When Tenure-Track Faculty Take On the Problem of Adjunctification

I am part of an unofficial group of tenured faculty at a state institution that relies on many non-tenure-track faculty, but we are not the tenured faculty Ivan Evans refers to in his piece “When the Adjunct Faculty are the Tenure-track’s Untouchables.

When we went on the market, getting a tenure-track job already meant you were the one person standing in the rubble-strewn city of your profession. There was no denying the corpses. At the very least, we understood that luck played a bigger role in our fate than merit had. We hadn’t earned something so much as been spared something else—namely, the miserable life of the freeway flyer. And we drew the obvious conclusion from this, the survivor’s-guilt conclusion: we would prove worthy of these tenure-track jobs only if we dedicated ourselves to creating more of them for others. We would fight the neoliberal adjunctifcation of the professoriate in the name of our no less talented but less fortunate friends.

And so we did. Before we were tenured, we began working together on our campus to overcome the defeatism pervasive at the time – the defeatism that said, the erosion of tenure is bigger than us, it’s bigger than academia, it’s the post-70s outsourcing economy. To fight it would be to drown ourselves trying to swim upstream. For months, every other week, three of us would invite a new handful of people we considered influential on campus to have drinks– tenured faculty and chairs, people who were positioned to do something about the problem. It’s not that we were excluding non-tenure-track faculty – far from being our untouchables, they were our friends with whom we had coffees, lunches, dinners; with whose kids our kids shared playdates—but rather we took seriously what some of them were saying, which was You guys have the power, and thus the responsibility, to reverse this trend. We don’t.

The work of the group we formed exceeded our expectations. Here’s a few of the things we did:

1) We introduced two motions into faculty senate: the first motion establishing a committee to rethink the Senate so that it could exercise a stronger voice in shared governance with administration; the second motion to shift our percentage of tenure-line to off-tenure-line instruction to 70/30 in 5 years. The first motion passed; the second was tabled.

2) We lobbied the administration to redefine about 20 jobs that were originally advertised as non-tenure-track to tenure-track.

3) One of our group, who was chair of her department, organized chairs-only meetings for chairs to strategize on the issue (all the meetings heretofore had been in the Dean’s presence).

4) We showed graphs at Faculty Senate meetings that demonstrated the magnitude of the problem. We drew what we called a “line of shame” through one such graph, with those departments that had grown the most through off-tenure-line labor falling below the line and those that had resisted the temptation above the line.

And when we got tenure, we stepped up our game by assuming positions in our departments. As department chair and directors of programs, those of us in the English department  created two new tenure lines and converted a fixed-term position when someone retired into a tenure-track position. Within two years, we had three new tenure lines that were not simply replacing retiring tenure-track faculty. During a period of budget cuts when retirement-replacement searches in other departments were being cancelled (and the lost SCH surely made up through contingent labor), we made sure that we never lost a search. In other words, we lost no ground. Instead, we made practical and considerable advances.


1) The Director of Literary Studies Amy Greenstadt re-arranged classes so that we had fewer that were under-enrolled, buying us cultural capital with the Dean.

2) I refused to sign some adjunct contracts and made it clear that we wanted to help the College meet its SCH (student credit hour) goals but not by adding any more adjuncts or full-time, non-tenure-track faculty – only by adding tenure-track faculty.

3) We encouraged, cajoled—and in one case, brought in a lawyer to convince—a few of our faculty who had gotten sweetheart deals over the years to give up these deals and return to the course-loads the rest of us carried.

Over a period of two years, through careful scheduling and fewer course releases, we increased our SCH by 2% while using fewer adjuncts. We also improved our graduate programs by offering more grad-only small classes. We made sure the Dean knew all these things so that he understood that we were accountable, that if he provided us the resources to hire tenure track faculty those resources would not be squandered.

I remember sitting in the office of the chair of the philosophy department and crowing about a success. We had received permission from the Dean to make two tenure-track hires rather than one out of an already-progressing search. It had been a dramatic couple of weeks. My office staff had helped me develop graphs and tables, and my directors and I had composed arguments and timelines (lines per SCH, budget numbers, hiring trends over the years, etc.), all of which I presented to the Dean and his staff.

I thought I had a fail-safe case for new tenure lines to accommodate the growth in the student body we’d experienced over the years. When I finished, the dean said, “We’re not giving you any more tenure lines.” I don’t remember what I said or did, but I do remember that the dean’s secretary called me later that day and said, “That grand exit was a little over the top.”

Over the next week or so, I wondered if she was right. But when Amy, the Director of Literary Studies, gave me something more specific to propose– a way to turn one replacement tenure-track search into two lines, saving money on the search—I knocked on the Dean’s door. He agreed that if we continued to work with the college on its initiatives and were careful budget-wise, he’d work with us towards our goal. Telling the philosophy chair about it that day, I suddenly felt silly. All that drama for one line! One miniscule drop in the national bucket! Was I foolish to get so worked up over something so relatively small? The philosophy chair said, “It’s not small to the person who gets the job you guys created.” Right, I thought.

A few people made the connection between the work we were doing and the amazing new colleagues walking our halls but many did not. The new hires themselves were coming in the right way and, thus, were rightly feeling obliged to nobody.

We could with confidence claim a whole army of new enemies, however. Weirdly enough, none of these enemies were administrators. Administrators knew we were trying to improve our department and, even when we aggravated the hell out of them, most of them had the grace to acknowledge that what we were doing was only what we in fact should be doing.

No, the people who now disliked us were some of the people who’d once been our closest friends: those people whose sweetheart deals no longer existed; the tenure-track faculty whose under-enrolled classes were now fully enrolled so they had 35 papers to grade instead of 20; the man whose program relied on adjuncts and so was always, if only temporarily, imperiled by my resistance to signing adjunct contracts; full-time, non-tenure-track faculty who understandably felt that my commitment to growing tenure lines implicitly jeopardized their job security (it didn’t but it’s easy to imagine how they’d feel it might); non-tenure-track faculty serving on Faculty Senate (at our institution, non-tenure-track faculty are involved in governance) during the year we introduced the “line of shame”; tenure-track faculty who had joined the profession to—god forbid—write books and teach, not to take on the Sisyphean task of rebuilding the profession, but who felt a little guilty about this. Many of these people hated our guts.

In the beginning what we were doing felt good. We were listening to our non-tenure-track colleagues and we understood what it meant for them to be without academic freedom, without job security. We were not quislings! We were on the side of the righteous!

But after a while, as the political skirmishes got uglier, our reasons for why we were doing what we were doing began to change. We began to care less about the terrible circumstances of our non-tenure-track colleagues. We began to care less about doing “the right thing” by the next generation. By the end we were fighting for the quality of our own jobs. It sucks when non-tenure-track people feel threatened when you feel you have proven your commitment to them, it sucks to have tenure-track people mad at you when you won’t create a non-tenure-track job for their spouse, it sucks to sit in a meeting in which a non-tenure-track faculty member openly uses his or her job security as a reason for making a curricular change to our major requirements instead of citing reasons intrinsic to the discipline or our pedagogical goals.

By the end, we just wanted to sit in a room of peers (fellow tenured faculty) and apprentice-peers (tenure-track) with whom we could debate ideas and feel like we were all on a reasonably even playing field. If we won an argument, we knew it was because we’d actually made sense not because someone felt subtly coerced. If we all fought bitterly about the curricular area of our next hire, nobody afterwards could claim that they were scared we’d retaliate against them for disagreeing with us by not rehiring them the next quarter. We could call each other all kinds of names for being so benighted as to think we needed a modernist when we obviously needed a medievalist but we couldn’t call each other “neoliberal managers” or pull out the trump card of “retaliation” when our feelings got hurt.

In his history of academic freedom in America The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand writes, “Coercion is natural; freedom is artificial.” The tenure system is an elaborate construction. The hiring process is ridiculously strenuous but that’s what keeps it from being a system based on patronage. By the time you get your job and then achieve tenure—after interviewing, having many people read your work and references, giving a job talk in front of a dept., undergoing evaluations by committees and external reviewers—you feel legitimate. Even when you know chance played a big part, you nonetheless don’t feel you owe your luck to any particular person. That’s often not the case when hiring off the tenure-track. When we hire off the tenure track, we create complex networks of obligation; we create potential fiefdoms. At the very least, we make our world more vulnerable to corruption: I protect your job security, you vote for me. I give your girlfriend these adjunct sections, you feel indebted to me. Hiring on the tenure track has its opportunities for patronage, of course, but there are more steps, more bureaucracy, more people involved at every stage. As a result, the kind of direct-unmediated power of boss-employee is diffused in a way that it isn’t with off-track hiring.

By the time we’d finished our terms as chair and directors, we were fighting because we’d come to understand how valuable the tenure system is for the culture in which we wanted to work. We didn’t want to work within a new old boy’s club, where people got jobs because of who they knew or whose back they scratched. We wanted to work with people who could say “no” to us when they disagreed with us without then feeling resentfully defensive with us. We wanted to work with people who could say what they really thought without worrying that someone else’s job security might be indirectly affected by their opinions. We wanted the preciousness of a world different from most workplaces, a world of peers who make decisions together and argue with one another in the context of academic freedom.

I sympathize with Ivan Evans’s despair. The lack of collective will among TTF in what is a struggle that affects us all is deeply frustrating. But what if we got a better handle on the multiple variables involved? The national statistics are the outcome of numerous interactions between non-tenure-track faculty, tenure-track faculty, chairs, deans, and provosts. If we don’t want the future that inertia is busy building or even if we want to protect the vestiges of academic freedom we have left, TTF are going to have to grapple honestly with the compromised culture that has already developed with non-tenure-track hiring as well as with the financial problems administrators face–at least at institutions like my own which rely almost entirely on tuition and have lost state support over the years.

We don’t deserve to all be adjunctifed—if only because universities without academic freedom translates to a less free society—but I worry that we are more likely to be if we let the few sadistic professors and knife-twisting administrators distract us from the much more difficult, because more intimate and more ethically complex, politics of painstakingly changing what is in many places now our status quo.

by Jennifer Ruth, Portland State University

Read the original article, and more like it, at the Remaking the University Blog


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Great article about the war between real faculty and adjunct faculty. One of the successful things that Colleges and Universities have done is to pit real faculty against adjunct faculty, and, like the Throne of God itself that a real faculty job is, many real faculty have defended that throne against their fallen brethren and sisters: pawns in the war of a false God. The key here is, of course, real faculty joining the cause of adjunct faculty, putting their jobs and health and safety on the line like adjuncts are forced to do each day and bringing that enlightenment… Read more »

Hillary Jenks

While I appreciate Jennifer’s efforts to create that different kind of workplace, I have to question her assertion that the administration fully supports tenure-track faculty lines. I have been tenure-track faculty at her institution, Portland State University, for the past several years, and was supposed to go up for tenure next year. Instead, the administration has eliminated my position. This was not due to my performance – I’ve had excellent reviews and evaluations, and more publications than anyone in my department. The stated reason was budget cuts, although there’s been no declaration of financial exigency, so the union is now… Read more »

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