The Wal-Mart-ization of higher education: How young professors are getting screwed

More and more faculty at America's colleges and universities are underpaid and undervalued. Can that change?

Published February 16, 2014 11:59AM (EST)

  (Reuters/Kevork Djansezian /<a href=''>Zurijeta</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Reuters/Kevork Djansezian /Zurijeta via Shutterstock/Salon)

Excerpted from "Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System"

In 2009, Money Magazine published a survey titled “The 50 Best Jobs in America.”  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 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.”

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.

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.”  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.”

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.

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.  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?’”

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.” Adjuncts may also see little point in filling out a survey for fear their answers may not remain anonymous.

The Walmart-ization of academe

The surveys conducted by Money, TIAA-CREF, and others appear to turn a blind eye to the changes occurring in academe that Rich Moser has termed “the new academic labor system.” Under this system, according to Moser, “the explosion of graduate students and the abuse and overuse of adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty is the most prominent characteristic of a new employment strategy sometimes referred to as the two- or multitiered labor system.”

In the past thirty-eight years, the percentage of professors holding tenure-track positions has been cut nearly in half. Full-time tenure-stream professors went from 45.1 percent of America’s professoriate in 1975 to only 24.1 percent in 2011, with only one in six (16.7 percent) professors now possessing tenure.

In the meantime, the percentage of professors teaching off the tenure track increased from 54.8 percent in 1975 to 76 percent in 2011. In 1975, there were 268,883 full-time non-tenure-track and part-time professors, as well as 160,806 graduate teaching assistants. In 2011, there were 1,046,299 full-time non-tenure-track and part-time faculty, as well as 355,916 graduate assistants Part-time college professors went from 24 percent of the total in 1975 to 41.3 percent in 2011, with numbers now exceeding three-quarters of a million (761,996). From 1975 to 2011, the number of tenure-track and tenured professors increased by only 35.6 percent nationwide, while the number of part-time professors increased by 305.3 percent.

Wal-Mart seems to provide an apt analogy for the economic trend that has occurred in academia. Wal-Mart has become well known for keeping its number of full-time workers to a minimum, and hiring many part-time workers, with low pay, no benefits, and no job security. “There has been a widescale transformation of the faculty work force,” says Gwen Bradley, communications director for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). “It’s reflecting what’s happening in the economy in general. Some call it the Wal-Martization of higher education. It’s much cheaper in the short term to hire part-time faculty.”

While it is true that college and university revenue from state and local funds has been declining for several decades—even more so with the Great Recession of 2007–2009 and its aftermath—the academy has hardly been a distressed industry. Though the percentage of college and university revenue coming from state and local funds dropped from 35 percent in the 1975–76 academic year to 27.2 percent in 2000–2001, private grants and gifts grew from 4.8 percent to 9.1 percent, with overall revenue more than doubling from $141 billion to $293 billion (in constant 2005) dollars.

Academe has certainly not cut “production” in the past thirty years. Student enrollments increased by 60 percent from 1975 to 2005. Academe may be a growth industry, but it has nevertheless adopted the same business practices as corporate giants.

Wal-Mart has been the subject of several video documentaries, including "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" by Robert Greenwald, and David Faber’s "The New Age of Wal-Mart." Independent film producer Barbara Wolf has made two documentaries on the exploitation of adjunct professors: "Degrees of Shame" (modeled after Edward R. Murrow’s famous "Harvest of Shame," about migrant farm workers) and "A Simple Matter of Justice."

Though the devastating labor upheavals caused by the new global economy have been widely noted, this new academic labor system has been imposed with hardly any notice by the public at large. 


Flowing directly from the decision to pay contingent faculty less than the tenure-stream faculty is the negative attitude of tenured faculty toward their nontenured colleagues. Wandering into a faculty lounge at a community college, a tenured faculty member said out loud, “If an adjunct professor were any good, he would have landed a full-time tenure track position by now.” This tenured professor, who served as the grievance chair for the faculty union, did not seem to notice—or care—that an adjunct was in the room.

Such prejudice is the natural solution to cognitive dissonance, which holds that when people’s belief systems conflict with their behavior, they will sometimes modify their beliefs in order to justify their behavior. The problem posed for tenure-track faculty is this: how can they justify why they are treated so well while so many of their non-tenure track colleagues are treated so badly?

The tenured faculty member’s comment reveals ignorance of the fact that for decades there have been far more qualified applicants than there have been tenure-track jobs. But it is precisely this scarcity of full-time positions that leads those who have them to see themselves as the winners in some sort of social Darwinian landscape.

No one seems to have done a breakdown on the ages of new hires, but adjuncts nearly universally believe that the longer they are adjuncts, the less chance they have of ever attaining a tenure-track job. It is not at all unusual for tenure-track search committees, composed primarily of tenure-track professors, to ignore their own accomplished adjuncts and to hire “promising” young professors with few accomplishments.

In his book "Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank," Robert Fuller, former president of Oberlin College, has laid out the consequences of dividing people by rank. Echoing much of the feminist literature, Fuller describes “a disorder without a name”: rankism. Calling rankism “the mother of all -isms,” Fuller points out that neither differences in power or rank are in themselves the crux of the problem. Rather, “difficulties arise only when these differences are used as an excuse to abuse, humiliate, exploit, and subjugate. . . . The abuse of power vested in rank-holders takes the form of disrespect, inequity, discrimination, and exploitation. Since hierarchies are pyramids of power, rankism is a malady to which hierarchies of all types are susceptible.”

Fuller notes that hierarchies can be used to divide people between somebodies and nobodies: “Rankism insults the dignity of subordinates by treating them as invisible, as nobodies. Nobody is another n-word and, like the original, it is used to justify denigration and inequity. Nobodies are insulted, disrespected, exploited, ignored. In contrast, somebodies are sought after, given preference, lionized.”

Following Fuller, I think we can now give a name to the treatment of nontenured faculty by their tenured colleagues: tenurism. Like racism, which categorizes people by their race, and sexism, which categorizes people by their sex, tenurism categorizes people by their tenure status and makes the false assumption that tenure (or the lack of it) somehow defines the quality of the professor.

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. "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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

* * *

The two-track system is broken. Tenure-stream professors now find themselves adrift in a small, leaky lifeboat surrounded by an ocean brimming with contingent faculty who, prevented from climbing into the tenure boat, are forced either to tread water or else drown.

Even the American Association of University Professors has begun to speak of tenure in apocalyptic terms. In 2010, as the organization’s president, Cary Nelson said, “Today that system [of tenure] has all but collapsed.” He also wrote, “Now the average college teacher is no longer eligible for tenure, and the good ship humanities is already partly under water.”

Tenure is becoming extinct and nearly every week somebody publishes a story asking “Is College Worth It?” Still feeling the effects of the 2007–2009 recession, the answer appears increasingly to be “No!” It certainly isn’t worth it for the millions of students who forgo income and incur student debt to obtain a graduate degree in the humanities, only to find that there are no tenure-track jobs, and that their only options are one-year appointments or a lifetime of part-time teaching in the academic ghetto.

Excerpted from "Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System," edited by Keith Hoeller. Copyright © 2014 by Keith Hoeller. Reprinted by arrangement with Vanderbilt University. All rights reserved.

By Keith Hoeller

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