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From the Editor

Contingent Faculty Members: More Alike Than Different?

Reprinted from the Summer 2010 MLA Newsletter

Several readers wrote in response to my last Newsletter column, “Three Myths about the Academic Workforce: Let’s Get Real,” to suggest that contingent faculty members have more in common than I claimed. After all, contingency as a category must confer more commonalities than differences as far as working conditions go, correct? The answer depends in part on how you interpret existing data on the academic workforce, so let’s have a look.

First, let’s remind ourselves that non-tenure-track faculty members do the majority of postsecondary teaching today. In the MLA’s Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit, the 2008 study of the demography of the faculty in English and foreign languages shows that in “four-year institutions, faculty members working off the tenure track, whether full- or part-time, make up about 60% of all faculty members in English and about 50% in foreign languages. In two-year colleges, the figure rises to approach 80% for English and almost 87% in foreign languages” (Laurence 2). In the issue brief released in February by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, figure 3 includes graduate teaching assistants and shows close to 75% of the instructional workforce in all fields in 2007 to be made up of non-tenure-track faculty members.

So what are the differences that lead me to say that all contingent faculty members are not alike? In the first place, not all faculty members off the tenure track teach part-time. The full-time non-tenure-track positions have been growing at a higher rate than any other employment category; between 1995 and 2005, across all fields in degree-granting two- and four-year institutions, the number of full-time non-tenure-track faculty members grew by 67.1%, compared with a 61.8% increase in the number of part-time faculty members and a mere 5.6% in tenured and tenure-track faculty members (2007 ADE Ad Hoc Committee 21). Estimates from the 1993 and 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF) suggest that between the two surveys the number of full-time non-tenure-track faculty members teaching English and foreign languages grew by 10.5% and 69.4%, respectively, and constituted over 15% of those teaching in our fields in 2003, when data for the 2004 NSOPF were collected (2007 ADE Ad Hoc Committee 47). Those who teach full-time at one institution usually have a very different experience of department and university life than those who may teach only one course there. Those who teach one course and have full-time work elsewhere—and on the 2004 NSOPF 28.0% the entire non-tenure-track faculty in English and 17.7% in foreign languages reported having full-time jobs outside postsecondary teaching (Natl. Center)—might find their instructional duties more satisfying than those who string together classes at several colleges to make ends meet.

Another important consideration is whether faculty members have long-term or short-term commitments from the institution that employs them. Many of us in the field of Spanish, for example, know non-tenure-track faculty members (full- or part-time) who teach a limited set of courses (often first- and second-year language courses) on a continuing basis. Their students see them semester after semester; they often work side-by-side with their tenure-track colleagues in planning department activities and events. These faculty members may do advising, attend faculty meetings, engage in curricular planning, and so on. (The MLA believes that all part-time faculty members should be compensated for the work they do in addition to teaching.) Perhaps the department or university has thought carefully about the role that these faculty members play and has created appropriate job descriptions and compensation packages. As long as the balance between the tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty is appropriate (see the MLA Executive Council’s recommended percentages), the current job system can work well in theory.

We also see differences among contingent faculty members in the statistics on earnings. On the 2004 NSOPF, part-time faculty members in the humanities reported earning an average basic institutional salary of just over $10,000 in calendar year 2003. (All dollar amounts are in 2003 dollars.) Salaries ranged from $2,000 on average for the bottom 10% of earners to $22,000 for the top 10%. The graph shows salary ranges for part-time faculty members in the humanities in more detail; 28.1% earned less than $4,000 in basic salary in calendar year 2003, while 14.0% earned $20,000 or more. These figures are salaries from respondents’ primary postsecondary employers; some respondents earned additional income from teaching at other colleges and universities. Variations in household income further illustrate differences among contingent faculty members. Household incomes ranged from $24,000 for the bottom 10% to $125,000 for the top 10% in 2003. These wide ranges in salary and income suggest significant disparities in standards of living for contingent faculty members and thus in their experiences of contingency.

Salary Ranges for Part-Time Humanities Faculty Members in 2003, by Percentage
Salary Ranges for Part-Time Humanities Faculty Members in 2003, by Percentage

I hope I’ve indeed shown that all contingent faculty members are not alike in significant ways, but I don’t think our main problem lies in the accuracy of this perception. What is obvious by now is that the classification “non-tenure-track faculty” is too broad to describe all the experiences of those in contingent positions. We should be asking some pressing questions as the academic workforce goes through more changes. Should the majority of those teaching in postsecondary institutions go without the protections of tenure or its equivalent? What is the appropriate terminal degree for different levels of postsecondary teaching? Is the current four-tiered system (teaching and research faculty, tenure- and non-tenure-track faculty) appropriate for today’s students and for the kinds of careers we expect society to afford those who earn graduate degrees in our fields? I could go on, but there’s one fundamental question I want to leave you with, one I ask myself every day: Can’t we as a profession agree to do whatever is necessary so that all academic positions offer adequate compensation, job security, and professional dignity?

Rosemary G. Feal signature

Works Cited

Coalition on the Academic Workforce. One Faculty Serving All Students. Coalition on the Academic Workforce, Feb. 2010. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.

Laurence, David. Demography of the Faculty: A Statistical Portrait of English and Foreign Languages. Modern Language Association. MLA, 10 Dec. 2008. Web. 29 Mar. 2010.

MLA Executive Council. MLA Issue Brief: The Academic Workforce. Modern Language Association. MLA, 2009. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty. Natl. Center for Educ. Statistics, 2005. Web. 29 Mar. 2010.

A National Survey of Part-Time/Adjunct Faculty. Issue of American Academic 2 (2010): 1–16. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.

2007 ADE Ad Hoc Committee on Staffing. Education in the Balance: A Report on the Academic Workforce in English. Modern Language Association. MLA, 10 Dec. 2008. Web. 29 Mar. 2010.
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Rosemary Feal
MLA Executive Director Rosemary G. Feal
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© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.