The AAUP released a brief analysis yesterday—“Data Snapshot: Contingent Faculty in US Higher Ed”—with the warning that it demonstrates academic freedom is under threat in American colleges. In truth, I think, the analysis points toward a larger structural problem.
A supermajority of U.S. college instructors already have been denied the academic-freedom protections of tenure for many years now. It’s long been a myth that college instructors can speak their minds without any anxiety; that’s a privilege of the few (lately, about one fifth of us at any given time).
The larger problem the AAUP’s analysis may highlight is the vast and probably growing difference between what work means at the largest research universities (the so-called R1 and R2 schools) and every other kind of institution—i.e., the colleges where most American faculty members currently work. This difference distorts the public’s view of higher education, and thus our public debates about its future, at a time of political upheaval, and when 73% of America’s ruling party think academia is “heading in the wrong direction.” It thus places the entire higher-education system at risk.
Summarizing the most recent federal data, from 2016, the AAUP observes that 73% of American college instructors are not on the tenure track. The largest number (about 40% of the total instructor workforce) are part-time workers; the next largest number, about 20%, are graduate students. The smallest number (fewer than 10%) are those who are tenure-eligible but not tenured yet; they’re outnumbered two-to-one by those who already have tenure.
The aggregate numbers are bad. But the differences among types of colleges are stark:
When the instructional workforce is broken down by institution type, we see that—leaving aside other contingent faculty members—just graduate students and part-time instructors together constitute a majority of the instructors at R3 universities and master’s universities. Moreover, at every kind of institution except R1 and R2 universities, part-time faculty members alone constitute at least 43% of the workforce:
The report doesn’t mince words, and, to the AAUP’s great credit, it pays close attention to the specific needs of undergraduate students as well as to more abstract formulations of the AAUP’s charter issue of academic freedom:
While contingent faculty members are often highly qualified and dedicated teachers, their tenuous working conditions affect students. By definition, contingent faculty lack protections for academic freedom. This means that they are vulnerable to dismissal if readings assigned or ideas expressed in the classroom offend a student, administrator, donor, or legislator, or if students don’t receive the grades that they want. Thus, the free exchange of ideas may be hampered and students may be deprived of the debate essential to citizenship and of rigorous evaluations of their work.
Faculty in contingent positions are often cut out of department and institution-wide planning, though they may teach the majority of some types of courses, especially in community colleges and at the introductory and developmental levels in four-year institutions. When this happens, the knowledge that they have about their students and the strengths and weaknesses of the courses they teach is not taken into consideration.
In short, while many contingent faculty members may be excellent teachers, they are not given adequate institutional support to perform their jobs.
The problem is not simply that contingent workers are such a large part of the instructor workforce. The problem is that their share—including their share of the total full-time jobs—seems likely to grow:
According to an October 2017 report by the United States Government Accountability Office, over the 2008–2012 Great Recession the number of tenure-track faculty increased by 1 percent while the number of full time contingent faculty increased by 11 percent and part-time faculty increased by 18 percent. In 2016 (the most recent year for which there is data), higher education institutions hired 30,865 full-time, non-tenure-track instructional faculty, but only 21,511 full-time, tenure-track faculty.
In other words: In just half a decade, American colleges dramatically intensified their commitment to cheap, unprotected labor. And today, even when American colleges do hire full-time faculty members, they deny three-fifths of them the possibility of tenure (or, to varying degrees, other forms of long-term job security).
It’s not just academic freedom that’s under threat if these trends continue. It’s the future of academic work itself as an even reasonably secure profession beyond the most elite (and elite-hiring) institutions.
But as long as American academics, politicians, journalists, parents, and taxpayers continue to imagine that higher education is represented by R1 and R2 universities, rather than the places where most faculty members actually teach, they will misunderstand what’s happening and entirely misdiagnose the problems of the education system.
R1 and R2 institutions are already a fundamentally different world from the one most academics live in, especially after they finish graduate school. The question is how long their rarified libertarian atmosphere can last when basic labor has become so cheap (at a time when 84% of Americans think college is too expensive!)—and when the freedom to conduct research increasingly looks to Americans, including even some workers in the academy, like a special privilege for an irresponsible, ideologically hostile, and educationally ineffective elite.