Underpaid and Underappreciated: A Portrait of Part-time Faculty

Robert B. Townsend, September 2012

Figure 3It will come as no surprise that faculty employed in part-time and adjunct positions are often underpaid and underappreciated, but a new report from the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) adds some hard numbers to back up the anecdotes.1 Drawing on responses from 10,331 faculty members employed in part-time teaching positions in fall 2010, the CAW report demonstrates the limited pay, support, and appreciation provided to most of those employed in those positions.

The results closely resemble findings from a very similar survey of history faculty conducted back in 1999.2 For the history field, both surveys found that most of the respondents consider these jobs their primary employment, with only about one-quarter of those employed part time in history reporting that they teach in these positions alongside another full-time job. But their continuing commitment to and enthusiasm for teaching is evident in the number of years the respondents spend in these positions. In history, for instance, a majority of the respondents (386 of the 747 respondents employed part-time) had been employed in that capacity for six years or more.

But the average payment per course remains relatively meager—only $2,700 for faculty in all fields in fall 2010, with history faculty in these positions earning slightly below the average at $2,600. And the survey respondents indicated that they generally did not receive pay increases for working in a position for multiple years—indicating there is little premium for experience in these positions.

Regardless of their relationship to the work, it is notable that large portions of the respondents in all the disciplines indicated income from these positions was either "essential" or "very important" to their livelihood. In history, 73.5 percent of the faculty members employed part time and 90 percent of the respondents with annual household incomes below $45,000 emphasized how important income from part-time employment was to their finances.

The obvious importance of contingent faculty to the functioning of our institutions of higher education is not signified by commensurate levels of support from their institutions. The responses to some of the workplace support questions, for instance, provide additional data about how the different types of contingent faculty fit into the larger ecosystem of their departments. Respondents reported that they are

  • far less likely to have office space or computer support than their full-time colleagues;

  • rarely compensated for work outside the classroom that was part of the teacher's academic functions; and

  • generally not supported in their efforts to maintain a program of productive research, even when they work at at doctoral institutions.

The responses on benefits (see Figure 1) highlight how institutions devalue this type of employment, and how the system in general is premised on these part-time employees having other full- or part-time jobs. Only 22.6 percent of the part-time faculty in all fields received health care benefits from their academic employers, and just 14.4 percent of the history respondents. And 54.8 percent of the respondents in all fields were relying on another source for their health care—either a spouse or another employer—while 59.3 percent of the historians had a second source. That left more than a third of the part-time faculty without any reported resource for health insurance.

Figure 1

There is a similar statistic in the area of retirement benefits. Although twice as many of the respondents employed part time reported that they draw (or will draw) retirement benefits from their academic employers (a total of 41.4 percent), 34.1 percent indicated that they have to rely on a different employer for their retirement benefits.

The most important variable affecting both salary and benefits for part-time faculty seemed to be the employing institution type, as institutions that employ higher proportions of a particular type of contingent employee seemed to do a slightly better job in supporting their work. For instance, it appears that faculty members employed at colleges conferring associate's degrees were a bit more likely to be paid for service beyond the classroom—12 percent of the respondents with employment in those institutions reported payment for department meetings, and 15.7 percent reported compensation for holding office hours. This compared to compensation levels in the low single digits for faculty members employed elsewhere.

Two-year colleges also seem a bit more likely to offer regular salary increases and job security to part-time employees who stay over an extended period of time. However, respondents from four-year institutions indicated that their employers were a bit more generous in offering support for research grants, but not nearly as much as one might have guessed given the relative difference in the missions of two- and four-year institutions.

The other variable that showed some notable differences was the issue of union representation, which also seemed to have an effect on the working conditions for contingent faculty members. The presence of unions and collective bargaining agreements increased the likelihood of regular salary increases and job security after extended employment. Among those employed part time, only 12.1 percent of the respondents at nonunion institutions reported regular salary increases, as compared to 33.9 percent of the faculty with union representation. And where only 3.9 percent of the respondents at nonunion schools reported job security for extended service, 19.4 percent at unionized institutions reported some sense of security. Twice as many part-time employees at unionized institutions as their counterparts at nonunion institutions reported receiving payment for cancelled classes, office hours, and department meetings. It is worth noting, however, that in both cases, the proportions of part-time employees receiving such remunerations were quite small.

The numbers are striking and revealing (see, for example, Figure 2). But there's even more emotional impact contained in the Wordle text cloud used as a visual at the front of the report. It depicts the responses to an open question about the biggest challenges they face as contingent faculty. Not surprisingly, "job," "security," and "time" all stand out. But the most important word here is "lack"—as it's the absence of so many of these things that looms large. The dominance of the word "faculty" also points to one of the largest recurring concerns from respondents, the perceived lack of collegiality and respect from many of their colleagues.

Figure 2

In the end, the data allow us to see that the problems of contingent faculty employment extend beyond the basic questions of dollars and benefits, and provide a more holistic view of the lives and livelihood of faculty employed in these positions.

Robert B. Townsend is the deputy director of the American Historical Association. He served on the CAW subcommittee that drafted the original survey, processed and analyzed the data, and prepared the report for the Coalition.

Notes

1. The full report, "A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members: A Summary of Findings on Part-Time Faculty Respondents to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce Survey of Contingent Faculty Members and Instructors," is available on the Coalition on the Academic Workforce site at www.academicworkforce.org/CAW_portrait_2012.pdf .

2. Robert Townsend, "Part-time Faculty Surveys Highlight Disturbing Trends," Perspectives (October 2000), 3–6.