The Myth of “The Myth of the 76% Adjunct Majority”

Phillip W. Magness really ought to know better.

Jobs for Adjuncts-Andrew RFirst of all, according to his own CV, he is currently both Academic Program Director for the (Koch Bros. funded) Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy, School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.

Secondly, adjuncts been down this road before, more than oncetwice, even—with Magness and his ilk. We’re still puzzled by why the little cadre of which Magness is part that styles itself “bleeding heart Libertarians” is so hostile to the idea of treating adjuncts, contingent faculty or whatever you want to call us, equitably, besides their Libertarian politics, but there it is. Anti-education Koch money might also be a factor.

Magness claims in a recent post on his site (Wayback Machine link, just in case.) that, “In reality adjuncts do not make up three fourths of the academic workforce. The actual numbers are not even close.” He then proceeds to engage in antics with semantics and artificially divide up contingent, adjunct, non-tenured full-time, and part-time into separate classes of employees, and completely ignores postdocs and graduate teaching assistants.

Since he specifically calls out both New Faculty Majority and AAUP, we’re responding. But what a waste of weekend time to go over this battle yet again. Maria Maisto, NFM’s President, explains that, “We count graduate students as contingent faculty and try not to get bogged down in the adjunct/contingent labeling debate. Where it’s necessary to make a distinction between part-time and full-time contingent, we do, but it’s just a question of degrees of exploitation.  And we try to point out how full-time TT and tenured faculty and their students are adversely affected by the work creep that also results from the contingent system.” Aaron Barlow, at AAUP’s Academe Blog further demolishes the basic fallacy of the argument Magness is making: “The two groups [contingents and adjuncts] are placed together not because they are identical but because they face many of the same problems within the institutional structures of American higher education.”

While it’s true that the media often erroneously conflate “adjunct” and “contingent,” as Magness points out, it’s not the employee classification according to the university/college that matters, it’s the conditions under which one works. Also, as Maisto adds, “colleges are free to fudge the stats on the numbers and working conditions of contingent faculty—and do so, as they often admit off the record—with impunity.  There is no accountability there because there are no uniform standards for how to define faculty titles and quantify faculty numbers.” The data we have from not only AAUP but The Delphi Project and professional associations like the MLA’s Academic Workforce Data Center still do not give a very rosy picture of faculty employment conditions.

The bottom line is that, no matter what you call us, the numbers still leave tenured and tenure-track faculty with a remaining minority of around 25%, which is a complete reversal of the proportion from the 1970s.

Most disturbing about Magness’s reading of the data is his sanguine opinion that it’s perfectly fine to have only a quarter of your faculty tenured or tenure-track and the rest contingent full or part-time employees without any academic freedom or due process protections. (He writes further about this in a second post sparked by AAUP’s reply and a brief joust with Barlow in the Academe blog’s comments section in which Magness refuses to speak about his motives. More on that later.) Whether the combined numbers of part-time adjunct and full-time contingent are “stable” as he claims, the total number of unprotected, precarious faculty is too darn high, whether it’s 40% or 50% or 75%. The indisputable fact is that money is not being spent on instructor salaries at the level it should be to support them for purposes of student success and retention. Part-time adjuncts/contingents are living on poverty wages (although they all have the option of selling insurance, as Jason Brennan informed us). Students are being shortchanged. Research is suffering.

Community College Misconceptions

Magness also has some odd ideas about community college faculty and the purposes of community colleges that reveal his own elitism and focus on R1 institutions.

III. Community colleges depend far more heavily on adjunct faculty…but this has always been the norm

Listed here as “Associate degree colleges,” community colleges do in fact have adjunct majorities in the neighborhood of 65%. This is not a new trend at community colleges though, which often employ working professionals as part-time instructors. A PhD is usually not required to teach at a community college, and a large number of their course offerings are in technical trades that are not offered at full universities. While they are an important part of the education system, note that community colleges are NOT what most Americans think of when they hear statistical claims about universities and professors.

CC adjuct statsThere’s so much wrong with this statement, it’s hard to know where to start. Let’s take it in order then:

1) The number of contingent faculty at community colleges is far greater than anywhere but for-profit institutions. Several community college systems are entirely contingent-faculty-based now. By this I mean, untenured, often part-time on renewable contracts.

2) “This is not a new trend.” The Ferris State publication At Issue, in a special issue on “Adjunct Faculty in Community Colleges” clearly refutes the idea that contingency is a “not a new trend” in community colleges.  “There can be little doubt that the reliance of community colleges on adjunct faculty has grown significantly over the past several decades, especially with the cuts in budgets that institutions are being forced to make.” They cite evidence of the increasing trend from the National Center for Education Statistics. Of course, since the “trend” started in 1971, it may not seem new to Magness since it’s all he’s ever known. In my personal experience, it’s new. “New” is a relative term. “Insidious” might be a better one.

3) A “large number of their course offerings are in technical trades that are not offered at full universities“—as though this somehow excuses the use of poorly paid adjuncts. While it’s true that community colleges offer courses in some technical trades, taught by professionals who are moonlighting as instructors, this is hardly their only function. Many students start their path to a bachelor’s degree at community colleges, because it’s cheaper, or because they are unsure of themselves, or because they may not yet be baccalaureate-ready. Getting an Associate’s degree is a good way to address all three of those reasons, and one reason why community college students deserve well-supported and well-paid instructors. Part of the boom in adjunct/contingent employment has been in the area of developmental courses in writing, math, and reading that help prepare students who were not admitted to the college of their choice because of poor grades or general unreadiness. (Anecdotally, a friend of mine spent a year in community college getting ready to reapply, successfully, to the Air Force Academy. He completed his tour of duty and now flies for a large commercial airline.)

4) “Community colleges are NOT what most Americans think of when they hear statistical claims about universities and professors.” And he knows this from what poll? I would suggest that in many areas of the country, community colleges are exactly what Americans think of when they hear about adjuncts, because there’s a community college right down the street from them. But I don’t have any data about that either, so it’s just as much speculation as Magness’s claim.

Why? Why?

The real question behind this and other articles like it is why write them? Why post, as an academic from a prestigious university, poorly researched, semantically null, uncollegial tripe like this? Aaron Barlow wonders the same thing:

I’m not sure why Magness wants to denigrate the movement to make adjuncts and contingent hires fully part of the faculty. The “faculty core” he lauds really is fast disappearing, all of his arguments to the contrary. If we as members of the faculty don’t start acting as one faculty, instead of allowing people like Magness to divide us into ever smaller and smaller (and less powerful) groups, education in American is soon going to head into a steep decline.

Essays like this are not doing Magness’s scholarly reputation any favors. Is it merely provocative and sensationalist for an individual scholar to completely contradict, with no data of his own, the data and analysis of a prestigious organization like AAUP? Or is it part of the Koch agenda to discredit higher ed’s ability to police itself to make it ripe for private takeover and political manipulation? It’s certainly a waste of our time refuting it, especially when the writer will apparently learn nothing from this, as he has not from previous responses. But refute it we must for the sake of public perception. There’s too much at stake not to.

And as one Florida adjunct, anonymous because of fear of retaliation responded, “So what if the numbers aren’t 3/4 across the board? Exploit one single human being and it’s still exploitation!”

–Lee Kottner

Update: Magness, who has blocked both me personally and NFM on Twitter, posted this rather charming response, reiterating his data analysis without answering any of the crucial questions posed by NFM and AAUP:

  • Why is is okay to have just a quarter of faculty tenured or on tenure tracks?
  • Why is it acceptable to pay contingents and adjuncts poorly (and where’s he getting that “paid like tenured professors” figure for full time contingents from)?
  • Why is he hell-bent on trashing colleagues?

I also think it’s a bit odd for a historian/political scientist to say that 10 years (in terms of age of data) is not a long time, but 40 years (in terms of a length of trend) is, given how quickly employment data changes and how long most political theories take to come to fruition.

Again, in the end, it’s the working conditions that matter, not how long it’s been happening.

Magness cat lady screencap



7 thoughts on “The Myth of “The Myth of the 76% Adjunct Majority”

  1. I’m sorry for being stupid, but why is it erroneous to conflate “adjunct” and “contingent”? Different universities use these terms differently, but I think it’s fairly common to use these two terms interchangeably. (I’m not defending anything else the guy wrote.)


    • “Adjunct” used to refer pretty much to the person from industry who taught a class on the side because of their expertise. It’s grown to include everyone who’s not tenure track, but it’s not strictly accurate. “Contingent” is a newer term associated more with the rise of the “gig” economy in which employees are hired as needed and fired at will, more or less at the mercy of their bosses, and without due-process protections that are especially important for academics and unionizing workers. It’s now pretty much a semantic difference if there’s one at all. The problem is that there’s no overarching term that covers all conditions, and that universities call their non-tenure track faculty by a gazillion different titles. We appear everywhere in the faculty and staff positions but not in administration, for the most part. Hmmmmm….


  2. I think a guy who needs to use “crazy cat lady” to dismiss his opponents’ ideas/arguments clearly has an ad hominem problem and perhaps should not be taken seriously in the first place.


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