Academic Employment Numbers: A Closer Look

Articles about employment in higher education sometimes mention that 75% of today’s college instructors are adjuncts. That number—or at least the idea that there are very many adjuncts employed by universities—seems to inform various discussions about academic training and employment (such as whether there are too many philosophy PhDs — here and here, for example). Is that figure correct?

If Phillip Magness, an historian and adjunct professor at George Mason University, is correct, the answer is No. He observes that people (especially those in the media) assume that “non-tenure-track” means “adjunct.” That assumption is mistaken. He writes:

The false 75% figure, and others like it, actually refers to the approximate number of non-tenure track “contingent” faculty in the United States – a number that includes several hundred thousand full time professors who have renewable appointments with benefits and are paid at levels comparable to a tenure track hire. Adjuncts actually comprise about 45% of all faculty when you include the heavily distorted for-profit college industry. In traditional not-for-profit higher ed, adjuncts only make up about one third of the faculty.

He shares the relevant data here. There, he notes:

Practically none of the news stories on the so-called “adjunct majority” indicate that they are referring to patterns that are most evident at places like the University of Phoenix, or that include community colleges where adjuncts have long been the norm. Rather, they invariably suggest that the “adjunct explosion” is taking place at normal 4-year universities. They toss out the 76% statistical trope as if it were true of Harvard, UCLA, Texas A&M, and Ohio State, when nothing could be further from the truth.

In short, relax. Traditional 4-year degree higher ed isn’t descending into an adjunct death spiral where three quarters of the faculty are also part time replacements for formerly full time positions. If you take out the For-Profits and community colleges, the adjunct totals are a comparatively tame rate of only about a third of the faculty. And that rate, I submit, is both a reasonable expectation and a beneficial one as it reflects on the use of adjuncts to augment and supplement classroom offerings that are still very much situated amongst a full time faculty core.

Magness’ analysis is consistent with the data we have for philosophy. As reported here last year, the Humanities Departmental Survey conducted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences indicated that 69% of philosophy faculty are tenured or tenure-track, and that the instructor of record for philosophy undergraduate courses, on average, is a tenured or tenure-track professor 73% of the time.

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