Blog Post

Escape from the Planet of the Adjuncts

Adjuncts unionize

How much does your university value teaching?

The best way to learn exactly how much a university values teaching is to find out how much they pay their adjuncts. Take a look. It’s not pretty. Adjuncts come in two main forms. They are either the hopeful, hanging on in case a tenure track job appears, or the hopeless, hanging on until that local bookstore needs a clerk (which pays more than being an adjunct, even though its business model is in the toilet). Hopeful or hopeless, they are skilled, dedicated, overworked colleagues. Hopeful or hopeless, they share a common subaltern status they do not deserve.


The only way to get rid of the stigma and the trauma of the adjunct is the get rid of tenure. Kings and outcastes share a common logic. (See Bruce Caron, “On the Downtown Side of Japan's Old Capital: Higashi-kujo,” in Public Culture, Fall 1999, 11(3):433-440; doi:10.1215/08992363-11-3-433). One way to get rid of tenure is to close departments and completely reorganize how the university runs. (This would present other opportunities to jettison a few vice-chancellors, provosts, deans, and their assistants and other administrative flotsam and spend more of the budget on teaching and students.) Getting rid of tenure will also remove the main obstacle to open access publication. This would blow a wide breach in Elsevier’s paywall. While getting rid of tenure would solve a lot of problems, some (most) readers might point out that this solution requires getting rid of tenure. From the perspective of the perennial adjunct, this is a small point. From the vantage point of the tenured professor, it’s a somewhat larger issue.


I can’t believe it’s not tenure


The challenge here is to come up with a new professional bargain between professors and universities that is better than tenure (or, at least better than what tenure has become). If this group really wants to build a future for the academy, I would argue that finding a better bargain is a central challenge we face. We need a new professional agreement between faculty and universities.


Tenure will fall on its own, at least in the US, and not because this change might be really good for science, but rather because neo-liberals in state houses will demand this at some point soon; say, the week after they gut public employee unions. To be extra cynical, we might also picture some lawsuit that will make it to the Supreme Court, who will decide that—apart from Supreme Court justices—nobody else really deserves tenure. Already, lawmakers can point to the economics of the growing adjunct teaching workforce and make a convincing argument to their public that tenure is a bad deal for the state. By hiring adjuncts and paying them so poorly, public universities are actively greasing the track to the end of tenure.


The best time to devise a beneficial alternative to tenure is now. What is possibly better than tenure? And better for whom? And how can this new arrangement be used strategically to create an optimal future for universities?


Better than tenure


What is better than tenure? Here are the beginnings of potential guidelines, a strawman to build from:


1) A university-wide pay scale for teaching courses that allows for incremental adjustments for years served, and bonuses for class size and results (how do we want to measure results?). No second-class citizens in this system. Everyone who steps up to teach has the rank of professor. The full-time teaching load is the same for all professors.


2) Four-year contracts for all professors, with a review after three years, and an expectation of renewal unless specific causes (bad results, etc.) are evident. At the end of two consecutive four-year contracts, one year of sabbatical is provided to every professor. Teaching is the only activity under review for contract renewal.


3) Release (for a semester, or a year, or more) for externally funded research stops the clock on contract review process. Research projects fund the researcher’s salary during these periods (as they now fund other research team members). Research results and publication are not reviewed for contract renewal. Of course, these are reviewed by funders and will impact future funding. Researchers are rewarded bonuses (culled from the overhead of research income) based, say, on the metrics of their publications in open source journals. When the funded research ends, the professor goes back to teaching full time and the contract review clock starts again.


4) Faculty-run review system to guard against university actions that might infringe on academic freedom, and also to review decisions to not rehire a faculty member.


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So, what are your ideas for a system that is better than tenure?







...Of course, the above is a fantasy.

In our world, tenure will fail in a more haphazard fashion (at some point, universities will not hire any new tenure-track faculty and force the current ones into early retirement) and we will all become adjuncts.

But it is time to imagine a better way forward. So I'm really looking forward to the discussions from this new group!


I just read another "planet of the adjunct" blog... and it's worth a read.


Hi Bruce, 

Thank you for your blog.  I'm always excited to see people share their ideas for higher education reform.  I'd like to develop a response to your ideas, but I'm a bit confused about the research component of your plans.  Are you suggesting that research be essentially privatized, or at least not a mission of the university?  It looks like your plan doesn't make research part of the contracted work.  Is that correct?  I think I just need a bit more explanation.  Thanks! -Matthew


Hi Matthew,


Thanks!  I started with the teaching mission...

This description is something of a stub... it needs to be expanded. I am thinking that the teaching mission and the funded research mission of the university needs to be pulled apart, and that the rewards for getting funded to do research are then keyed to the research results (as bonuses, or some other additional prize).

I'm also wondering if some research professor positions for data scientists and others that the university should support over time (including library professors) but who would not be expected to teach (apart from mentoring during the research activity) would also have the same 4 year contract with renewal, and that that renewal is not based directly on gaining external funding. So the university would offer these professors  parallel tracks as professors.

Since there is no tenure, there is no review of published research for tenure. And so other rewards would need to be implemented to recognize scholarly effort outside of teaching.

As a community of scholars, certainly the faculty as a whole can devise reputation and recognition practices to encourage active research scholarship.  These might include some alt-metrics on the reuse of ideas, data, methods, etc.

What do you think?


Hi Bruce, 

Thanks for your response!  

I think you're right that research and teaching do seem to be different activities that professors engage in.  Over the years, the research side of things has been privileged, and those who teach have gotten the raw end of the deal.  I understand and support your desire to re-value teachers in a way that puts them on a similar professional track with researchers.  However, I think scholarship does play an important role in informing education.

What about this idea... Instead of dividing faculty into two separate professional tracks of research and teaching, why not divide universities into two or more separate types of institution.  I've always been a fan of graduate schools that are in some way separated off from their undergraduate counterparts.  Why couldn't we also separate upper-level degree granting programs from liberal arts programs?  

It might work like this:  

All students would be required to complete a liberal arts degree from the 2-year liberal arts college.  Professors employed by this college would have minimal research expectations and instead would focus on teaching in the liberal arts.  Scholarship regarding teaching and learning would be encouraged.  12-month contracts would require these professors to teach 8 courses per year.  I'm also a big fan of the 12-month contract for all professors.

Students would then transition into more specialized education.  Some students might make the decision to pursue a more technical education.  Other students might make the decision to pursue a more theoretical education.  Professors employed by the theoretical college would focus on research in their discipline and would have minimal teaching responsibilities.  12-month contracts would require these professors to teach 4 courses per year and make significant contributions to their discipline as well.  Of course there would also be a third more technical college that would provide some graduates of the liberal arts college a specialized technical education if that matches their skills and interests.

Every set of professors would engage in service to their particular college, and the colleges would be affiliated but institutionally separate.

One of the great things about a liberal arts education is that it enhances our ability to learn.  It also enables us to have a a richer, more complex experience of our world.  By splitting the university into separate colleges, we can express our value of the liberal arts by making sure the liberal arts college receives adequate funding for its personnel.  Right now funding for teachers gets lost in a complicated machine that has way too many purposes and compartments.  Maybe this plan could also salvage a connection between scholarship and teaching by allowing teachers to research, allowing researchers to teach, allowing practitioners to teach, and adequately funding all groups.

I guess my main concern with your plan is that it doesn't leave much room for university sponsored research in the humanities.  It also might incentivize researchers to seek out corporate suitors, which might significantly affect trajectories of research.  I also think students who pursue a technical education are unfairly stigmatized, and this plan might help them reconnect with the higher education enterprise that benefits them and the practitioners that help them learn.

At the end of the day, teachers, researchers, and practitioners are all important parts of the higher education system.  We need to design the future of higher education so that there's proper value of all three groups.  

What do you think? -Matthew


Hi Matthew,

I would think that adding internally-sponsored research with the externally sponsored research would help non science/engineering professors take time away from teaching. But I would still argue that, post-tenure, the renewal process should focus on teaching.

However, the arena for recognition and reputation based on research output can still be a very active one at any university. We can build new cultural practices to reward great scholarship, and not link this to career survival.

Why are you a big fan of 12 month contracts? Just wondering.

I would hope that the state might have an interest in funding pure research in all disciplines (and trans-disciplines).

I would also like to see how a post-tenure university might accelerate the pace of research by promoting the use of alternative modes of publication: blogs, preprints, nanoarticles, etc.

It would also be interesting to move your "2 years of liberal education" back into the last 2 years of high-school.

thanks for your insights!


Again... we are in discussion mode here. All ideas add to our conversation.




I think 12-month contracts for teachers at all levels professionalize the occupation, and make it easier to argue for pay equity.  However, the primary reason I think 12-month contracts are a good idea is that many teachers are working in some capacity 12 months out of the year.  

The idea that most teachers are able to find work during the summer months is false.  And teachers could be put to good use conducting assessment and completing other administrative tasks.  One way to cut down on expensive administrative bloat would be to assign administrative tasks to teachers with 12-month contracts.  I'd like to see the economic incentive to become an "administrator" significantly reduced.

I still maintain that scholarship is an important part of a university's mission, and so scholarship should be an important responsibility of the faculty.  Some faculty could teach more to allow others to research more.  Doesn't mean that there needs to be a huge gap in pay between those that teach and those that research.  

Great idea about promoting alternative modes of publication.  I'm very much in favor of open, free, and accessible scholarship.  This might also make blind review more practical and reliable.  

I'm not sure I understand the idea about moving liberal arts education "back" into the high school.  I agree that it should begin in high school.  But some higher learning in the liberal arts informed by scholarship and faculty with advanced degrees ought to be a part of every person's life, even those that pursue a technical education.  

Great thoughts!  Thanks for having this conversation with me! -Matthew


Hi Matthew,

Apart from funded researchers, and those who manage to teach in a summer term, you're right. I don't see many professors getting summer jobs. But most chose to be paid on a 12 month schedule for their 3 quarters/2 semesters of work. 

I would think that having a standard teaching load could mean some of these classes could be taught in the summer. But I'm not really addressing larger student and/or professor workforce issues here, except for equalizing the pay scales for anyone who steps up to teach a class.

It might be interesting to need to distribute a state-funded research support pool among existing faculty (to complement externally funded research). This would probably lead to better institutional reflexivity (and some ongoing debates over research priorities).

Again, I would like to base retention upon teaching and bring other significant rewards (not necessarily monetary ones) to faculty research.

In a post-tenure university, the activity of doing research can be valorized in ways that also improve the practice of science.