The 2013-14 Report on the Academic Job Market: Adjunct Unions, Administrative Bloat, & Reform of Student Loans
Susan Falcon | November 2014
AWP has delivered annual reports on the academic job market every year since 1988, and the most current report has been available free online since 1996. Below is this year’s report.
Those who plan to become professors in the arts and humanities have little recourse than to start working as adjuncts. While adjuncts vie for job security in academia, institutions continue to employ more adjuncts than ever to fulfill teaching appointments, while the number of open tenure-track positions remains small for a growing student population. Per AWP’s estimation, each year graduate writing programs produce approximately 3,000 to 4,000 new graduates who compete for a little more than 100 academic tenure-track creative writing jobs. Prospective teachers expect to spend more years in adjunct positions with fewer opportunities for advancement, with a paucity of employee benefits in sight. One cause that may hamper the progress of adjuncts is “administrative bloat,” or the increased job opportunities and higher-paying salaries for administrative positions compared to faculty. Adjuncts and critics of academic administration are concerned over whether universities and colleges are spending in areas that best serve the primary mission of these institutions—to educate. Many academic reporters and bloggers have dubbed the past year as the “year of the adjunct” as movements to unionize have helped bring awareness to the adjunct’s plight discussed in AWP’s 2012-2013 annual report.1 Unionization may help adjunct working conditions as committees negotiate for benefits, salary increase, balanced workload, and a voice in decision-making processes that affect how, when, and where adjuncts adjuncts teach.
Signs from the AWP Job List
This year has seen a small, yet encouraging rise in job opportunities posted in both academic and nonacademic positions compared to the previous year. According to AWP’s 2013-14 Job List, after a dip in the number of academic jobs posted in 2012-13 (441 jobs, down from 890 postings in 2011-12), Job List postings for academic positions have resurged, with 727 academic job postings. Unfortunately, with a high supply of willing applicants for tenure-track creative writing positions and a lack of openings, the academic job market remains unaccommodating. With much more to be desired, tenure-track job postings have remained steady over the past several years; however, of the total academic job postings, the total tenure-track positions make up less than one-third. In terms of creative writing tenure-track positions, the number of such jobs is stable (above 100, annually) since the drop in job openings from 2008 to 2010, but these jobs remain too few.
Nonacademic job postings, which range from positions in the fields of editing, publishing, administration, and communications, totaled 1,160 on AWP’s 2013-14 Job List. The number of nonacademic jobs increased slightly since the previous year (849 jobs). AWP posted many more nonacademic jobs, since 2009-10 when only 412 nonacademic positions were posted. These postings do not include all the nonacademic jobs for writers available nationally. They are merely representative of the kinds of careers that are available to writers with degrees in writing.
The U.S. unemployment rate has dropped as low as 5.8% in October 2014, compared to starting out at 7.9% in January 2013.2 While this may suggest overall improvement of the country’s job market, it has not brought the kind of upside teachers on the job market desire.
Professor Salaries Barely Up, Administrative Spending Way Up
According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), while the nominal rate of salaries for both full-time faculty and contingent faculty have increased slightly from 2013, when considered against the consumer price index for rate of inflation, this increase is less than 1%.3 While better than a loss, it appears that salaries in the industry have stalled. For continuing faculty members, there is a positive outlook with the 1.9% salary increase, in consideration of inflation, being on par with the average rates recorded prior to the economic recession.4
The House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff within the United States House of Representatives published a report titled “The Just-In-Time Professor” that summarized the concerns of contingent faculty’s working conditions based on a survey given to 152 respondents. This report addresses how adjuncts are paid at a piece rate, meaning there is a fixed amount of compensation regardless of the amount of labor hours that go into a course.5 The more hours an adjunct puts into the job, the less the hourly rate becomes. The report indicates that the pay for a three-credit course ranges from less than $1,000 to more than $5,000, with the most common response being $2,000.6 Based on the respondents’ data, the average salary was $24,926 and the median was $22,041, which is less than half of the median pay for a full-time faculty member and which falls below the poverty line for the annual income of a family of four ($23,550).7
With rising costs of tuition, one has to wonder where institutional spending is going, if it is not towards those who teach the students. AAUP’s report addresses the concern over “administrative bloat,” which is the padding of administrative salaries and staffing that is overshadowing employment opportunities for faculty. The report found that the number of administrative employees is growing faster than the number of faculty. The report claims that from 1975-76 to 2011, the growth rate for full-time non-faculty professional positions has increased 369%, whereas full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty has increased 23%, part-time faculty at 286%, and non-tenure-track full-time faculty at 259%.8 Many advocates debate the necessity for this influx of hiring administrators, or whether institutions should refocus their spending in favor of pedagogy.
The Plight of the Adjunct Continues
Testimonies from adjuncts describe the tumultuous working conditions with lack of job stability, benefits, and competitive salary. Though adjuncts are dedicated teachers, they also suffer the indignity of not being given a voice when it comes to making departmental decisions. Prestige is a fringe benefit that departments deny the underappreciated adjunct. Even though contingent faculty members are highly educated, they are second-class employees. “The Just-In-Time Professor” report notes that, of those surveyed, 55% of contingent faculty hold a PhD and 35% hold an MA, and the report concludes, “In short, adjuncts and other contingent faculty likely make up the most highly educated and experienced workers on food stamps and other public assistance in the country.”9 Many survey responders also described living paycheck to paycheck, on the brink of poverty, and with an inability to repay high student loan debts incurred from obtaining a doctoral degree. Approximately half of those responders taught 8-10 classes per year, cobbling together enough work between part-time gigs at various institutions to attempt to maintain financial viability.
Along with the challenges of being an adjunct, still more obstacles inhibit an adjunct from moving forward in his or her career to a tenure track. As Massachusetts-area adjunct professor Leah Van Vaerenwyck stated in an interview, “Teaching four to five courses per semester is a huge time commitment that presents a barrier to the type of scholarly inquiry and creative production search committees look for in tenure-track candidates.”
“Another less discussed issue that faces adjuncts is that withoutan official affiliation with an institution, adjuncts are unable to apply for a number of research grants, because they don’t have a sponsored programs office to administer those grants,” said Van Vaerenwyck. “The opportunity for meaningful collaboration and synergistic activities is basically nonexistent for adjuncts.”10
Unions: Momentum Toward Adjunct Parity
Adjuncts hope for improvement of working conditions through unions. For example, backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Lesley University in Boston recently voted to unionize, with a 359 to 67 vote.11 Barry Brodsky, director of the screenwriting certificate program at Emerson College and adjunct at Lesley, discussed the prospects of unions affecting employment in a recent phone interview. He believes that universities will be forced to adapt, and they will do a cost-benefit analysis to either expand to full-time faculty or have the majority of teachers be adjuncts.12
SEIU has successfully organized adjuncts at DC-area schools like American University, George Washington University, and Georgetown University. Part of the strategy is to galvanize adjuncts city-wide. According to a study published by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, unionized adjuncts earn approximately 25% more per course than non-unionized adjuncts.13 When asked how the work climate has changed at Lesley since the decision to unionize, Brodsky responded that there has been an improvement. Most notably, he reveals the intangible measure of success of adjuncts coming together and sharing comradery. He states, “They [adjuncts] can be collegial in the way that full-time faculty gets to be but takes for granted” and that “there is a great feeling of unity.”14
Some administrators push back against unionization. For example, Northeastern University hired one of the most notoriously anti-union law firms, Jackson Lewis. In response to the Affordable Health Care Act, some institutions have cut back on hours for part-time faculty in order to avoid paying health insurance costs for would-be qualified teachers. In contrast, the threat of unionization may force an institution to reevaluate the treatment of adjuncts. The University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota voted 136 to 84 against organizing. Adjunct English instructor Lucy A. Saliger said that most voted against the union, because they were ideologically opposed or wanted administrators to initiate change.15 And in an address to the concerned parties, the university’s president Julie H. Sullivan said, “I recognize your needs, and we’ve been talking about your needs, but in my view we can best do that working together without interference from a union.”16
According to Colleen Flaherty’s article in Inside Higher Ed in late October, Tufts University has successfully negotiated contracts for contingent faculty, with hopes that these negotiations can serve as a model for others. In an effort to keep negotiations amicable, efforts began with a discussion of the university’s educational values. The most notable win for Tufts adjuncts is fair consideration for tenure-track positions, including guaranteed interviews.17
The Utility of Graduate Degrees
According to the AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs, in 2014 there are 229 active MFA programs. This is a number that has grown through several years of cuts to English department budgets. MA creative writing programs remain stable at 152 programs listed in AWP’s Guide. Programs confer more degrees to more young and ambitious practitioners of creative writing, while the academic job market limits new inroads to academic careers.
With limited job prospects, this leaves advanced degree candidates in creative writing wondering whether the degree will be undervalued in desired industries. In particular, PhD programs are under scrutiny as to whether they are worth the investment of finances and time. This past spring, the MLA’s “Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature” described this predicament: “We are faced with an unsustainable reality: a median time to degree of around nine years for language and literature doctoral recipients and a long-term academic job market that provides tenure-track employment for only around sixty percent of doctorate recipients.”18
The MLA’s report suggested remediation to the approach of the PhD. One suggestion is to cut down the amount of years required to earn a doctorate. Instead of only training PhDs for tenure-track academic positions, programs should open the discussion up to alternative career choices. Programs could focus more on honing teaching skills, rather than research, to help make PhD holders more attractive to educational institutions.19 Brodsky remarks that though his alma mater Brandeis University no longer has the playwright program from which he graduated, it still maintains a theater program with a focus on job-yielding prospects in costume and set design.20 Finally, programs should reconsider the format of the dissertation, making it more flexible and collaborative.
The report received both praise and skepticism (see Vimal Patel’s “MLA’s Effort to Reshape Ph.D. Misses Mark, Some Say” at The Chronicle of Higher Education), with some wondering how adjuncts and recent graduates fit into the fold. There is a divide in administrators’ positive reviews of the report and how adjuncts and part-time contingent faculty fault the report. As quoted in Patel’s article, Bennett Carpenter, a PhD in literature candidate at Duke University, said, “The problem of academia is not a shortage of teaching positions, rather a superabundance of poorly paid teaching positions.”21
Forecasting the Future
This year brought a lot of public discourse about working conditions for adjuncts. “I know MFAs (and PhDs) working as adjuncts, who are teaching as many as five-to-six classes per term and driving to several schools,” said Bonnie Culver, Chair of the AWP Board of Trustees and associate professor of English at Wilkes University. “In most cases, adjunct salaries have not increased in years, adding to the pain of adjunct life. If forming unions for adjuncts will bring them much-needed health benefits and a living wage, then I am for unionizing.”22
Indications of a shift toward fixing the working conditions and salary/benefits of adjuncts include recent attempts to unionize at several institutions, with a focus on citywide organizing strategy, and progress in legislation.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) proposed the “Adjunct Faculty Loan Fairness Act of 2014,” which would allow for student loan debt reform and would make the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program inclusive for adjuncts. Currently, adjuncts who work part-time do not qualify for student loan forgiveness and feel the burden of having to repay loans without a salary that lends itself to being a responsible borrower. On the other hand, full-time colleagues may be eligible for loan forgiveness after 120 on-time payments or approximately after ten years. Durbin states, “The vast majority of these educators hold advanced degrees, and as a result, bear the heavy burden of student loan debt. It is only right that we expand their access to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, a benefit already available to many of their full-time colleagues.”23
In order for adjunct conditions to improve, administrators, legislators, teachers, and the general public must advocate and cooperate. On February 25, 2015, the first-ever National Adjunct Walkout Day will take place.24 Learn more as NAWD plans develop at the event’s Facebook page or at its web forum. Also worth visiting: SEIU’s Adjunct Action website, http://adjunctaction.org.
Susan Falcon received her MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and has been published in Aperçus Quarterly, Sugar Mule, and elsewhere. She currently resides in the suburbs of Boston, MA and works as a development editor for educational publishing.
- Sara Flood. “2012-13 Annual Report on the Academic Job Market: The State of the Market, the Plight of the Adjunct, and the Affordable Care Act,” November 2013. https://www.awpwriter.org/careers/career_advice_view/2926/2012-13_annual_report_on_the_academic_job_market
- Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS14000000. Accessed November 16, 2014.
- John W. Curtis and Saranna Thornton. "Losing Focus: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2013-14.” American Association of University Professors (AAUP). March-April 2014. http://www.aaup.org/file/zreport.pdf
- House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Democratic Staff. “The Just-in-Time Professor: A Staff Report Summarizing eForum Responses on the Working Conditions of Contingent Faculty in Higher Education.” January 2014. http://mpsanet.org/Portals/0/1.24.14-AdjunctEforumReport.pdf
- Curtis and Thornton
- “The Just-In-Time Professor”
- Leah Van Vaerenwyck, email interview with Susan Falcon, September 29, 2014.
- Matt Rocheleau. “Lesley University Adjuncts Vote to Unionize.” Boston Globe Media Partners. February 24, 2014. http://www.boston.com/yourcampus/news/campus/2014/02/lesley_university_adjuncts_vote_to_unionize.html
- Barry Brodsky, phone interview with Susan Falcon, October 2, 2014.
- Tamar Lewin. “More College Adjuncts See Strength in Numbers”. December 3, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/04/us/more-college-adjuncts-see-strength-in-union-numbers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
- Brodsky interview.
- Sara Jerde. “Anti-Union Vote in Minn. Is Rare Setback in National Campaign for Adjunct Unions.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 24, 2014. http://chronicle.com/article/Anti-Union-Vote-in-Minn-Is/147893/
- Colleen Flaherty. “A Model Emerges.” Inside Higher Ed. October 28, 2014. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/10/28/tufts-adjuncts-tout-pay-and-job-security-gains-first-union-contract
- The Modern Language Association of America. “Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature.” May 2014. http://www.mla.org/pdf/taskforcedocstudy2014.pdf
- Brodsky interview
- Vimal Patel. “MLA’s Effort to Reshape Ph.D. Misses Mark, Some Say.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. June 4, 2014. http://chronicle.com/article/MLA-s-Effort-to-Reshape/146913/
- Bonnie Culver, email interview with Daniel D’Angelo, Associate Editor, AWP, November 5, 2014.
- Kingkade, Tyler. (2014). “Adjunct Faculty Would Get Student Debt Wiped Away Under New Proposal.” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/31/adjunct-faculty-student-debt-durbin_n_5638881.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000020&ir=Education
- “National Adjunct Walkout Day Planned.” Inside Higher Ed. October 6, 2014. https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2014/10/06/national-adjunct-walkout-day-planned