedom (like the UK and Australia), but eliminating tenure is the logical conclusion of improving the working conditions of adjuncts and contingent faculty.

    In that case, you may as well be honest that the best path forward is to make everyone NTT and institute long-term renewable contracts, give faculty (at public universities anyway) other legal protections, or whatever else. I’m not too optimistic such an event will come to pass, because the tenured faculty are too afraid they will loose, rather than just share, their authority and privileges.

    3. I think Bousquet makes a compelling (albeit cynical) case that many universities aren’t admitting too many grad students. They’re admitting enough to cover the teaching responsibilities of the shrinking tenured faculty. The only problem is that these students get tired of living in poverty, graduate, and then expect a living wage in the profession they trained 5 to 10 years to join.

    • “Either everyone is TT or no one is” is a bravely utopian demand. Kudos for bringing it out.

      #1: good point, although I think it’ll be hard to cut down admin spending. So much of it is support: IT staff, librarians, maintenance, student life, etc.

      #2: yes. Especially important is “TT faculty have been reluctant (knowingly or not) to help improve the job security of NTT faculty”, although I’d add reasons of classism and academic hierarchy.

      #3 is terrifying, and might be right.

      Thank you for the Bousquet’ reminder. Maybe we should add that to the Exploded Twitter Book Club?

  4. Jack Longmate says:

    Vancouver Community College, the largest college in British Columbia, has a system in place that can serve as a model to reform the “adjunct system” in the United States. There all faculty, whether full-time or part-time, whether permanent or probationary, are paid according to the same 11-step salary schedule; that is, there’s equal pay for equal work.

    There is a transition to the equivalent of tenure status: If a probationary part-timer teaches at 50 percent for over two years, assuming satisfactory evaluations, he or she automatically becomes “regularized,” which is the functional equivalent of tenure.

    The chief determinant of workload assignments is seniority, and all faculty accrue seniority: those who are probationary accrue seniority on a pro-rated basis (those who teach at 30 or 60 percent of full-time accrue 30 or 60 percent of the seniority), while all those who are regularized accrue seniority at the full-time rate whether they teach full-time or part-time. That is to protect the seniority ranking of individuals who may prefer to teach part-time; that way, they won’t lose their seniority ranking to someone else who happens to teach more classes.

    The Program for Change is a strategic plan that is aimed a transforming the bifurcated two-tier system that is predominant in the United States into a single tier. It was co-authored by Frank Cosco of the Vancouver Community College Faculty Association. The document is posted at the VCCFA website and is at

    Over 30 goals are identified in the Program for Change–some, like equal pay, require expenditures. But the majority of goals involve either no cost or nominal one-time costs at startup. The document consists of 6 pages of text, 6 pages of tables, where the goals are set out and broken into segments, and a two-page glossary.

    Jack Longmate (
    Adjunct English Instructor
    Olympic College, Bremerton, WA

    • Jack, that’s fascinating.
      “equal pay for equal work” – what a concept! Does it draw on similar arrangements in BC’s K-12 system?

    • jrhoskins says:

      The Vancouver Community College system is the best idea for a rapid and equable transition from the exploitation of adjuncts to equality with tenure track. To accomplish this transformation we will need unions and faculty associations in all states to make it a priority.

  5. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    Glad to have been part of the Twitter conversation…now to continue the conversation…

  6. (Thanks for the longer format!) In response to the question above, yes to all 1-4.

    Yesterday I was trying to summarize in Twitter-style some of the main elements of NTT positions at UMass Amherst. I won’t claim that our set-up is perfect by any means, but it does seem preferable to a lot of what I see nationally. Between 2/3 and 3/4 of the faculty are tenure-system. Both TT and NTT faculty are represented by the same union. (The article by Eve Weinbaum and Max Page that I was recommending yesterday is an argument for one union for both TT and NTT.) For NTT faculty, on the positive side: decent compensation, with salary floor in the mid-to-low 50s; job security in the form of “continuing reappointment” after 4 years; the same bargained across-the-board pay increases and eligibility for merit pay as TT, and many of the same forms of professional development/ research support. The downside: salary scale is lower than TT, and, other than firing for just cause (under the same rules of the collective bargaining agreement as TT faculty) a position can be discontinued if it is either not replaced at all or replaced with a TT position. For some, the NTT track is a good fit; others find it confining and frustrating. Can we continue to make things better? Sure. But this is what we’ve managed to do with what we have in the current environment.

    Part-time compensation is prorated based on 1/8 the salary floor, so currently about $6400 for a single one-semester course.

    Some contextual elements: We are in a rural location, so we have relatively fewer part-time faculty and need to attract and retain FT faculty, whether TT or NTT. After a long period of gradual disinvestment in public higher ed (and a state that historically ignores public higher ed in favor of private higher ed), we’ve seen a turnaround under Governor Deval Patrick’s administration. Both faculty and administration–and most of us who are administrators have had long faculty careers–share the institution’s progressive tradition.

    • That’s fascinating, Julie.
      I’m impressed by the union representation across both TT and NTT populations. And also impressed that you seem to be on the same page with Vancouver Community College (see preceding comment), in terms of “equal pay for equal work”. Is that a correct reading of your 1/8th pay model?
      And do both full-time and part-time NTT faculty receive medical insurance through your university?

      • Andrew says:

        One of the key points here is to have a single union negotiating on behalf of all teaching staff. That tends to keep TT and NTT groups aware of the issues faced by the other group, and gives much more negotiating power with administration.
        We do not have this because we have an academic staff association for the “real professors” and a separate union for the contract instructors. The admin can practise classic divide and rule tactics during negotiations. It is also a slap in the face by the faculty – we are not worthy of joining their august ranks. So you need a progressive faculty union who don’t have such a “class oriented” mindset.

      • Benefits start at 50% employment (2 courses/ semester). As I mentioned above, there are relatively few PT faculty, and most of them reflect temporary situations. Because of the pro-rated salaries, there is no ecnomic reason to hire PT and in any case, it is in everyone’s interest to attract and retain FT faculty for the long term. We are state employees, so health benefits are excellent. I should note that the 4 courses/semester model is a construct; most FT NTT faculty in my college (Humanities and Fine Arts) teach a “4course equivalent”: 3-3 or sometimes 3-2, plus service responsibilities and participation in department governance. TT faculty usually teach 2-2 or 3-2 and of course have substantial research expectations in addition to teaching and service.

        The research expectation is where the “equal work” question becomes extremely delicate. I understand that there is a proposal floating around (I have contributed feedback and am on the record as generally supportive) for a “pathway to tenure” for research-active NTT faculty. I do not know if it is going to be on the table for the current round of collective bargaining, however.

        More on the MSP, and a link to the contract, at

  7. Tenuoused Faculty says:

    Thanks for this, Bryan! Bryan Alexander writes: “One common suggestion (one I’ve made) is that we need to reverse the decline in state support for public higher education.”

    Aye, there’s the rub.

    We are all of us pawns in a neoliberal vulture philanthropy game of chess. Not that we can’t do anything about this, but our recent reclassification as an oligarchy should signal that in order to improve the situation of adjuncts as listed above and those to come, we need to fight the neoliberal legislative assault on public education.

    (For starters, see both: and

    • Neoliberalism is definitely the master plot here, as we continue to privatize higher education.
      Note how that means a bipartisan political alignment around reform.

      If that’s correct, should those of us who wish to improve the awful adjunct situation turn to a populist politics?

  8. Andrew says:

    A conscious effort by institutions to move spending from new facilities intended to attract students, to investment in teaching staff would help considerably. The type of position created could be more TT positions, or it could be similarly rewarded positions in a teaching only stream. People not buildings, for a change.

    • That would take a brave group of college and university leaders, Andrew. Despite the Great Recession, the amenities arms race has continued!

      • Andrew says:

        And the current set of leaders have conspicuously failed to keep their eyes on the real mission of the University/College. Bravery is not a quality I would attribute to them, generally.

      • Ouch.

        I attended a fascinating conference on the future of the university at the New School in NYC a couple of years back. All speakers were deans and presidents.
        One wondered out loud if we could create campuses entirely about academic. No student life, no athletics, no clinics: just classes and research.
        Nobody took him up on it.

  9. its the wrong question. Instead, how do we provide what learners need without participating in a system that is archaic and enslaves our students and our adjuncts?

  10. I think a first step has to be to start making all Senior Administrator positions ‘part-time’. This means that they would have a better understanding of the position of adjunct professors while enabling their positions to be cut at short (or no) notice. At the university where I teach, between 2008 and 2012, full-time faculty (including temporary one-year or two-year contracts), increased by 7% for a 23% increase in student enrolment. Management, on the other hand, increase by 44% over the same period. Remember, the increase in senior administration positions usually mean an increased workload for full-time faculty who have to respond to the demands for ‘reports’ and ‘data’ and ‘feedback’ which these bureaucrats require to justify their position in the academy.

  11. Elizabeth Dalton says:

    At our institution, we have no tenure and almost no full-time faculty (and those who are listed as full-time faculty are generally in full-time staff positions that also carry teaching responsibilities). We are a publicly funded college. Our model is unusual, in that we primarily serve working adults, and we advertise that our courses are taught by professionals in their fields, so I think that rationale is used to justify our dependencies on adjuncts. Our adjunct pay is affected by the going rate for adjuncts at other institutions, though, so what the more traditional TT institutions do will affect our adjuncts, too.

    As I posted on Twitter, I see the plight of adjuncts as an example of the plight of contingent workers in general. More and more companies are choosing to hire part-time workers so they don’t have to provide benefits… or even guarantee hours. All such employment is “at will.” Workers are increasingly having to try to cobble together a living from several part-time contingent jobs, rather than one full-time, stable hourly job. This generally means lower wages, no negotiating power, and no benefits.

    Other developed countries tend to provide more social services outside of employment, so my friends in France, for example, can put together a living through freelance work without having to worry about losing their health care. Perhaps the Affordable Care Act will help with that here in the US. The broader social problem is that pensions are pretty much gone, long-term employment is a distant memory, and workers who are constantly shifting between multiple part-time jobs have even more obstacles to organizing than full-time workers in one shop. The UK just passed a law prohibiting “zero hour contract” employers from restricting their employees from seeking other work. The fact that they had to pass such a law is an example of how badly contingent workers are treated.

    There may be specific problems in academia related to the importance of academic freedom, but I don’t think these problems can be considered without looking at the larger context of contingent work. Equal pay for equal work would certainly be a good start, but who’s going to enforce it, or even advocate for higher adjunct wages when the top headlines are the skyrocketing costs of college educations and rising student debt?

    Would a higher minimum wage help? Possibly. Is anyone bold enough to set the floor at a livable wage? Probably not. Adjuncts usually aren’t paid hourly, in any case. (I try to avoid thinking about how low my effective hourly wage was when I was teaching as an adjunct.)

    Even the 1/8 floor payscale for adjuncts denies any acknowledgement that adjuncts gain value with experience.

    The trend in colleges and universities, as in private business, seems to be toward part-time contingent workers. I guess the question we should consider first is, should we fight that, or accept it, but try to make it more fair? I’m inclined to think that the flexibility offered by contingent work can be helpful to a number of people who previously couldn’t have participated in academic life at all, but that we need to make this a viable career option, not just an exploitative cost-cutting measure.

  12. The best suggestion is to cut the fat at the top – presidents and coaches make literally millions of dollars a year plus perks. Then equal pay and benefits for adjuncts can easily be paid for.

  13. anamfores says:

    One of the ways I think we could completely change our education is by looking at the power of cooperatives. Instead of having the usual high heads over faculty, lower administrators, personnel, etc., we would instead invest in a university where the workers — the faculty — become the owners; as such, they are the administrators, the teachers, everything. They participate in all management decisions, since they are the owners of the university. Moreover, the highest salary can be no larger than three times as much as the lowest salary. It is governed equally by students too, as well as by staff & faculty. The last third of governance would go to outside interested parties, usually folks in other coops similar to the university. All would believe in the transparency of governance, too.

    Hence, the idea of adjunct faculty would become a misnomer.

    Does this seem radical or insane? Far from it: it is an actual institution called Mondragon University, in the Basque country in Spain. The entire region is a mass of cooperatives, and the university is successful, as is Mondragon Corporation. While Spain has been suffering from extreme austerity measures, Mondragon Corporation — including its university and faculty (because all cooperative corporations are equal) — still has the highest employment rate of the country.

    Now when things go well, everyone does well, but in times of trouble — because the university is owned by its workers — they must all share that burden of trouble. Because of the austerity now in Spain, then, everyone is suffering. Still, if at the school workers are not happy with a certain administrator — the way he or she is doing things — that person can be ousted, because everyone has a vote as partial owner. No one would be making much more money than anyone else, whether president, faculty member, or janitor. And everyone has to work really hard so that everyone gets a good salary. Students too would know what they are paying for, because they would have a voice in the governance of the institution.

    This all certainly sounds seductive. And think, no more adjunct faculty…

    It may be a hard concept for many Americans to understand, but it does work. It has its problems, of course, but we might be interested in taking the best parts of a highly successful system, especially at its inception, to try to replicate it, and maybe to rejuvenate it.

    Pipe dream? Unrealistic? Maybe. But some things are definitely worthwhile to think about.

    (See and to find out more about Mondragon University.)

    Besos, not borders,

    Ana M. Fores Tamayo, Adjunct Justice
    Facebook Page:

    • A Mondragon campus: what a splendid idea, Ana. Are there any schools operating along these lines now?

      • anamfores says:

        Unfortunately, no. I do not believe so. The closest we have to emulating Mondragon University is looking at their cooperative style, and trying to function in a cooperative way. In Jackson, Mississippi, people there have started a cooperation based on the style of Mondragon; they have gone to Mondragon, Spain to study how they function as cooperatives. They have formed COOPERATION JACKSON and have been doing quite a lot in an impoverished area; unfortunately, there is still a lot to be done.

        As far as education, however, no one has decided to tackle that. We would need a lot of interested folks, and though many perk up everywhere at the idea when I mention it, one thing is talking about it, but another thing is doing.

        That seems always the case in point, the difference between talking and doing…

        Besos, not borders,

        Ana M. Fores Tamayo, Adjunct Justice
        Facebook Page:

  14. Pingback: On Fixing the Adjunct Crisis | Fractal Realism

  15. That’s a good challenge, Ana. I wonder if there are any co-ops at the K-12 level.

    PS: have you read Kim Stanley Robison’s recent science fiction novel _2132_? At least half of humanity lives in Mondragon co-ops by that point.

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