Over the past three decades, U.S. academic employment has dramatically shifted from mostly full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty to mostly contingent positions.
That's according to a new report from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)which provides data depicting the shift away from tenure to contingent faculty at most U.S. colleges and universities. Utilizing data from the National Center for Education Statistics on patterns of faculty appointments and graduate student employment, AAUP makes clear that there is an ever-increasing reliance on contingent faculty.
Long-standing AAUP policies recognize three types of full-time faculty appointments: tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure track (special appointments). The report notes that U.S. colleges and universities have increasingly relied on faculty holding contingent appointments ineligible for tenure, including those with renewable contracts (full-time). There are also adjunct faculty, who are part-time or temporary.
In fall 1987, only about 33% of faculty members at U.S. colleges and universities were employed part-time. That number rose to 48% as of fall 2021. As of fall 2021, 68% of faculty held contingent appointments, compared to 47% in 1987. Only about 24% of faculty held full-time tenured appointments as of fall 2021, versus 39% in 1987. Women and underrepresented minorities held part-time appointments in greater proportions than men and non-underrepresented minorities. Also, the number of graduate student employees increased 44% from fall 2002 to fall 2021.
The report’s author, Glenn Colby, AAUP senior researcher, said it’s the most common question he receives.
“People want to know, how many faculty have tenure or how many are contingent,” he said.
AAUP has released reports every couple of years on this subject, but this time Colby sought to clarify various aspects. Hesaid the report serves three purposes. First, it brings the numbers up to date. Second, it clarifies what is being counted in terms of contingent and/or part-time. Third, it introduces AAUP’s new website.
“If somebody wants to explore the data further, they can go to our new website,” said Colby, referencing data.aaup.org, which breaks down the data in various ways—by state, region, public and private institutions—and provides tools for disaggregating summary data. It will also be updated regularly, thus providing ongoing information about continuing shifts.
“We want people to see this report as an overview of the national numbers, but if they’re working on an issue in their states or in their college system, they can go and drill down to see what is happening,” said Colby. “There is a lot of information on this website, like salary data and part-time pay.”
Dr. Taylor Odle, an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said institutions face tradeoffs. Paying tenured and tenure-track faculty may lead to cuts in other areas, for example student services.
“Institutions may be in a place where they’re getting decreased state support for public and private institutions,” Odle said. “They’re in an environment now where they’re heavily encouraged to maintain or reduce tuition rates. That puts institutions in a difficult place.”
Colby oversees AAUP’s annual faculty compensation survey and said there is some positive news.
“What I’ve been seeing the last couple of years is more and more institutions are providing longer contract lengths for their non-tenure track faculty,” he said. “They are creating ranked positions with the opportunity for promotion. … To be clear, these are not tenure-line positions. They still lack the basic protections that tenure affords.”
AAUP’s position has shifted slightly, but it still holds that tenure is the primary means of protecting academic freedom and benefits both faculty and students. Overreliance on contingent appointments threatens the success of institutions in fulfilling their obligations to students and society.
“I know a lot of fantastic adjunct and non-tenure-track teachers,” said Odle. “The data that are captured in this report failed to recognize the progress and improvement that has been made for non-tenure-track faculty or folks that aren’t in these traditional roles, like professors of practice, teaching professors and research professors. Most modern institutions have these promotional scales.
“It’s unclear how contingent some of these faculty are,” he added. “Some of these folks may be on year-to-year contracts, but they may have been doing that for the past 10 years. It’s not monolithic.”
From a quantitative perspective, Odle noted that while the contrast from 1987 to present can be stark, it’s been relatively stable for the past 20 years. Further, he hasn’t seen rigorous evidence that demonstrates adjuncts reduce student outcomes.
“If that was the case, then I think these trends would be more problematic,” he added.
Colby said this report shines a light on disparities. At the institutional level, people can become aware that there is a problem and try to mitigate the disparities. With more funding from the states, there is an increased ability to have tenured faculty, he said.
“The goal is for universities and colleges to be able to attract and retain talented faculty members,” Colby said. “Without the protections that tenure affords, it harms higher ed.”