In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Adjuncts in Higher Education in the United States

  • Introduction
  • Basic Background Information
  • Policy and Administration
  • Working Conditions
  • The Quality of Adjunct Teaching
  • Protesting, Organizing, and Unionizing
  • Gender and Class
  • Databases and Other Key Resources

Education Adjuncts in Higher Education in the United States
Tobias Hecht, Isabel Balseiro, Daniel Maxey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 January 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0136


Although teaching remains the province of tenured and tenure-track professors in some elite colleges and universities in the United States, this arrangement is increasingly anomalous in many other institutions of higher learning. “Contingent professors” (here used interchangeably with the term “adjuncts”) refers to anyone teaching at the tertiary level who is not in the tenure stream. This entry refers principally to those with higher degrees who are paid by the course. The shift away from the tenure system may not have been as rapid as is often thought (it dates back at least some decades), but it is a sweeping change. Contingents now constitute a significant majority of academics. In 1969, over 78 percent of faculty were tenured or tenure-track; by 2009, that figure had declined to about 33 percent. Research faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows are not included in those figures; if they were, the overall representation of adjunct or contingent faculty in higher education would be considerably higher. Most contingent professors teach for a living; some may hope to land a tenure-track position. Others have full-time jobs and teach out of pleasure; yet others, having reached the end of their careers, prefer to teach at a more leisurely pace. Some do it for a short time, whereas others make a lifelong career of it. A considerable portion of non-tenured teachers in the United States are international graduate students or postdoctoral scholars, many of whom have financial, immigration, and communication challenges. What these educators have in common is that their jobs are insecure and can be terminated without review or explanation. The pay is low, sometimes close to minimum wage if examined on an hourly basis; more often than not, those paid by the course receive no benefits. Once hailed as the road to equality, higher education is now imparted in a context of stark inequity—a two-tier system in which some have a job for life, and others can be dismissed at any time. When the policy of paying faculty by the course is defended by institutional leaders, it is often with reference to the purported goal of achieving a certain nimbleness in matching the workforce with changing enrollments, the need to balance budgets, and an alleged surplus of scholars with advanced degrees. However, the inequity in pay, benefits, and working conditions is so stark that discussion of adjuncts has moved beyond the mere denunciation of their working conditions to an increased interest in improving those conditions. Nevertheless, the status of adjuncts raises many questions. How does this policy affect student learning? What does it mean that most professors now lack traditional academic protections of freedom of speech? Is it acceptable that the majority of academics are excluded from institutional decisionmaking while also lacking any clear path toward advancement on the job? Are unions addressing the needs of adjunct professors?

Basic Background Information

Points of entry to the study of adjunct teaching are quite varied. Gappa and Leslie 1993 treats the work of part-time faculty from many angles, highlighting their heterogeneity, making this a helpful place to start; Baldwin and Chronister 2001 is another useful starting point. Cross and Goldenberg 2009 studies adjuncts at elite institutions, where they are least understood. The American Association of University Professors 2014 offers a cogent summary of the conditions of adjunct professors and makes the case why their usual treatment is an affront to the mission of higher education; Kezar and Maxey 2013 also offers a succinct introduction to the topic. Baldwin and Chronister 2001 maps the policy challenges in accommodating adjuncts. Two starkly different portraits of adjuncts are offered by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce 2012 (cited under Working Conditions), on the one hand, and Fountain 2005, on the other; the former is quite objective, whereas the latter is animated by the author’s own experience as an adjunct.

  • American Association of University Professors. 2014. Background facts on contingent faculty. American Association of University Professors.

    Sketches the prominent data about contingent teaching and proposes a series of arguments as to why it is unjust.

  • Baldwin, Roger G., and Jay L. Chronister. 2001. Teaching without tenure: Policies and practices for a new era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    This work uses secondary data as well as original research on the policies of colleges and universities to study full-time non-tenure track faculty. In particular, the authors aim to unveil the rationales of administrators for using such faculty. They also highlight the diversity of the faculty who fit into this category.

  • Cross, John G., and Edie N. Goldenberg. 2009. Off-track profs: Nontenured teachers in higher education. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    A superb introduction to the gamut of issues raised by adjunct teaching at a selection of elite universities. One salient finding is that administrators and tenure-track professors have little understanding of the terms and conditions under which adjunct teaching is making inroads at these institutions and have thought little about its consequences.

  • Fountain, Wendell V. 2005. Academic sharecroppers: Exploitation of adjunct faculty and the higher education system. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.

    Fountain’s three decades of life as a self-described sharecropper (the allusion is for the fact that institutions of higher education need not invest in infrastructure or much of anything else for adjuncts) are evident in this piercing condemnation of a system seen to betray the individuals subjected to it and the missions of universities.

  • Gappa, Judith M., and David W. Leslie. 1993. The invisible faculty: Improving the status of part-timers in higher education. Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Although dated, the volume remains fresh in many respects. It offers the results of over 400 interviews with faculty and administrators, serving up a portrait of part-timers and making broad recommendations for change. The volume reveals how part-time teaching suits the lifestyle of many, conditions notwithstanding.

  • Kezar, Adrianna J., and Daniel Maxey. 2013. The changing academic workforce. Trusteeship magazine.

    A succinct overview, using secondary research, of the situation of adjuncts, discussing their growing numbers, their effects on teaching, and issues of decisionmaking, job security, and salaries. Highlights the merits of taking student outcomes and institutional risk management into account and makes recommendations for trustees.

  • Kezar, Adrianna J., and Cecile Sam. 2010. Understanding the new majority of non-tenure-track faculty in higher education: Demographics, experiences, and plans of action. ASHE Higher Education Report 36(4). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Discusses many of the issues that come to mind on the subject: the changing makeup of the professorate, the implications for students, the role of tenure in higher education, and options for administrators.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.