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From the President

Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members and the MLA: A Crowdsourcing Project

Reprinted from the Summer 2012 MLA Newsletter

In my Spring column, I promised I would suggest some ways that the Modern Language Association could promote our standards and recommendations with regard to non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty members. I’m happy to report that between that time and this—a space of only two months—those standards and recommendations have generated more discussion than at any other time since we began issuing them over a decade ago.

Thanks to blogs and Twitter (terms I consider unfortunate, since they suggest that these media cannot support intelligent life), our work on NTT faculty issues was picked up by legions of young scholars, including Josh Boldt, an adjunct professor of English at the University of Georgia. Boldt, pleasantly surprised that the MLA recommends salaries of $6,800 per course for faculty members off the tenure track, used Google Docs to create a spreadsheet that can now be found on his Web site, The Adjunct Project, and invited people to contribute information about their employment contracts—salaries, benefits, governance, and so forth. As of this writing, Boldt has gotten over 1,500 responses, most of which suggested a pay scale in the range of $2,000–$5,000 per course, and his crowdsourcing initiative has been hailed widely in the higher education press.

The MLA is about to embark on a similar enterprise, one that has been in the works for months and one that we hope will bring the working conditions of NTT faculty members to the forefront of discussion. Our new Academic Workforce Data Center will present US Department of Education (DOE) data on the academic workforce in a convenient format that allows users to compare institutions for numbers of faculty members employed full- and part-time and in tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track positions. The MLA database will cover 4,246 degree-granting two- and four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Most interesting, I think, will be the data that allow for comparison between employment conditions in the 1995 and 2009 DOE surveys—although some people might say “shocking” rather than “interesting.” That fourteen-year period witnessed an explosion in the hiring—and exploitation—of NTT faculty labor: undergraduate enrollment increased by forty percent, or by 5.3 million students, and faculty appointments grew by fifty percent, but ninety percent of those additional appointments were NTT positions.

In other words, for the past decade and a half, nine out of every ten new faculty positions in the United States have been off the tenure track. Nor has this phenomenon been confined exclusively to community colleges and teaching universities; even at some well-heeled, high-prestige private institutions with strong enrollments and endowments, the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty members has dropped from eighty percent to just under fifty percent in that fourteen-year span.

In conjunction with the institutional data, the MLA Academic Workforce Data Center is launching a new survey of faculty members—like Boldt’s Adjunct Project, an attempt to get firsthand reporting on academic working conditions across the country at the institution level. The survey will collect information about the courses individuals taught and the compensation and benefits they received; responses will be sought from those working in the sciences and social sciences as well as in the humanities and from across the entire spectrum of faculty employment statuses (full- and part-time, on and off the tenure track). Those data will be collected in future months, and we will report on them when we have a critical mass of information to make available.

Why do we have to do all this? Because we are finding that the conditions for faculty members who teach in contingent positions are still not widely regarded as a problem, especially by people in higher education who think the situation is just fine at their own institutions but may, perhaps, be a problem somewhere else.

Which brings me, inevitably, to the question of the audience for this initiative. As in Boldt’s Adjunct Project, one important audience is made up of NTT faculty members who, because of the precariousness of their positions and the overwhelmingly local nature of the NTT job market (few such positions are advertised nationally), have had no way of finding out about NTT working conditions more systemically. We hope this information will single out the institutions that are doing things right, or that are doing things in the best possible way given all the variables involved—and of course we hope it will identify malefactors as well.

But another audience is made up of higher education administrators, organizations, and reporters, as well as the general public—including students, parents, and their elected representatives. The challenge on that front, of course, is to make the case that the exploitation of NTT faculty members is not only wrong in itself but also bad for students. For though it is a truism that the working conditions of faculty members are the learning conditions of students, it is difficult to demonstrate empirically that the overuse of NTT faculty members has had a deleterious effect on undergraduate education. Indeed, it is potentially dangerous to try to make such a demonstration at all, since doing so invites observers to blame the NTT faculty members themselves, rather than the conditions under which they work, for diminished student outcomes. For that matter, it can also invite observers to blame the allegedly pampered, elite tenured faculty for spending time on research rather than teaching—as some observers are already wont to do.

I welcome your advice and suggestions as we proceed with the MLA Academic Workforce Data Center—and as we try to find ways of making the data work for all faculty members and students.

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Michael Bérubé
2012–13 MLA President Michael Bérubé
© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.