We’re here to teach and do research

Would you like to spend 10 years in higher education getting an advanced degree so you can work part time at poverty level wages? That’s the situation many are finding themselves in, as this article on the adjunct crisis explains.

Nowhere has the up-classing of contingency work gone farther, ironically, than in one of the most educated and (back in the day) secure sectors of the workforce: college teachers. In 1969, almost 80 percent of college faculty members were tenure or tenure track. Today, the numbers have essentially flipped, with two-thirds of faculty now non-tenure and half of those working only part-time, often with several different teaching jobs.

Why this should be so is not immediately obvious. Unlike the legal and the traditional news industries, higher education has been booming in recent years. Nor does higher ed seem to follow the pattern of other industries being transformed by contingent employment. In his book The Fissured Workplace, David Weil of the Boston University School of Management (and currently the administrator of the U.S. Wage and Hour Division in the U.S. Department of Labor) writes that the growth of contingent employment is being driven mostly by firms focusing on their core businesses and outsourcing the rest of the work to contractors. But teaching students is—or at least is supposed to be—the core mission of higher education. That colleges and universities have turned more and more of their frontline employees into part-time contractors suggests how far they have drifted from what they say they are all about (teaching students) to what they are increasingly all about (conducting research, running sports franchises, or, among for-profits, delivering shareholder value).

It doesn’t really get into the declining support for state universities from our government, but yeah, I can see how that’s a good point. I am fortunate to be at a university where sports are a very low priority, and where teaching is much more important than research, and our percentages of tenure vs. non-tenure faculty makes us look like we’re living in 1969.

However, I don’t know that research represents a drift away from what universities are all about. Before WWII, universities were engines of basic research — professors were hired for their expertise in a field, which made them competent to teach a subject, but also meant they were trained for, committed to, and loved that subject, so of course research was an important role for them. Consider Edwin Conklin, for instance: he worked in an era before big government grants were a thing, was strongly invested in teaching, and every summer he skedaddled off to a marine biology laboratory to stare at sea squirt embryos, and even after he retired he was working, working, working in developmental biology. You are not going to hire great teachers who are competent to teach the most advanced topics in a field if you’re not willing to hire people who want opportunities to do research. It really is part of the job.

(By the way, during and after WWII there were changes made to increase the importance of basic research and tap into the talents at universities by throwing much more money at them — NSF and the NIH, for instance, skew universities’ perspective on the value of teaching vs. research. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the system is still trying to digest the changes.)

That, however, is also one of the ways the adjunct system is screwing over the professoriate. Adjuncts don’t get to do much research. They get assigned heavier teaching loads, and are paid so poorly that may have to moonlight at other jobs (or piece together more and more adjunct assignments), so they don’t get the opportunity to do the research that makes them valued for those more difficult, upper-level teaching assignments.

So don’t belittle the research role of universities. That shouldn’t go away. But I agree that there should be better integration of research with teaching and vice versa, and that adjuncts and part-time instructors ought also to be given the respect and opportunity and support their position deserves.


  1. consciousness razor says

    Before WWII, universities were engines of basic research — professors were hired for their expertise in a field, which made them competent to teach a subject, but also meant they were trained for, committed to, and loved that subject, so of course research was an important role for them.

    But this doesn’t tell us about the proportion of the work which was devoted to either teaching or research, only that there was some of both.
    I bet there would be different answers for different departments, but if we just think in general terms for the moment…. Was it 1:10, 1:1, or what? It’s hard to be very precise, but I would say the situation now is very different. My impression is that research used to be a much smaller part of the workload, perhaps even done independently when the university was only paying you for teaching students.

    You are not going to hire great teachers who are competent to teach the most advanced topics in a field if you’re not willing to hire people who want opportunities to do research.

    This is simply false. There are tons of great teachers who aren’t researchers. You know that, and you’ve said as much in the past.
    Let’s also not fall into the meritocracy trap: it’s not true in general that “professors were hired for their expertise in a field, which made them competent [blah blah blah].” They actually got hired for all sorts of bullshit reasons, although occasionally the process involved slightly less bullshit. We shouldn’t be painting such a romantic picture, about how committed they must have been and how much they must have loved their subjects. But even if all of that were totally accurate, it still would not indicate that plain old teachers aren’t committed to it and/or don’t love it, since they were not even in the picture to begin with. There just doesn’t seem to be any logic to this.

  2. garnetstar says

    The way to fix adjunct and part-time abuse is the way my university has: a strong faculty union. It’s part of the state teachers union (recently damaged by SCOTUS, as all public unions were).

    The union contract here specifies that, if a course is taught for two semesters by an adjunct or part-time person, the next time it’s taught it must be by a professor or hired lecturer. The lecturer position can be part-time, but it’s a real job, with salaries negotiated by the union, with a hiring period of at least three years, and with raises, benefits, and the possibility of promotion to senior lecturer, which has almost the job security of tenure.

    Otherwise we’d be sunk in the adjunct mess as well, the administration is so short-sighted. For one thing, with a long hiring period, the lecturers can engage in research. And, they are usually re-hired for longer periods after the initial one. Job stability produces both better teaching and better research! If only most administrations could figure that out.

    Unions are everything.

  3. says

    Before WWII, there is a distinct difference in the literature: lots of lengthy monographs rather than short articles. Conklin, for instance, might have failed in a modern research university — he’d publish every few years in the form of a massive monograph, but he’d also speak at conferences every year. I also have the impression that research was a smaller part of the workload, because much of it had to be done in the summer and on sabbatical leaves. In the old days, this also meant you had to be a gentleman (no gentlewomen) scholar of independent means who could afford to do research.

    I’ve been on many hiring committees. It’s true that there’s a lot of crap in the process, but really, it is ultimately about expertise. Do they have a solid record of teaching and research? Can they give a good talk? Are students enthusiastic about their work? That’s the standard method.

    Although I have witnessed deans at large schools who hired research faculty on the basis of the size of their grants. Just not at this university. Those privileged hires also tend to be terrible teachers who buy their way out of their responsibilities, putting an extra burden on their colleagues.

    I am not disparaging teaching ability on its own. I’m saying that upper level course might require an investment of time and commitment to prepare that you are not and never have been compensated for, and that the only motivation you may have is a love of the field.

  4. says

    I was witness to the whole process. Sports took over and rarely makes money, so they suck it out of the rest of the university. I could give example after example. Then state governments cut funding and university presidents were hired for fund raising, not dedication to academics. They were MBA trained CEOs. So they cut staff at the front line, padded the admin and increased their own salaries. Exactly that happened at Metro State in Denver. Just what they were trained to do in their MBA programs. Most of the schools where I taught–every community college in the Denver area–were 80% adjuncts. Every one. And they treated us as indentured servants. Tried to limit the number of classes one could teach, fearing if we went over 12 hours we’d successfully sue for benefits. Tried to keep us from filing for unemployment between semesters–we won that issue. They screw with our pay.

    One school made it very clear what they thought of adjuncts and I’ll bet others could tell a similar story. One of my students wrote the school–Red Rocks Community College–telling rapturously what a great teacher I was, inspired her to stay in college, etc, etc. the sort of letter every teacher would love to get. She sent me a copy. And gave me a copy of the school’s response. “Thank you for your compliment to our teaching staff…” Not a mention of me. Never forgave them and always advised students never to transfer there. One reason I went into historic preservation instead.

  5. zoniedude says

    I was in college in the early 1960s, went back on the G.I. Bill in the 1970s, then did some graduate work in the 1980s. I came away with two observations. Some of the best courses I took as an underclassman were taught by adjuncts because they typically were people actually working in the profession while teaching on the side. Too many other teachers of underclassmen were ignorant graduate students. Second, after I went back to college after graduation I too had acquired real world experience and when taking beginning economic courses I would divide my notebook with a vertical line and on the left I wrote what I was being taught while on the right I wrote what I knew was actually true.

    I became obsessed with microcomputers when they first came out and how they focused on user interfaces. There came to be a term “mainframe attitude” that reflected computer programmers who disdained the users. When microcomputers became widespread in the 1990s I noticed how corporations started laying off mainframe programmers who then were hired as university computer professors who instilled the mainframe attitude into their students.

    Ideally professors should be the leading edge experts but too often those are the people who cannot teach. During the oughts I was working in education research an found an emerging school of thought among professors about moving away from the lecture and utilizing more effective teaching strategies. So my observation is that universities today are caught between people who can teach and people who can get grants to fund research. This mostly affects graduate students while the underclassmen are better off with adjuncts who actually work in the real world.

  6. says

    Forgive me if you feel this is highjacking, but I just wrote a post reacting to this over at my blog.

    Shorter me?

    People seem to want to talk about everything except racism & sexism when discussing the adjunct crisis, even though the very article PZ quotes cites 1969 as the high-water mark of the full time professoriate.

    Ph.D. programs generally take 4-5 years to complete, though they can take significantly longer. The Civil Rights Act with its provisions for non-discrimination in higher ed was passed in 1964. 5 years later we still have a very strong professor class. Then as Ph.D. programs begin admitting people with less regard to race and gender, the graduates of those Ph.D. programs are valued less and less.

    Why is it that people seem to forget everything that they know about racism & sexism every time we start working on a problem that is just slightly different from problems we already know are impacted by racism & sexism?


    Why is that?

  7. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    CD@8, Actually, I made a related observation back when I was in grad school. The percentage of women in physics was thoroughly stuck at 2-5% (depending on whether you talk about PhDs, or BS). However, there were some countries–e.g. Portugal and Italy–where the percentages were 20-30%. This was back in the ’80s, and Portugal and Italy were not known as bastions of feminism and equal rights, so I asked some Italian collaborators from my experiment. They explained that physics was not considered a prestige field like the law or medicine, so it was more open to women!

    Alas I saw this trend coming, and so, after a few years in academia and then science journalism, I went over to the dark side and worked in industry and applied physics where I make double what I’d make in academia, despite being an employee of the ebil gummint, and so underpaid for my profession. I miss teaching…but not enough to take a 50% pay cut, at least not until I retire.

  8. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Yeah, the decision to leave academia wasn’t purely about money. I found that teaching in a small college didn’t afford much in the way of research opportunities, and my friends who were at larger universities were decrying that the pressure to publish was preventing them from teaching as much or as well as they’d like.

    Science journalism was a good gig. It meant I had to learn a new subject every month sufficiently well that I could talk to a Nobel laureate about his research without appearing to be a complete imbecile. However, not very remunerative and still no chances for research. A friend suggested I interview for a job in industry, and to my surprise, the subject looked interesting, there was at least some opportunity to do research, and the starting salary they offered was a 73% increase over what I was making in publishing.

    The agency I work at affords me quite a lot of opportunity to do tutorials–mostly for upper management (lots of pictures), but some for young engineers (yeah! equations!).

    However, to your point @8 above–what people hold in esteem is baffling and culturally dependent. The exact same work with the exact same skillset can be valued differently by a substantial amount depending on the culture, who is doing the work and the sector in which the work is done. If I were a real moneygrubber, I’d do the same sort of statistical modeling I do on Wall Street and make ~10x more money.