The adjunct /TT debate

In Sunday’s NYTimes, there is a “dialogue” titled “Academia’s Two Tracks”. This debate is a series of letters in answer to the first statement, and then allows a response by that first person.

I like the image they have:


Which is a pretty good caricature of the issue. The impetus for the article was a study from the NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research), a place with bizarrely (for scientists) interesting (again) articles. Unfortunately all you get at the link is the abstract, which I give you below, so that you don’t have to have the heart crushing disappointment of going to the website and not getting the article.

This study makes use of detailed student-level data from eight cohorts of first-year students at Northwestern University to investigate the relative effects of tenure track/tenured versus non-tenure line faculty on student learning. We focus on classes taken during a student’s first term at Northwestern, and employ a unique identification strategy in which we control for both student-level fixed effects and next-class-taken fixed effects to measure the degree to which non-tenure line faculty contribute more or less to lasting student learning than do other faculty. We find consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from non-tenure line professors in their introductory courses. These differences are present across a wide variety of subject areas, and are particularly pronounced for Northwestern’s average students and less-qualified students.

There may be statistics, and analysis to support this view, or not. One cannot tell.

Back to the NYTimes which has a mixed record of turning  research into palatable stories for people who by and large have 1rst world problems. This interaction starts with a letter from someone (Keith Hoeller) who writes about the 2-tiers (TT/adj) and the first response is from the first author of the paper, (David Figlio). The study which says that adjuncts “tend” to be better teachers and “outperform” TT professors who are research-intensive, and see teaching as a secondary calling. And, then Hoeller points out the differences in lives, job security, benefits, etc in both classes. It is nothing we haven’t seen/heard/read/been subject to in the past.

The first reply is interesting because it says Things Are Different at Northwestern (where the study was done). Figlio says that they are comparing apples that are full time, secure teachers to apples that are full time, secure researchers. There are other letters defending how hard tenured faculty work. There are the letters from adjuncts with stories of their experiences, usually wretched. Nice political move, administrators: set the two groups as opposing each other, and then they won’t be hassling you about the problems each faces. Much of this part of the debate has been gone over before.

The ugliest letter is from Mark Brunson who is head of the Environment & Society dept at Utah State University (my highlight):

As head of an academic department at a doctoral-research university, I am not surprised at the Northwestern study findings. In fact, I would be dismayed if this were not the case, because when I look to hire a non-tenure-track faculty member, I am looking specifically for a good teacher. When I hire someone for a tenure-track position, I look for someone who can teach, yes, but more important conduct fundable research that meets the university’s land-grant mission.

We cannot afford to pay adjunct faculty as much as tenure-track faculty because their jobs generally don’t include bringing in external dollars that help keep the whole enterprise going. At a time when state legislatures keep cutting back on resources to universities, I don’t see that we will be able to resolve that discrepancy anytime soon.

You can’t get more explicit about that.  For humanities/social science departments that’s largely state budgets. For science types, its the NIH, NSF, DOD, USDA, etc – federal funds. We know how well that’s been working.

We can argue all day about how this came to be (and point fingers at Boomers, or Millennials). And while insight into the past may help avoid it in the future, it will not solve what is staring us in the face today. Sally Rockey says that NIH has taken limiting the number of grants off the table, but there is a problem, and sometimes I think NIH has its head in the sand. More than just talking amongst the believers, I need to figure out, for me, what I can do to change the system. I think every senior person needs to acknowledge the problem, and then ask themselves what next. One may argue for self-interest here (“just because I have 3 R01’s a lab with 12 grad students doesn’t make me the problem”), but there are externalities – costs that everyone who does science incurs but does not pay.

In the end, it is sad to know that external dollars keep the enterprise going, but worse that no one is ashamed to say so in print in the New York Times.


One thought on “The adjunct /TT debate

  1. “In the end, it is sad to know that external dollars keep the enterprise going, but worse that no one is ashamed to say so in print in the New York Times.”
    Do you mean that it is sad that government does not provide sufficient funds to pay good teachers a decent wage? Do you mean that it is sad that money for research projects is siphoned off (through indirects) to pay for other university functions? Do you mean that it is sad that scientists have to spend way too many hours applying for funding rather than doing and directing research projects?
    So many things about this situation are sad. It is said that adjuncts are not paid well. It is sad that their are no incentives for scientists to become better teachers. It is sad that politicians convince the public that professors are living high on the hog, just sit around philosophizing, and never produce anything – so that the politicians can cut funding for education and science and appear as reformers and heroes to the tax-payer.
    My uni used to have teaching faculty, people whose only job was to teach undergrads and med students. Those jobs are gone, and those courses are all now taught by tenure-track and tenured faculty whose primary job is research. There is no reward for doing a good job at teaching and teaching is generally viewed the other way, i.e., those not bringing in grant dollars are punished by being given more classes to teach.

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