Adjunct Labor Should Embrace New Research

Last week, Boston University’s student newspaper, BU Today, ran an an article about a recent study from Northwestern University suggesting that non-tenure-track lecturers may be reaching their first-year undergraduate students more effectively than their tenure-track/tenured peers at Northwestern, a major research institution.

The article features an interview with BU associate provost Julie Sandell, who shared some thoughts on the implications of the study for other research universities like BU, but also highlighted some grey areas of the study’s findings and its wider applicability.


On the upside, what I took from the study is this: full-time university (off-tenure track) teachers with a salary and benefits, and without additional research obligations, are having a positive impact on first-year undergraduate performance and fostering continued student interest in their subject areas.

Nonethless, the study has already stirred up controversy. Some have interpreted the study’s findings to mean that off-tenure track professors are better teachers, as suggested by the very title of the BU Today article in question, “No Tenure = Better Teacher?” Taking this interpretation any further will only create more tension than there already is between tenure-track or tenured faculty and the adjunct labor movement.

Initially, I was dissatisfied by what was not addressed by the study — the exploitation of part-time faculty, the perils of living the adjunct life and the negative impacts the growing reliance on part-time faculty labor is having on the quality of undergraduate education across the nation. I was not alone in having this reaction (see this letter to The New York Times).

However, upon further reflection (and after reading the study, as opposed to relying on its representation in BU Today), it became clear that the findings of the Northwestern study are worth considering on their own terms.

First of all, it’s important to note that the Northwestern study only included full-time non-tenure-track lecturers. Part-time faculty such as adjuncts, visiting professors and graduate teaching fellows were excluded from the study. Associate provost Sandell points this out in her interview and elaborates further on one set of distinctions that exists at BU: non-tenure track professors who get the same benefits and pay as tenure-track professors versus lecturers who “earn less.”

The authors of the study claim that their test case, Northwestern University, employs mostly full-time lecturers (making it unrepresentative of national statistics that show that more than 70 percent of the ‘contingent’ academic workforce is part-time), which may explain why part-time or “one-off” lecturers were explicitly excluded. In fact, it is not entirely clear why the authors of the study chose to exclude part-time faculty.

But far from suggesting that universities continue eliminating tenure-track jobs and replace them with permanent part-time faculty, the research suggests that full-time lecturer positions in a major research institutional setting may offer a real solution to the challenge of the research institution’s dual tasks: to provide both quality undergraduate instruction and to produce cutting-edge research.

I propose that administrators, faculty and especially adjunct labor movement supporters view these findings as an opportunity to think about how to change the current direction of staffing university lecture halls, labs and seminar rooms in ways that simultaneously benefit students, faculty, and institutions of higher education.


BU Today’s rash coverage of the Northwestern study offers an opportunity for the wider adjunct labor movement to reflect on and respond to the study. First, the community should ask, what does the study’s findings mean for the way universities value non-tenure-track faculty?

The fact that BU associate provost Sandell found the research findings surprising is telling: non-tenure-track faculty is being underestimated and undervalued as an integral part of the university teaching staff.

In response, adjunct labor should note that the research offers a new talking point: Expanding the “professional lecturer paradigm” (as one professor called it) is a pragmatic approach to changing currently woeful university staffing practices.

According to national data, in 1970 just 18.5 percent of professors were working part-time, in all institution types. Between 1975 and 2011, the number of part-time faculty has grown by over 300 percent. Today, part-time faculty in two and four-year degree-granting institutions represent 75.5 percent of the “instruction workforce.” This workforce is widely referred to as “contingent” faculty.

Within this contingent workforce are the adjunct professors who make an average of $2,700 per course with no benefits. Some universities make sure that their adjuncts stay part-time to avoid offering healthcare benefits, even under the new Affordable Care Act employer mandate. But why are universities moving away from the tenure model and replacing it with contingent faculty positions? Budgetary concerns seem to be the only clear answer. For many of us following the issue, it is hard to see how such a shift in staffing practices can be justified by budgetary issues. For example, the UC Student-Workers Union provides concrete data that seriously calls into question UC budgetary priorities.

Another explanation is that there are not enough tenure-track positions and too many qualified applicants. Adjuncts fulfill various temporary staffing needs by offering courses in line with student demands, or in response to unforeseen circumstances. One professor wrote to the Times: “We cannot afford to pay adjunct faculty as much as tenure-track faculty because their jobs generally don’t include bringing in external dollars that help keep the whole enterprise going. At a time when state legislatures keep cutting back on resources to universities, I don’t see that we will be able to resolve that discrepancy anytime soon.”

Perhaps. But frankly this seems like a weak argument for the continued exploitation of adjunct faculty at the expense of quality of education. The Northwestern research should actually force us to start talking about leveling the academic playing field for contingent faculty members who are fulfilling a very important role in higher education. The answer lies in devising a complementary workforce to tenure-track/tenured faculty that both reduces their teaching obligations and provides real career opportunities for off-tenure track instructors.

Fortunately, a recent article published by reveals a new report to Congress detailing these core issues with — believe it or not — quantitative and qualitative data supporting the adjunct labor movement’s claims. The formal acknowledgement by Congress of the widespread exploitation of adjunct labor is encouraging. This report alongside the Northwestern study and the BU Today article raise important issues that ought to become a part of our ongoing discussion regarding the adjunct labor movement and why it should matter to undergraduate and graduate students, part-time and full-time faculty, university administrators and higher education policymakers.

photo credit: Sean MacEntee