Depending on the Contingent: The Hidden Costs for History

Linda K. Kerber, April 2006

When I was hired to teach a course in the afternoon and evening school of Queens College of the City University of New York during the early 1960s while I was still a graduate student at Columbia University, I only vaguely understood myself to be "contingent faculty." To the extent that I did, it was the faculty part to which I paid attention. In the daytime I was a graduate student—at the bottom of the academic hierarchy, struggling to finish a dissertation stretching out before me with its limitless expectations (there is always more research to do, one's sentences can always be better crafted, one's argument more finely honed, when is enough enough? will this manuscript ever be ready for defense?). But in my classroom at Queens, students were deferential (it was the early 1960s, after all). I sounded like I knew what I was talking about (I shiver now when I think of the grand generalizations in which I indulged on the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, World War I) and—not least because of the great diversity of the students—I generally emerged from each class having learned something. As for the "contingent" part—well, that was fine, too. Confident as I was that when I achieved the PhD I would easily find a full-time, tenure-track job, "contingent" employment in Queens College night school suited me just fine.

So did another contingent job, in the spring of 1970, teaching one course at San José State University in California, with a toddler and an infant to care for, a dissertation to revise, and a partner's modest salary to sustain the household. But it wouldn't suit me just fine for long, and I knew it. What I didn't know was how minor a role contingent appointments played then in the profession as a whole. Even a decade later, in 1981, as Robert Townsend reminds us in his report in last month's Perspectives, less than 9 percent of faculty in history departments (in two- and four-year institutions) were neither tenured nor tenure track.1 We are applauding a substantial growth in full-time faculty positions in history; indeed history is one of the fastest growing academic fields. Townsend tells us "the number of historians employed part time at four-year institutions fell a bit more than 7 per cent in real terms" [from 1998 to 2003].2 History faculties are markedly less reliant on contingent faculty than universities as a whole.

But even with this improvement, the proportion of history faculty employed part time at four-year institutions in 2003 was roughly 25 percent, a figure that contrasts sharply with the situation in 1981; if one includes two-year institutions as well, barely 57 percent of the history faculty were employed on the tenure ladder. In the academy as a whole, trends are chilling; in the humanities, barely 41 percent are tenured or tenure track; in the social sciences barely 51 percent.3 It will not be easy to keep the 57 percent level, and harder still to raise it back up to 1980s levels.

Who counts as contingent faculty—an underreported and unstable category—is notoriously hard to determine. History departments often poorly understand their own reliance on contingent faculty. Someone called a "lecturer" at one institution is called an "adjunct professor" at another. Some non-tenure-track faculty have reasonably stable multiyear renewable contracts, full fringe benefits, and are engaged in the collegial life of the department. Sometimes these arrangements represent a comfortable accommodation between the needs of the department, the skills of the faculty member, and geographic constraints. Sometimes they represent a buyer taking advantage of the vulnerability of the historian to buy their skills at reduced rates.4

Sometimes contingent faculty apply for unemployment benefits in between jobs (thus enabling state and federal agencies to measure them); often they do not, either because they do not know that they are eligible for benefits, or because they are fearful of drawing the attention of their institution to themselves (since employers pay a portion of unemployment benefits). They may live in a state where the law's assumption that the applicant may not have a "reasonable assurance" of being hired has been interpreted so generously that even though they have no job, they are denied eligibility.5 When a selective four-year college hires a historian to replace a tenured member who goes on leave, with a teaching load comparable to that of the permanent faculty member and with full fringe benefits, that is one kind of contingent employment; when that same college hires the same historian the next year with the same teaching load but no fringe benefits, the employment has changed considerably for the worse; but few outsiders notice, survey data rarely report it, and even colleagues may not know that the dean has cut a different deal.

The boundary between contingent faculty and postgraduate students is relatively clear in the laboratory sciences, where it has long been the practice for new PhDs to take one- or two-year postdoctoral positions before engaging the national job market directly. In history (and in the humanities in general), however, the boundary between contingent faculty and postgraduate students has been blurring. What the AAUP has marked as the insufficiency of regular tenure-track positions "to meet teaching and research needs" is camouflaged when departments hire new PhDs, often but not always their own, and understand doing so to be a contribution to supporting these junior scholars while they hone their skills and strengthen their ability to compete in the national market.6 These opportunities are generally welcomed by the new PhDs, and may well be advantageous to all. But an authentic postdoctoral program would offer low levels of teaching obligation and full fringe benefits, and we have no measures of how reliably these ad hoc arrangements do either. My own informal inquiries—among random colleagues at Research I universities, comprehensive universities, and selective four-year colleges—reveal enormous disparities among these appointments. Most expect full teaching loads in return for modest pay (lower than the average assistant professor's salary); some expect higher than regular teaching loads. The AAUP reports that "in doctoral institutions, full-time non-tenure track faculty teach 50 percent more hours than tenure-track faculty."7 When the teaching requirements are low (one or two courses), health benefits are rarely offered. Whether these appointments deserve the name of "postdoc" varies enormously.

At universities with PhD programs the reliance on contingent faculty for teaching students elides all too easily into questions of whether graduate students who teach are doing so primarily as part of their education or primarily as university employees whose presence permits the institution to maintain undergraduate enrollments despite ever worsening faculty-student ratios.
These trends are powerful, pushed by forces that are reshaping the national economy. It is estimated that some 25 percent of American workers have part-time, temporary, and contract nonstandard jobs. Only 20 percent of contingent workers receive employee health benefits; many such workers rely on health insurance provided in a standard job held by their spouse. Many sociologists and labor economists believe that the extent of nonstandard employment is undercounted.8 The academy is not excused from these national pressures.

Public institutions especially are under grave economic pressures. The AAUP's 2003 report observes that in 1980, "state governments supported almost a third (31 percent) of the cost of higher education in public institutions... [and] federal appropriations [accounted for 15 percent]." In 1996 state budgets offered only 23 percent of the cost and the federal government only 12 percent. At my own University of Iowa, state appropriations for our General Education Fund declined by 15.3 percentage points between 2000 and 2006. Pressures on institutions to limit their expenses are severe; the short run appeal of turning to contingent faculty obvious.

The temptation to substitute temporary workers for tenure-track or permanent staff in institutions like museums, archives, and historical sites is especially great when the supply of qualified professionals exceeds the demand, as it does in many (but not all) subfields. As reported in the January 2006 Perspectives, only a few fields, most outside of U.S. and European history, show a reasonable match between positions advertised and the number of new PhDs.

No single disciplinary group can reshape powerful economic forces. But we can stand our ground. We can reveal and publicize the hidden costs of reliance on contingent faculty.

We often decry the trend to think of students (and those who pay their bills) as consumers of academic services, but it may be wise to make transparent the varying degrees of commitment that institutions make to those who teach. My memories of those who taught me in college are not limited to what happened in a single classroom. If I thought a teacher was wonderful, I took another course (or two) with him or her. They were there to advise me about graduate school and professional life; they were there to write letters of recommendation for me; and some were there to provide some perspective as I made my way through the quicksand of graduate school (all the better because they watched from some distance) and, even through the years later, to share the happiness and sorrows in my life, professional and personal. My parents understood that if we were very lucky, my tuition would buy that possibility (although it would not guarantee that). If my college had populated its faculty with part-time teachers, would my life have been so enriched? Contingent faculty are as dedicated and conscientious as full-time teachers, but the structural defects of the system deflect their efforts to be nurturing mentors over the long run.

When I paid tuition for my own sons' college education, I assumed I was buying a product from a nonprofit corporation that sustained a stable faculty and treated its employees decently. If a high proportion of those who taught them in their first year were not likely to be there to advise them when they are seniors, we ought to have been able to factor that knowledge into our selection decisions. I would want to know if their universities were paying health care coverage for their teachers; if not, we might well have decided on different institutions. But it takes a careful reading of a college's catalogues over the course of several years to have any chance of discerning whether it—or certain departments within it—is excessively dependent on contingent faculty.

Hidden in the refusal of institutions to make little or no long-term commitment to the academic careers of contingent faculty is the disparate impact on women, who are far more likely than men to be found in part- or full-time non-tenure track positions. The AAUP's 2003 report indicated, for instance, that in 2000, "women made up 55 percent of lecturers . . . and only 21 percent of full professors." This disparity is linked to the severe constraints that tenure-track positions have placed on the possibility of sustaining marriages and bearing children, chillingly reinforcing gender disparities in ways that privilege men with nonprofessional partners and undermine academic women.

Thanks in large part to the work of Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden, we can now recognize that the same academy that awards women their PhDs by the same standards it has required of men, has also—with a hypocrisy that can only be excused as stemming from inattentiveness or naiveté—pushed women into contingent employment if they are to maximize their chances for stable personal relationships and family life.9 "The chances that a tenure-track woman will divorce are twice those of a second-tier woman" (whom Mason and Goulden describe as "not working or who are adjunct, part-time or 'gypsy' scholars and teachers"). Or, to put it another way, the chances that a tenure-track woman will divorce are "around 50 percent more than those of a male colleague in a tenure-track position" (as indicated in figure 4 in Mason and Goulden's essay). We have no similar measures of stability and instability of same-sex relationships among professionals, but it is not hard to predict that such partnerships will also experience severe strain.

And we now have a statistic that cannot be repeated too often: across the academy, women with a child entering their household by birth or adoption within five years of receiving the PhD are 27 percent less likely than their male counterparts to achieve tenure.10

What counts as "free choice" about whether and when to have children turns out to be shaped also by fears to which institutional practice is a major contributor. We can name these fears and—as gender equity task forces in many institutions are now demanding—we can insist that we address them so that they cease to refill the pool of exploitable academic labor.

What's at stake? When the joint AHA-OAH Committee on Part-time and Adjunct Employment surveyed historians four years ago, they found that by far the overwhelmingly most frequent answer to the question of why people were working part time was that they could not find a full-time position. Sometimes they tested a national job market, sometimes a local or regional one. When institutions support fewer tenurable faculty lines than their teaching and research commitments require, contingent employment will fill the gap. When history departments and the institutions in which they reside confer a substantially larger number of PhDs than the market—understood not only as the academy but as the entire range of historical practice—will absorb, we doom many smart people to frustration and disappointment and undermine our own profession. When institutions make little or no long-term commitment to temporary faculty, they in turn cannot make long-term commitments to colleagues, students, or to the scholarship—produced by them as authors and as peer-reviewing critics—that sustains the practice of history.

Finally, as the AAUP Policy Statement of 2003 eloquently put it, "Because faculty tenure is the only secure protection for academic freedom in teaching, research, and service, the declining percentage of tenured faculty means that academic freedom is increasingly at risk." As we marshal our skepticism about trends toward contingent work, we should remember that our skepticism is partly based on a concern for our own prosperity, but it is also deeply grounded in our concern to sustain a profession that we understand to be indispensable to the intellectual, cultural, and political world in which we live.

—Linda K. Kerber (Univ. of Iowa) is president of the AHA.


1. Robert B. Townsend, "Federal Faculty Survey Shows Gains for History Employment but Lagging Salaries," Perspectives 44:3 (March 2006), 4.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. For a discussion of growing despair among contingent faculty, see Robert Townsend and Miriam E. Hauss, "The 2002 AHA-OAH Survey of Part-Time and Adjunct Faculty," Perspectives 40:7 (October 2002), 17–20, and online at ; see also the archive of the columns of the Invisible Adjunct at*/

5. For the struggle to change the law in the state of Washington, see Scott Smallwood, "Scrambling for a Living," Chronicle of Higher Education October 8, 2004.

6. AAUP Policy Statement, "Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession," November 9, 2003, online at

7. Ibid.

8. See Peter S. Fisher, et al., "Nonstandard Jobs, Substandard Benefits," The Iowa Policy Project, February 2006, online at

9. The study, sponsored by the Sloan Foundation and the University of California at Berkeley, is reported in Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden, "Do Babies Matter (Part II)? Closing the Baby Gap," Academe, November–December 2004 and earlier in "Do Babies Matter? The Effect of Family Formation on the Lifelong Careers of Academic Men and Women," Academe, November–December 2002.

10. Mason and Goulden, "Do Babies Matter (Part II)?" The authors state, "We found that men with 'early' babies—those with a child entering their household within five years of their receiving the PhD—are 38 percent more likely than their women counterparts to achieve tenure."