(The New York Times, 30 December 2009)


If you’ve written a few five-figure tuition checks or taken on 10 years’ of debt, you probably think you’re paying to be taught by full-time professors. But it’s entirely possible that most of your teachers are freelancers.

In 1960, 75 percent of college instructors were full-time tenured or tenure-track professors; today only 27 percent are. The rest are graduate students or adjunct and contingent faculty — instructors employed on a per-course or yearly contract basis, usually without benefits and earning a third or less of what their tenured colleagues make. The recession means their numbers are growing.

“When a tenure-track position is empty,” says Gwendolyn Bradley, director of communications at the American Association of University Professors, “institutions are choosing to hire three part-timers to save money.”


While many adjuncts are talented teachers with the same degrees as tenured professors, they’re treated as second-class citizens on most campuses, and that affects students.

It’s sometimes harder to track down adjuncts outside of class, because they rarely have offices or even their own departmental mailboxes.

Many patch together jobs at different colleges to make ends meet, and with commuting, there’s less time to confer with students or prepare for class. It’s not unusual for adjuncts to be hired at the last minute to teach courses they’ve never taught. And with no job security, they may consider it advantageous to tailor classes for student approval.


Colleges tend to play down the increasingly central role of adjuncts. This fall, the American Federation of Teachers complained that some top-ranked universities exaggerated the percentage of full-time faculty to U.S. News & World Report for its rankings. U.S. News declined to investigate.

Another source is the “Compare Higher Education Institutions” search tool at A.F.T.’s Higher Education Data Center (highereddata.aft.org). These are the stats that colleges report to the federal government.

Ask admissions officers point-blank: what percentage of classes and discussion sections are taught by part-timers and graduate assistants, and are they required to hold office hours?

For entry-level classes — the ones tenured faculty famously don’t want to teach — the squeaky wheel often gets a full-time professor, says Harlan Cohen, author of “The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College.” “If you’re not thrilled with your adjunct professor,” he says, “go to the head of the department and see what options are available. They may put you in a different section.”


If you take a strict anti-adjunct stance, you may miss out on some star instructors — Barack Obama taught a seminar on racism and the law at the University of Chicago Law School as an adjunct. Professoring part-time is a hobby for overachieving architects, graphic designers, lawyers and entrepreneurs, all of whom can share insights from real-world experiences that full-time academics haven’t had.

“Before making assumptions that an adjunct is bad, Google them,” Mr. Cohen says. “You may find that real estate teacher is one step removed from Donald Trump’s V.P. on LinkedIn, and these are the types of people you want to meet.”

Read this article at the New York Times.