Contingent Faculty: Living on the Academic Edge Series

Feb 3, 2016

Credit Creative Commons

The general public might think of universities as places for learning – and that would make teaching a valued resource, but a growing number of people at the head of college classrooms are making less than the minimum wage, have no job security and no benefits.  In this three-part series, Sandy Hausman reports that a majority of college instructors are not tenured or even on track to full-time, tenured positions.

Rose Forp spent many years training adults in the workplace.  Over time, it dawned on her that she loved to teach.

“I loved being able to take ideas, explain them and then see that goes on in the eyes.”

So she quit her job and went back to school – to get the degree she needed to teach at the college level, but when it came time to look for a full-time post, she was dismayed to find slim pickings.

“You cannot imagine the number of jobs today that you see:  Visiting assistant professor – one year only.  You see that nine times out of ten.”

In fact, a majority of those who teach college are known as contingent faculty.  Full-timers may be salaried, but part-time adjunct professors get a flat fee for each course they teach, with no guarantee of on-going employment. Peter Schmidt is a senior writer with the Chronicle of Higher Education.

At a doctoral institution, on average, 32% of the instructors are part-time, and about 21% are full-time contingent.”

Few have benefits, and Schmidt says the pay is often poor.

"Top research universities will pay them nearly $5,000 per course, but at a mid-size rural community college, some are making only $1,000 for every course they teach, and so we’ve done stories here at the Chronicle of people who are actually homeless. They’re looking at a life of poverty."

Some schools in small towns or rural areas have defied this trend.  Virginia Tech says less than 15% of its faculty members are part-time, and 70% of full-timers are tenured or on track to get tenure.  Jack Finney is Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs.

“In an urban area, there is a group of people who wish to be affiliated with the university, and they are willing to come in and teach one, two or three classes, and universities located in urban areas have saved money by hiring on contingent faculty on a part-time basis.  Because of our geographic area and the availability of expertise, we have not gone down that road.”

But at George Mason University in Northern Virginia, a group called the New Faculty Majority says more than half of those who teach are grad students or contingent faculty.  Research Director Marisa Allison helped survey 244 of them and found many were hired just before the start of school – given limited training and time to prepare.

“Folks will be hired at the last minute and then also fired at the last minute depending on how enrollment turns out, and so we found in our survey at George Mason that 25% of the respondents were given one week or less to prepare for their courses.”

GMU’s Provost David Wu says that issue is one of many being addressed by a newly formed task force on adjunct professors.

“You know instead of sweeping it under the rug, we want to put this on the table and really address these issues head on.”

One matter unlikely to be discussed at this and other schools is non-tenured  faculty members’ right to speak their minds.  Again the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Peter Schmidt.

“If they start being outspoken what can happen is the next time their contract comes up, they just don’t get a contract.  No one tells them why.  They’re just not working at that place anymore. “

Which is why we used a pseudonym for Rose Forp.  She’s taught at Virginia Tech, at George Mason and Georgetown.  She says her reviews are excellent, but she’s not sure she’ll ever get a full-time, tenured position.  In our next report, we’ll explain why colleges and universities rely on contingent faculty. 


Fifty years ago, more than 75% of college faculty members were full-time and had tenure or were on track to get it.  Today, only a third are part of that elite group.  Many of those doing the teaching at American universities are poorly paid, have no job security and limited benefits.  Some have PhD’s but still qualify for government assistance to buy food.  

Students from Virginia who enroll at George Mason University this fall will pay about $27,000 a year in tuition and fees, room and board, books and other expenses.  Kids from out-of-state will pay $20,000 more than that, but a recent survey found little of that money goes to non-tenured part-time faculty members and people teaching on contract.

“46% live at or near poverty level, and being in the DC Metro area this is one of the highest cost of living areas of the nation, that is something that is very problematic to make ends meet.”

That’s Marisa Allison, Director of Research for the New Faculty Majority – a group organized to advocate for those who teach part-time or have short-term contracts but are not on the tenure track. 

Provost, David Wu, says pay at GMU is competitive, and some adjuncts, who teach one or two courses do quite well.

“Adjunct faculty in the law school and engineering school may pay very differently than in a different college and that’s very much market driven.”

He adds that George Mason has a responsibility to ensure that higher education is affordable, and that’s increasingly difficult according to John Barnshaw with the American Association of University Professors.

“For public institutions, it really gets back to total state appropriations -- that when we saw the financial crisis hit, many states had to cut their total state appropriations.  Most of them have not restored those, and in Virginia they're down about 11% over the last five years.”

He says private schools also suffered during the financial downturn.

“Their endowments took a big hit as a result of the financial crisis, and there’s essentially a lot more competition for grants and contracts and foundational gifts and donations and that kind of thing, so those institutions are feeling the squeeze as well.”

And while wealthy donors may offer to pay for buildings that will bear their names or endow special chairs for prominent faculty members, few want to pay the salaries of those who teach basic undergraduate courses.

The University of Virginia declined to comment on this trend.  At Virginia Tech, Vice Provost Jack Finney says 70% of full-time faculty members are tenured or on the tenure track, and many of those teaching part-time have other jobs.

“A good portion of them have jobs elsewhere, but some number is a group of people who only wish to work very part-time but stay involved with their academic roots.  Of the 244 people who are teaching part-time, I would say maybe a third of them are employed full-time or retired faculty from Virginia Tech.”

And George Mason’s Provost, David Wu, says many part-time contingent faculty members bring important real world experience to the classroom.

“Some of the members of our adjunct faculty are former Congressman.  We have the former director of the CIA as one of our adjunct faculty and the former director of  the National Security Agency. It goes on and on.  We have professional engineers, lawyers, musicians, artists and journalists.”

He says those who work full-time on contract get full benefits, while part-timers have access to a retirement plan, discounted parking and tuition waivers. The deal at George Mason may improve further thanks to activities on other D.C. area campuses.  


Less than a third of each dollar spent on higher education today goes to those who do the teaching.  The rest is spent on administration, campus maintenance and other services students expect for the often high tuitions they pay, but that situation may be changing as low-paid faculty members join unions and find new ways to get better compensation.  

You might expect a woman who has years of professional experience, a PhD and great reviews from students to be paid a working wage for teaching at schools like Virginia Tech, Georgetown and George Mason University, but Rose Forp – not her real name – could qualify for government assistance were it not for her husband’s income.  Many contingent or adjunct professors get no health insurance, and some lack the usual perks of a white collar job – a computer, a copy machine – even an office.

“You have adjuncts who are running from one college to another, literally working out of their cars, or they have a little bag with wheels on it, because they’re moving quickly from one place to another.  Their papers, their books are all with them.” 

And as she rushes from one class to the next, she often sees where millions of university dollars are being spent.

“You see beautiful new buildings or buildings in construction, but they always tell you, ‘That’s from another budget, and we have to cut costs.’  And where do they cut costs?  And where do they cut costs?  In the teaching.”

So Forp and other contingent faculty around Washington, D.C. are joining unions.  The American Association of University Professors was slow to begin organizing graduate students, part-timers and full-time contract employees who teach.

Peter Schmidt, a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education, says existing members of the AAUP weren’t sure they wanted to support these new members of the profession.

“These other members were kind of seen as competitors for resources and their existence was seen as a little bit of a threat for tenure, and so some other institutions you don’t normally see associated with higher education stepped into the gap: the United Autoworkers, for example, United Steelworkers, the Service Employees International Union is a big organizer right now.”

That’s right – the Service Employees International. 

“Which is a group that normally represents the cafeteria workers and janitors. While adjuncts typically have a much higher education level, their incomes are roughly the same.  They’re dealing with the same kinds of bread and butter issues and the same level of job insecurity.”

Virginia law bars public universities from negotiating with unions, but because the Service Employees are organizing at schools in nearby Washington, D.C., the pressure may be on at George Mason, which must compete with Georgetown,  American,  George Washington and Howard Universities for top teachers.   Again, Provost David Wu:

“We want to attract the most talented people to work here and teach our students, and to maintain that, we have to be very conscious of our pay scale and whether our salaries are competitive.”

As organizers target other big cities, schools in smaller places like Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Lexington and Blacksburg, may also find their best faculty members lured away.  And as they push for better pay and benefits, organizers hope those who pay tuition will speak up.  Again, Professor Rose Forp:

“Where s the voice of the students, and then where are the parents.? I would want them to have every professor be fully engaged and interested in the education and in the teaching.  Yes – research and publications are important, but the ability to impart knowledge is really important.”

If they’re short-changing teachers, she concludes, universities are short changing their students.