‘The Chair’ Is a Campus Novel

It seems as if basically every American professor on social media has been either watching The Chair or putting it off for another time. It’s the creation of the actor-writer Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, a 2017 Harvard Ph.D. recipient. Netflix released the series on Friday—just as the new academic year begins—after plying academics with screeners of the first episodes.

The trailer gives, I think, a reasonably accurate impression of the show. (The show is rated TV-MA, and the trailer features uncensored “adult” language.)

The series has provoked some strong and contradictory reactions. Some academics describe it as a kind of idealized fantasy of elite higher education; others—especially women—find it upsettingly realistic. And people discussing its portrayal of so-called cancel culture have drawn contradictory conclusions about its argument. (Among the surprisingly basic questions people have raised is whether the show counts as a work of satire.)

For my part, I see The Chair as a culturally up-to-date but familiar example of an established literary genre. With just six half-hour episodes and a story that could be considered complete, The Chair is a traditional campus novel in movie form. Versions of this story have been told over and over since at least the time of Mary McCarthy and Kingsley Amis.

The traditional campus novel is satirical, but the target of its satire is broad: It suggests that there is something absurd and enervating about academia itself. Spoofing specific vices isn’t really the point—although vices related to hierarchy and sex are usually abundant.

Structurally, The Chair fits this classic pattern perfectly, however contemporary its various storylines are. Partly for that reason—but also surely because the co-creator Annie Julia Wyman has recent experience in elite universities herself—this is an unusually realistic depiction of higher education for a work of film. It gets closer to the kind of accuracy we expect to see in literary novels than the (abysmal) level of accuracy we’re accustomed to seeing on television.

(The single silliest storyline, in which an IT worker hunts down a student posting cruel Rate My Professors reviews, is implausible for reasons that have nothing to do with academe.)

With that in mind, here is a very incomplete list of some things that I think The Chair gets right about elite university life, which I will not be elaborating upon:

  • The little-known fact that academia is a workplace
  • Over-powerful yet alienated older professors
  • Faculty man-children looking for admiration
  • Political tensions that aren’t about Republicans and Democrats
  • Students trying to find their voice (with mixed results)
  • The many faces of disrespect
  • The battle scars of older women
  • The pious earnestness with which academia betrays people of color
  • The role of double standards in notions of academic excellence
  • Pervasive feelings of insecurity
  • The odd mix of opulence and poverty
  • The “brilliance” bait-and-switch
  • The inconvenient truth that tenure is an instrument of early-career conformity
  • The complicated feelings tenure-track academics have about teaching

I wouldn’t say The Chair is great art. But it’s a very solid example of a respected genre.

The Typical U.S. College Professor Makes $3,556 Per Course

Late last month, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released its Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession for 2020–2021. It has been published in the AAUP’s Bulletin and is available to download on its website.

This report now represents the most authoritative and up-to-date information we have about the basic employment conditions of college faculty members in the United States.

We need to talk about this report because Americans have many misconceptions about the lives of college professors. These misconceptions are encouraged by cynical rhetoric from politicians and pundits seeking to undermine our work. They also come from popular movies and television shows that depict professors enjoying lavish salaries and palatial campus offices.

This is not how most professors live. (Publicity photo for the forthcoming Netflix series The Chair, starring Sandra Oh, with a release date of August 20.)

These misconceptions can even come from employment websites, which tend to publish fabricated information. Glassdoor, for example, claims the average American adjunct professor makes more than $50,000 per year, and ZipRecruiter claims the same figure is $67,000. Such salaries would hardly be extravagant by middle-class standards in most cities. But in reality, a typical adjunct professor can expect to make only about half that much—with no benefits—if they can get full-time work at all.

Worse still, public misconceptions are not necessarily challenged by the behavior of tenured faculty members at elite research universities, who lead our professional associations and represent us on the public stage. So it’s important to highlight some of the data in this report.


First, the AAUP’s report shows that the typical American college professor today is an adjunct. In other words, part-time contingent faculty members (professors hired by the course and considered “part-time” workers no matter how many courses they teach) are the largest single class of college professor.

By how wide a margin? According to data from 2019, the AAUP report says, 42.9% of American college professors are part-time contingent faculty members. That means the adjunct workforce is significantly larger than the combined number of tenured professors (26.5% of the faculty) or tenure-track professors still seeking tenure (10.5%). It is also more than twice the number of full-time contingent faculty members, such as “visiting” professors or “professors of practice” (20.0%).

It’s important to note that these figures do not include graduate student workers. We’re talking just about professors, not TAs.

Here’s another way to look at those figures: Across American higher education, adjuncts outnumber tenure-seeking junior professors four to one. That means adjunct professors, more than new professors who will one day have tenure, represent the future of the professoriate.

Even among the elite of American universities—doctorate-granting institutions that pride themselves on using the tenure system to protect the freedom of their researchers—adjuncts are nearly one third of the faculty, outnumbering tenure-seeking professors two to one.

There is an important bright spot in these numbers, however. The AAUP report finds that the proportion of the faculty holding full-time contingent appointments—with benefits and better pay than adjuncts get—has been increasing over the last decade and a half.

In 2006, full-time contingent workers were 15.5% of the workforce; as of 2019, they are 20.0%, with steady growth in their relative numbers since 2009. Making inquiries on relevant campuses, the AAUP’s researchers “found that one reason for the shift is that some institutions are taking actions to improve the working conditions for contingent faculty members.” Hooray.


But for now, it’s important to recognize another key element of the AAUP report: professors’ compensation. For adjuncts, the news is unsurprisingly grim.

The data on adjunct pay are more limited than the data for other kinds of professors. But according to information from 360 American institutions in 2019-2020, the average pay of part-time faculty members is $3,556 per course. [Edit: Let’s be clear—many adjuncts never see wages that are anywhere close to this national mean.] Furthermore, only 1.6% of colleges offer all their part-time professors medical benefits, and only 7.1% offer all their part-time professors any retirement benefits.

To underscore what this means for U.S. higher education in 2021:

The typical American college professor (i.e., an average member of the most numerous class of American professors) makes $3,556 per course with no healthcare or other benefits.

If you aren’t familiar with how colleges work behind the scenes, it may be difficult to guess what this means for adjuncts’ annual wages. In fact, adjuncts often have very unreliable employment—being hired and (unofficially) laid off unpredictably from semester to semester. Because of this, as well as other factors, accurate annual wage data still simply don’t exist for adjuncts.

But nationwide, most college professors would recognize teaching three or four courses per regular academic semester as a full-time workload. If we add two summer courses for the sake of a year-round number, that means the typical college professor would be lucky to make $35,560 per year, and often might expect to make more like $21,336—that is, during the years when they could cobble together full-time teaching work at different institutions.

Now, some adjuncts do work on a truly part-time basis, teaching a course here and there on the side while maintaining another full-time career that allows them such fripperies as, say, going to the dentist. That is what many college administrators use as a justification for the shabby way they treat their professors.

But the reality is that many adjuncts today depend exclusively or primarily on their income as college teachers. This is what they face. This is how the typical college professor is rewarded for their work as they keep American higher education going.

If you’re interested in the current state of U.S. higher education, there’s a lot more information where this came from—including salary information for tenure-track professors and (ahem) college presidents, among many other topics.

“How to Cure Colleges’ Adjunct Addiction”

Although I’m not quoted, I had the privilege of speaking with Holly Brewer this week as she worked on an important opinion essay for Washington Monthly. Here’s a taste of her argument:

This problem keeps getting worse, yet university administrators show little interest in addressing it, and sometimes deny it even is a problem. If anybody’s going to fix this, it will probably have to be the federal government. Subsidies to higher education total about $150 billion annually. To protect this investment, the government should set a floor for what universities must pay teachers, and a ceiling of perhaps one-third for the proportion of total teaching jobs that a university administrator may fill with adjuncts.

It’s appropriate that government should solve higher education’s gig-economy problem, because government (at the state level) helped create it by reducing its support for public universities.  In 2020, state governments supplied $8,600 per student, a 40 percent decrease in real dollars from 1994.

But the universities themselves bear plenty of fault too, with a costly proliferation of administrators who, paradoxically, are assigned the task of economizing. Between 2011-2012 and 2018/2019, administrative pay at American public universities increased by $3.7 billion. That represented, for each full time student, a 24 percent increase in administrative salaries. At the University of Maryland, where I teach, former President Wallace Loh was last year paid $734,565 as an adviser.

Rather than bring these absurd administrative costs under control, administrators are going after the university’s core function by opting to hire the cheapest possible teachers. That’s adjuncts.

—Holly Brewer, “How to Cure Colleges’ Adjunct Addiction,” Washington Monthly (Aug. 4, 2021)

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Image: McKeldin Mall at the University of Maryland, College Park; cropped photograph by Radhika Kshirsagar, 2013 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Colleges Are Mostly Supportive Toward Evangelicals, Say InterVarsity Members (UPDATED)

If you’ve followed this site long, you know I have a particular interest in addressing the popular notion that U.S. higher education is a hostile environment for conservative students—including students with conservative religious commitments.

Last week, a major evangelical Christian campus ministry, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, released the results of a member survey conducted online for its PR firm, Pinkston, between May 3 and June 3. All eleven questions in the survey (PDF) may be interesting to college educators.

For my purposes here, the most interesting is Question 8: “How would you describe your college campus’s attitude toward Evangelical Christians?” Among the 316 students (from 127 campuses) who responded, the consensus was that college is a good environment for evangelicals.

More than a third said their college is either “extremely” or “very welcoming and supportive”; and an equal number said their college is “moderately welcoming and supportive.” Fewer than five percent said their college is “not at all welcoming and supportive”:


Now, it’s probably important not to overinterpret these results. The sample size was small, representing a tiny fraction of InterVarsity’s membership and just 17% of the college campuses where InterVarsity has chapters.

More importantly, it isn’t clear what kinds of colleges appeared in the sample. This ministry has representatives at religious institutions as well as secular colleges and universities. That could obviously affect whether students felt they were in a welcoming environment. It’s also possible that different students have completely different kinds of criteria in mind for feeling supported on campus. (I would especially like to know more about the 20% who say they feel “slightly” welcome.) And there’s always the question whether respondents’ campus experiences, positive or negative, have been defined primarily by administrators, by faculty members, or by other students.

Christian Universities6
Secular Universities116
Private Universities40
Public Universities85
Community/Junior Colleges10

(UPDATE: Elizabeth Chung, an account coordinator at Pinkston, has very kindly supplied me with a basic breakdown of the types of colleges represented in the survey responses. I’m not sure exactly how these categories overlap; for the purposes of this post, the crucial facts are that only a handful [6] of the campuses were Christian universities, and most [85] were public universities.)

It’s also very likely that the respondents—for whatever reason—are less politically conservative, on average, than white* American evangelicals generally are. This could play a role in their sense of comfort on campus. When asked what social issues are most important to them (Question 11), the greatest number of respondents (39%) named racial justice as one of their top three issues; the next highest number named climate change. Reducing abortion was fourth on the list of responses, named by just over one quarter of students as one of their top three interests.

(* Most respondents were white [62%] or Asian American [18%]. Almost two thirds [65%] were women.)

Nevertheless, the data we have are the data we have. However far they go, we can tally this survey as the latest of many pieces of evidence that American higher education is generally not the hostile environment many conservative religious students are told to expect.

The Conspiracy Theorist in Your Class

This week, the historian Elizabeth Stice warned readers of Inside Higher Ed that college professors in the United States may face a rising number of undergraduates who believe in conspiracy theories—including the kinds of toxic conspiracy theories that drive anti-Jewish and anti-Asian violence.

Stice issues a challenge to instructors:

The situation is further complicated today, because many people are already skeptical and suspicious of higher education. Those who doubt ‘experts’ are unlikely to be easily convinced and will be wary of being ‘brainwashed’ in other directions. …

We stand at a crossroads. How will colleges and universities counter the rise of conspiracy thinking that compulsively creates internal enemies and distorts reality? How will we do it in ways that are compelling and convincing? The battle is not for attaining the moral high ground but for expanding minds. … What is our plan?

Unsurprisingly, considering her role as a history professor, Stice writes that the liberal arts disciplines have a particularly important role to play in promoting reality-based thinking among students.

I would like to use this opportunity, though, to argue (again) that it’s not simply liberal arts courses that have a critical role to play here—and not only at the undergraduate level. What matters is the comprehensive model of a liberal arts education as a cultivation of the student’s entire imagination, starting early.

I’m convinced that any individual course is as likely to stoke conspiracy theories as to alleviate them. That’s because conspiracy theories happen, for the most part, as a result of inquisitive and articulate people dealing with partial information about how the world works.

This is one of my concerns about recent controversies in both K-12 and higher education. Often American political and academic leaders seem fixated on certain kinds of courses—for example, on the first-year courses that colleges sometimes require on the topic of diversity—or certain academic theories that may or may not be taught at all—while adopting rhetoric that undermines public confidence not in those specific things, but rather in the very concept of an education that happens holistically across many different disciplines.

And many academics in the classroom, for their part, seem fixated on addressing such problems by doubling down on expertise, promising to teach specialized skills of research and analysis, as if better research skills would solve the problems that arise when Americans “do their own research” in the absence of a well-rounded understanding of how the world works.

Meanwhile, some pundits confuse a failure to offer a diverse education (covering many different approaches, concerns, disciplinary tools, and debates) with the individual instructor’s or specific discipline’s supposed failure to permit “viewpoint diversity” in the classroom—as if a content-neutral concept of viewpoint diversity weren’t tailor-made for conspiracy theorists and other defectors from reality.

But what can any teacher do about this problem? How can a huge institutional and policy problem be addressed in my classroom?

For a history teacher, I think one answer is to go big and small at the same time. We need to introduce students to the bigness of the past—its variety, its complexity, the inherent insufficiency of any single interpretation—while also showing students that the past is about real people’s lives, not about abstractions.