The Role of the Adjunct Professor

By: Marc Jablonski

Since a young age, I have observed the lived experiences of adjunct professors, learning about the politics and working conditions of such a role first-hand, with two parents adjuncting as their full-time jobs. They have both taught for decades at the same schools, teaching classes across multiple institutions in the same semester. I do not believe that adjunct professors need repair, rather the role and working conditions of adjunct professors need repair. 

The adjunct or contingent professor is both an integral part of the academy and a hidden “underclass.”[1] In addition to not being on a tenure track, the adjunct professor is often paid per course/credit and offered no benefits or support, no matter how long they have been teaching at an institution. To earn a living, adjunct faculty may work at multiple institutions, teaching as many courses as they can get. Despite teaching many of the introductory classes, adjunct faculty may not be listed on the department’s websites or have offices for students to reach them.

In 2020, across all degree granting Title IV institutions, there were around 728,000 full-time and 635,000 part-time professors.[2] However, “full-time” does not necessarily mean tenure-track: a 2020 study from the American Federation of Teachers reported that 75% of all instructors are contingent faculty not eligible for tenure, regardless of full-time or part-time status.[3] Adjunct faculty are not a homogenous group, but there are glaring patterns; the 2020 AFT study found that:

  • 40% have been teaching in higher education for more than 15 years
  • 37% cannot imagine how they will retire
  • 63% are over 50 years old
  • 31% earn less than $25k a year
  • 78% have contracts for half a year or less (by academic term)

How did we get here?

Before discussing how we might repair the issue(s), I’ll first briefly contextualize the history of adjunct faculty. After World War II, the GI Bill of 1944, which to this day offers to cover “all or some” of the costs for school or training,[4] drove over two million veterans to attend universities and over five million to register for job-skills programs, leading to a demand for faculty that even the volume of PhD grads could not satisfy.[5] The student movements of the 60’s urged institutions to expand support (among other demands), which led to the establishment and increase of non-instructional “student affairs personnel.” 

The growth of new faculty appointments peaked in the 70s, however, when university boards followed the corporate business world employing new management styles in response to stagflation. Many of the new management styles aimed ultimately to “increase productivity, decrease costs, minimize personnel expenditures” which meant decreasing the number of full-time tenure positions and replacing them with adjuncts. Over the next 50 years, the percentage of tenure-track and contingent faculty completely swapped. In 1969, there were 78% tenure-track faculty and 22% contingent faculty. By 2009, there were 33.5% tenure-track and 66.5% contingent faculty.[6] The proportions vary by institution and year: for example, in fall 2020, the New School had 80% part-time and 20% full time instructors whereas Columbia University had 31% part-time and 69% full time instructors.[7] 

Additionally, state funding for higher education began declining in 2000 and hit a low after the Great Recession (though since 2012 has been increasing again)[8] putting more reliance on student tuition and contributions. There have been modest attempts to “repair” or improve the role and conditions of adjunct faculty, though it is unclear how successful they have been. For example, an attempt to improve healthcare for adjunct faculty unfortunately backfired for some professors. In 2015, the Affordable Care Act stipulated that businesses with more than 50 employees must offer healthcare coverage to employees working 35 or more hours. However, the question of how adjunct faculty, who are paid per course/credit and not hourly, roll into this plan was initially left unanswered. Because adjunct faculty work outside the classroom on curriculum, class preparation, and meeting students (among many other tasks), their “hours” are miscounted, leading to a higher likelihood they would not meet that 30-hour threshold. After much debate, the ACA released a provision that considers employment hours to be 2.25 hours of service per week for each hour of teaching or classroom time for adjunct faculty.[9] Those with 15 hours of class-time would theoretically now receive healthcare. However, to avoid providing benefits, some schools maintained or introduced stricter caps on the number of classes each adjunct could then teach in a semester, forcing full-time adjuncts to stretch their workload further across multiple schools.[10] Although some reforms (often led by unions) have made incremental strides in working conditions in individual institutions, this example of an attempted reform shows us that not only can attempts fail, but they can also backfire, causing further stress and harm to adjunct faculty.

Repairing the Role

What larger actions, policies, or repairs can we take to ensure effective, long-lasting systemic change while safeguarding adjuncts from backlash? If focused reforms have the potential to backfire, we must make repairs across multiple levels of power, from federal and state government regulations to institutional budgets to faculty organization. 

I propose four main areas of repair:

  1. Unionize: Support unions wholeheartedly, maintaining ongoing unions despite contingent nature, fixing the questions around member fees and agency fees; consider multi-institutional unions. 
  2. Fund: Lobby governments to improve state funding (through documenting the importance of education) specifically increasing budgets for instructors, both full-time and adjunct faculty.
  3. (Re)-Allocate: With funding, ensure allocation goes to faculty budgets to increase full-time headcounts across all disciplines interwoven, not management; pull salaries from executive teams to fund faculty; and redesign tenure tracks to be multi-year contracts (7 to 10 years).
  4. Regulate: We must penalize institutions that are attacking unions; revise the ACA 2015 provisions; federalize “full-time” adjuncts (those who work 35+ hours in multiple institutions should be considered full-time by the government); and consistently regulate institutional activities that seek to take advantage of adjunct faculty. 

1.  Herb Childress, The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission (University of Chicago Press, 2019). 

2. U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.

3.  American Federation of Teachers, “An Army of Temps: AFT 2020 Adjunct Faculty Quality of Work/Life Report.” 

4.  US Department of Veterans Affairs, “About GI Bill benefits,” Accessed 3/22/22. 

5.  Tolley, Kimberley. “Preface.” in Professors in the Gig Economy Unionizing Adjunct Faculty in America. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.)

6.  Angulo, A. J. “From Golden Era to Gig Economy.” in Professors in the Gig Economy Unionizing Adjunct Faculty in America, edited by Kimberley Tolley. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.)

7.  US Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics.

8.  Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “State Higher Education Funding Cuts Have Pushed Costs to Students, Worsened Inequality” by Michael Mitchell, Michael Leachman, Matt Saenz. 

9.  US Treasury Department, “Fact Sheet: Final Regulations Implementing Employer Shared Responsibility Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for 2015.”

10.  At least 40 institutions reported this practice; AFT 2020 Report,