A Report on the Academic Workplace: Opportunities Decline in 2003-04

Kirsten Hilgeford | November 2004

From the November 2004 issue of AWP Job List. © 2004 The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. May only be reprinted with the permission of AWP.


The number of academic jobs for writers who teach declined in the 2003–04 academic year. Fewer positions in English were advertised in both the AWP Job List and the MLA Job Information List, compared to the previous 2002-03 academic year. In addition, departments continue to rely heavily on adjunct, nontenure stream, and other “contingent” faculty, so that good, full-time positions remain relatively few. The number of tenure-track positions in creative writing decreased last year, from 103 jobs to 65 jobs. Last year’s 65 tenure-track creative writing jobs resemble the levels of hiring from 1996 to 2001 (see Table 1). The competition for these few excellent jobs remains, of course, fierce. Each year, between 8,000 and 9,000 students earn advanced degrees in English literature, including 2,000 to 3,000 graduates in creative writing. “The academic job market remains a heart-breaking place, in spite of a general expansion in the number of creative writing jobs,” said David Fenza, Executive Director of AWP. “The poor academic job market has only been exacerbated by state deficits and budget cuts. In many states, like Virginia, political leaders have pushed tax cuts while state revenues were already in free fall due to the weak economy. This resulted in budget cuts and tuition rate-hikes for many public universities and community colleges. Higher education is now less affordable to the poor and middle class, and it has begun to exploit more and more part-time instructors, who are paid fast-food wages for many years of advanced training. It’s outrageous, and yet it’s business as usual. In many states, the stewardship of resources for higher education has been scandalous.”

While thousands of graduates compete for a limited number of jobs, many of those jobs are only temporary positions with poor compensation and few benefits. Most part-time and adjunct positions do not include health benefits. Academe’s reliance on part-time instructors has increased from 22% of the faculty in 1970 to 44% in 2001. In many departments of English, the percentage of part-timers is higher than 44%, despite big increases in tuition. While full-time faculty did see a rise in their salaries last year, this increase was negligible once the rate of inflation was taken into consideration. English faculty continue to be some of the lowest paid faculty by discipline, ranking below almost all fields of study save nursing, general studies, and physical fitness. According to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA), the average English professor’s salary is $53,467 at public institutions and $57,292 at private institutions. 1

The Modern Language Association’s (MLA) Job Information List (JIL), English edition, saw a decrease in the number of positions advertised for the 2003–04 academic year, posting 2,349 advertisements for 1,541 positions. Compared to the previous year, this is a decrease of 139 listings, or 8%. 2 Since 2000–01, the number of positions advertised in the JIL has declined overall by 297 positions, a total of 15.7%. 3 Still, in an interview with AWP, the Executive Director of the MLA, Rosemary Feal, said she found that “Stability in the listings seems to be what we’ve been looking at over the last few years, overall.” 4 Although the number of opportunities has declined since 2000, the number of annual opportunities still remains higher than it did in the late 1990s, when as few as 1,098 jobs appeared in 1995–96. “Some fields of study have increased in percentages,” said Feal. “For example, in the early ’80s, ethnic and minority literatures amounted to only a handful of listings. Now, about 10% of all job listings in the JIL specify an interest in ethnic and minority literature.” 5 Within what remains a highly competitive job market, creative writing is among the growing specialties.

The MLA reports that 234 of the jobs advertised in the JIL last year were specifically indexed as jobs in creative writing, 17.2% of the total jobs listed for the 2003–04 academic year. Of the academic jobs listed in the AWP Job List for 2003–04, 16.5% were jobs in creative writing with tenure track. The percentage of academic jobs advertised in the AWP Job List and specified as creative writing with tenure track has remained fairly consistent over the last few years, amounting to 16.7% in 2001–02, and 16.0% in 2002–03. Jennifer Jacobson reported in 2003 that “a few years ago, the market for scholars in creative writing was fairly robust as departments were expanding their creative writing programs. Now, many of those positions have been filled, and it’s tougher to break into the field.” 6 But Feal notes that “If you look at the past four years, 15% of all the ads for English in the JIL mention creative writing—some exclusively, some in conjunction with other areas of research and interest.” 7 Job List numbers show that, while the creative writing job market hasn’t experienced substantial growth, there were as many opportunities for creative writers within academia last year as three years ago. Feal confirms that “Creative writing continues to be a relatively popular area, ranking among the top ten areas for hiring.” 8

An inventory of the job listings published in the AWP Job List from August 2003 through July 2004 reveals a decline in academic job listings, after the market enjoyed a spike in 2002–03 (see Table 2). The number of “New Academic Jobs” decreased by 247, or 38.5%; “Tenure-track Jobs” decreased by 171 jobs, a total of 47.9%; and “Tenure-track Creative Writing Jobs” decreased by 38, a total of 63.1%. Although AWP does not track how many jobs are actually filled, we heard from AWP members that some searches did not end with new appointments. Some positions were left vacant due to hiring freezes and budget cutbacks that universities implemented in midsearch. The bounce of 2002–03 may be partly an anomaly, and partly a chimera. Nonetheless, the number of academic jobs listed last year was still greater than the annual total of opportunities in the 1990s (see tables 1 and 2).

Table 1

Table 2

Recent Economic Pressures & Choices About Tuition & Salaries

During the last four years, the country’s sluggish economy and tax cuts have directly contributed to budget shortfalls in state treasuries totaling $235 billion. In their attempts to close these shortfalls, many states slashed appropriations for public colleges, proposed minimal student aid, and raised tuition and fees. 9 In 2002, colleges and universities across the nation faced the smallest average increase in total support for higher education in the last decade. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (NCPPHE) reported an appropriations increase of 1.2% for 2002, an amount that falls short of running abreast with the rate of inflation. 10 NCPPHE reported that, to compensate for this reduction in state support, “tuition and mandatory fee charges at four-year public institutions rose in every state.” 11 Sixteen states increased tuition and fees by more than 10%, and the most drastic increase was in Massachusetts, where tuition sky rocketed from $3,295 to $4,075, the largest increase in the nation at 24%. 12

In addition, the cost of education rose at a much faster rate than per capita income. According to the NCPPHE report “College Affordability in Jeopardy,” the national average per capita income increased by 2%, a sliver of the 10% increase in tuition and mandatory fees at four-year institutions. Disproportionate tuition increases compromise the accessibility of education. In an effort to compensate for the increased cost of education, fourteen states increased student grant aid by more than 10%. However, the NCPPHE reports that “17 states spent less on financial aid in 2002 than they had the year before.” 13 Increased tuition and fees, combined with disproportionate increases in income and spotty increases in financial aid, have made for a grim situation for new and returning students. Traditionally, students for whom the increased tuition and fees are exclusionary turn to community colleges for their education. But four-year colleges haven’t been the only institutions suffering from the poor economy. In 2002, across the nation, two-year institutions experienced an average increase in tuition and fees of 8%. Except for California and Maine, community college tuition and mandatory fees rose across the board, with “10 states registering increases of more than 10 percent.” 14

Throughout the 1990s, colleges and universities experienced the combined pressures of rapid enrollment and a decrease in state budget appropriations. This is a trend that is likely to continue. Based on their March 2003 survey, the Census Bureau estimates total college enrollment at 16,102,000 for 2002, and projects total college enrollment at 17,541,000 by 2010. 15 State support of higher education’s annual operating budget amounted to 31% in 1980, compared to only 23% by 1996. 16 Many institutions reacted by increasing funds for physical plant and technology upgrades in order to accommodate the growing student body, and consequently cutting their instructional budgets. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) notes that in 1998, “the congressionally appointed National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education confirmed that investments in faculty had decreased in recent years, even as tuition rose.” 17 For fiscal year 2004, twenty-three states reduced their appropriations for higher education due to budget shortfalls, and nationwide “state appropriations for higher education in fiscal 2004 declined by 2.1 percent, the first such decline in eleven years.” 18 In another effort to compensate for these shortfalls, tuition and fees once again rose throughout academia. In 2003–04, tuition and fees rose by an average of 13.8 % at two-year institutions, 14.1% at four-year institutions, and 6.0% at private four-year colleges and universities. 19

While tuition and fees increased, faculty faced some of the smallest salary increases in almost a decade. According to AAUP, the average salary of full-time faculty members from no rank to professor for 2003–04 (at all institutions with academic ranks, public and private, and excluding medical schools) was $66,475, an increase of 2.1%. 20 But given that the increase in the Consumer Price Index between December 2002 and December 2003 was 1.9% (compared to 2.4% the year before), the actual (or “real”) increase in average faculty salaries was a mere 0.2%. At a given institution, continuing faculty usually receive salary increases that are slightly higher on average than those received throughout the rest of the institution. In 2002–03, continuing faculty salary increases averaged 3.2% nationwide, “1.0 percentage point higher than the rise in the average faculty member’s salary… In real terms, the average salary increase for continuing faculty members exceeded the rate of inflation by 1.2 percentage points, the lowest real increase in continuing faculty members’ salaries in seven years.” 21

In 2002, the MLA published their salary recommendations for full-time and part-time faculty members. According to the MLA, full-time, entry-level faculty should be making yearly salaries of $34,000–$73,000, and at the rank of instructor, at least $43,000–$46,000. Part-time faculty should earn $5,000–$7,000 per course. 22 CUPA found that average salaries for full-time faculty (all ranks combined, at 4-year institutions, public and private) for 2001–02 was $62,895, an increase of 3.8% from the previous year. In the field of “English language and literature/letters,” the average salary was $53,374, 15.1% below the average faculty salary for the same year. 23 For 2003–04, the average faculty salary was $64,214, while “English language literature/letters” faculty salaries averaged $54,756, 14.7% below the overall average. 24 Small gains were made in closing the gap between the average faculty salary for all fields and the average salary for faculty teaching in the field of English. But it is interesting to note that even if this current rate of improvement continues, it will take twenty-four years for English faculty salaries to be within five percent of the average.

Compromising Positions: The Trend Toward Graduating Contingent Faculty

Colleges and universities managed their decreased funding by limiting salary increases. In addition, trends indicate that departments are also compensating for their decreased funds by hiring more contingent faculty. In 2003, Rosemary Feal was concerned with what she observed as “an erosion of the tenure-track position as the norm for new hires in colleges and universities…” 25 As colleges and universities try to manage their increasing financial commitments in the face of decreasing state support, “campus administrations increasingly turn to staffs of ill-paid, overworked part-or full-time adjunct lecturers or graduate students.” 26 AWP has published “AWP’s Recommendation Regarding Non-Tenure Stream Faculty” which outlines policies for the fair treatment of part-time faculty members. The document can be found on AWP’s website, in the AWP Program Director’s Handbook, and in the next edition of The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs.

The AAUP observes that the overreliance on nontenure-track faculty has been a developing and escalating trend for decades now. The growing dependency on nontenure-track appointments, or “contingent” faculty, includes “both part- and full-time faculty who are appointed off the tenure track… For example, teachers hired to teach one or two courses for a semester, experts or practitioners who are brought in to share their field experience, and whole departments of full-time non-tenure-track English composition instructors are all ‘contingent faculty.’ The term includes adjuncts, who are generally compensated on a per-course basis, as well as full-time non-tenure-track faculty who receive a salary.” 27 Reducing the number of tenure-line new hires is not a new strategy. “Through the 1990s, in all types of institutions, three out of four new faculty members were appointed to non-tenure-track positions”—that means 75% of academic new hires were refused the benefits and securities promised by tenure. 28 There are large numbers of faculty near retirement, and current trends suggest that as these tenured professors retire, their positions may be replaced by temporary and nontenured faculty. 29 At Wright State, it was the 2001 retirement program that took effect across Ohio that was responsible for the university’s chief payroll savings. Peter Schmidt reports that “the university has left many staff positions unfilled, and has relied on part-time adjuncts and instructors to replace the professors who have left and to teach the additional classes needed for enrollment growth.” 30 As colleges and universities opt for the immediate financial relief that results from hiring contingent faculty over securing permanent and possibly better qualified faculty, students and faculty alike are left to wonder about the commitment of their institutions to their intellectual and professional growth.

“Between 1976 and 1999, student enrollment in degree-granting institutions grew by 34%,” an average of 1.47% per year, and the number of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees conferred grew comparably (between 31% and 41%). 31 Based on averages reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s (CHE) Almanac Issue, between 2000–01 and 2004–05 enrollment has increased by 8.99%, an average of 1.79% per year (or 41,179 students per year). Community colleges in particular are expected to see large increases in enrollment; California, Virginia, and Florida all forecast enrollment growth of “as much as 50 percent over the next decade.” 32 The institutions of higher education have responded to increased enrollment by disproportionately increasing “the number of part-time faculty by 119 percent and the number of full-time-non-tenure-track faculty by 31 percent.” 33 The ADE Bulletin, published by the Association of Departments of English, reports that in 2002, 53,162 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in all nine fields collected under “English language and literature/letters.” This is an increase of 7.74% from five years prior, and an average increase of 1.54% per year, only slightly lower than the average increase of enrollment. 34

The ADE reports that “a total of 968 doctorate recipients from United States universities reported earning degrees in English and American language and literature” during their survey period of July 2001 to June 2002. 35 In the same year, the AWP Job List advertised 429 total new academic jobs, only 233 (or 54.3%) of which were tenure-track positions. Colleges and universities continue to graduate increasing numbers of students with advanced degrees. But as these new graduates turn to face their future in academia, they are confronted with a system that refuses to provide them with compensation and security, in the form of tenure, that support academic inquiry and research. While the Job List’s numbers for the late 1990s reiterate the trend toward nontenure-track hires, our percentages are slightly lower; from 1996 to 2000 36 the average percentage of new hires that were nontenure-track was 44.9%. According to the Job List, 52.6% of academic job listings in 2003–04 were “contingent” appointments. “Eventually, one of the consequences of the continued erosion of tenure-track positions is that the brightest students will be discouraged from pursuing careers as professors, turning instead to the securities promised by careers in other fields.” 37

The trend toward hiring increasing numbers of contingent faculty, especially to replace retiring tenured faculty, has serious consequences for both faculty and students. In their report, the MLA Committee on Professional Employment points to how excellence in education is being compromised by an over dependence on part-timers and adjuncts. Lower-division courses in particular are “increasingly taught by overworked, undervalued adjunct faculty members and graduate students,” so much so that “at most institutions there are no longer enough full-time faculty members in English and foreign language departments to teach even the freshman and sophomore classes, let alone the more advanced courses needed as offerings for majors and often as distribution requirements for nonmajors.” 38 Students are also frequently deprived of that essential, informal, one-on-one time outside the classroom, because adjuncts and part-timers, usually paid per course and sometimes referred to as “frequent-flyers” due to the amount they travel from site to site, are “discouraged by their employment arrangements” from participating in student-related activities or establishing office hours. 39 Students and their families are paying a higher price for a poorer quality education.

Students are not the only ones who are sacrificing the quality of their experiences for the bottom line. The faculty community suffers when so many of its members are contingent appointments, prone to higher levels of turnover. “Most non-tenure-track appointments are very brief in duration, lasting only for one or two terms.” 40 As a result, “a diminishing number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty must take on additional institutional responsibilities that are not typically shared with contingent faculty.” 41 Tenured and tenure-track faculty have less time to pursue their own scholarship, as well as fewer opportunities to guide and support students. Contingent faculty are frequently excluded from faculty governance, contributing to an atmosphere of inequality and, ultimately, eroding collegiality. AAUP asserts that “Academic freedom is weakened when a majority of faculty cannot rely on the protections of tenure.” The reliance of colleges and universities on contingent faculty contributes to a working environment that is “fragmented, unsupported, and destabilized.” 42 Feal suggests that “As long as institutions feel that they can hire a fair percentage of faculty off the tenure track without any negative consequences, and as long as professors feel they don’t have better options, there will be no incentive for institutions to change their practices.” 43

The Future Tense: Sustaining the Promises of Academia

While the financial picture for many states is improving, the long-term outlook for financial recovery within academia is not as positive. The CHE Almanac Issue reports that “44 states finished the fiscal year that ended June 30 with a combined $18.4-billion surplus, a 50% increase over the end of the previous year…” 44 Still, “much of that cushion is likely to dissipate in the next year,” as states are anticipated to increase their funding of Medicaid alone by 13%, in order to compensate for cuts made by the federal government. 45 In his report for the NCPPHE, Dennis Jones predicts that state budget shortfalls will continue throughout the decade. Based on projections developed by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, Jones finds that even “if states experience normal economic growth over the next eight years, all but a handful of states will find it impossible, given their existing tax policies, to continue funding their current level of public services.” 46 During the economic boom of the 1990s, the percent increases in support of higher education were less than percent increases for the entire state budget. So, while the dollars increased, the actual share of revenues dedicated to higher education decreased. According to Jones, and given current spending patterns, forty-three states will experience greater funding growth for other state services, like Medicaid, than for higher education. Jones warns that, “even if state economies were to rebound to normal levels, however, higher education would continue to face strong competition for resources from other state-supported programs.” 47

Estimates from fall 2003 reveal that “at least 250,000 prospective students were shut out of higher education due to rising cutbacks in admissions and course offerings.” 48 The organization’s recent “report card” on higher education maintained that in 2002 and 2003 college was less affordable than it was a decade ago, and that “no state had increased financial-aid spending enough to keep pace with tuition.” 49 College has become more costly in the past ten years, even taking financial aid into account. Gains have been made in preparing students for a college education, as “more students took upper-level mathematics and science courses and enrolled in Advanced Placement classes in 2002 than had done so a decade before.” 50 The largest high school graduating class in the nation’s history is expected in 2009; they are also anticipated to be the poorest “as well as the most ethnically and racially heterogeneous generation of students” that the American higher education system has ever encountered. 51 Anthony P. Carnevale of the Educational Testing Service contends that “‘higher education is, in fact, becoming a bottleneck opportunity in America.’” 52 In the near future, a record number of high school graduates will be facing possibly preventatively high tuition rates and competing for a limited number of dollars in financial aid. Already this academic year some 175,000 students were turned away from California’s community colleges, and 56,000 students were turned away from community colleges in North Carolina. 53 In addition, should graduates with master’s and doctoral degrees in English choose to remain in academia, they will likely be entering a challenging and highly competitive job market, one that may accommodate them, but cannot commit to their teaching or research efforts permanently, as a tenure-track hire. Rosemary Feal warns that “Knowledge cannot be sustained and deepened if as a society we cannot support humanistic learning. Students will no longer choose to devote their lives to the study of language and literature, and it risks becoming a hobby, not a profession.” 54 Reexamination and reformation of current tuition prices and hiring practices in higher education are imperative if colleges and universities are to continue their missions of providing excellence in education to as many qualified candidates as possible—and where evidence of a big bank account is not one of these qualifications.


Kirsten Hilgeford


  1. The Chronicle of Higher Education: Almanac Issue 2004-05. L1: 1 (27 August 2004): 28.
  2. David Laurence. “Report on the 2003–04 Job Information List.” MLA Newsletter (Fall 2004): 6.
  3. Ibid., 6.
  4. Rosemary Feal, interview by author, phone interview from Fairfax, Va., 11 October 2004.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Jennifer Jacobson. “English PhD’s Confront Another Tough Market.” The Chronicle of Higher Education: Chronicle Careers. (11 June 2003). <http://chronicle.com/jobs/2003/06/2003061101c.htm> (accessed September 24, 2004).
  7. Feal, interview.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Brighter Financial Picture for Colleges.” The Chronicle of Higher Education: Almanac Issue 2004-05. L1: 1 (27 August 2004): 3.
  10. William Trombley. “College Affordability in Jeopardy: A Special Supplement to National Crosstalk: The Rising Price of Higher Education.” National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. <http://www.highereducation.org/reports/
     (accessed Monday, August 2, 2004).
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Almanac Issue 2004-05, 18.
  16. ”Policy Statement: Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession.” American Association of University Professors. <http://aaup.org/statements/SpchState/contingent.htm> (accessed August 2, 2004): 3-4.
  17. Ibid., 4.
  18. “Don’t Blame Faculty for High Tuition: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2003-04.” American Association of University Professors. 21.
  19. Ibid., 21.
  20. Almanac Issue 2004-05, 29.
  21. “Annual Report,” 23.
  22. “MLA and ADE Policy Statements: MLA Recommendations on Salaries for Entry-Level Full-Time and Part-Time Faculty Members.” ADE Bulletin, No. 132, Fall 2002
  23. “Average Faculty Salaries in Selected Fields at 4-Year Institutions, 2001-02.” The Chronicle of Higher Education: Almanac Issue 2002-03. <http://chronicle.com/prm/weekly/almanac/2002/
    > (accessed September 24, 2004).
  24. Almanac Issue 2004-05, 28.
  25. Gabriella Montell. “Faculty Openings in English, Foreign Languages Drop Sharply.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, (16 December 2002).
  26. Preface. Report from the MLA Committee on Professional Employment. Modern Language Association. <http://www.mla.org/uploads/documents/rep_employment/
    > (accessed Monday, August 2, 2004).
  27. “Contingent Appointments,” 1-2.
  28. Ibid., 2.
  29. Jacobson.
  30. Peter Schmidt. “Paying the Price for Tuition Increases.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. (10 September 2004). <http://chronicle.com/weekly/v51/
    > (accessed Sepember 24, 2004).
  31. “Contingent Appointments,” 3.
  32. Jamilah Evelyn. “Community Colleges at a Crossroads.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. L: 34 (30 April 2004). A27-A28.
  33. “Contingent Appointments,” 3.
  34. “Further Observation on Bachelor’s Degree Awards in English and Preliminary Information on Jobs in 2003-04.” ADE Bulletin, 134-135 (Spring-Fall 2003): 3-10.
  35. Ibid.
  36. AWP does not have a record of job offerings for the 1998-99 academic year.
  37. Feal, interview.
  38. Preface, 2.
  39. “Contingent Appointments,” 4.
  40. Ibid., 3.
  41. Ibid., 4.
  42. Ibid., 1.
  43. Feal, interview.
  44. “Brighter Financial Picture,” 3.
  45. Ibid., 4.
  46. Dennis Jones. “Policy Alert: State Shortfalls Projected Throughout the Decade: Higher Ed Budgets Likely to Feel Continued Squeeze.” National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. (February 2003): 1.
  47. ”State Shortfalls,” 4.
  48. “Responding to the Crisis in College Opportunity.” National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. (January 2004): 1.
  49. Peter Schmidt. “’Report Card’ Spurs Calls for Change in Academe.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. (24 September 2004). <http://chronicle.com/weekly/v51/i05/05a00101.htm> (accessed September 24, 2004).
  50. Ibid.
  51. Trombley.
  52. “‘Report Card.’”
  53. Ibid.
  54. Feal, interview

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