Magazine Feature

The Labor of the Mind

The future of academia in the gig economy

By Deirdre Frontczak

Fall 2021

This fall, many faculty members on American campuses have returned to the work of live teaching, reconnecting with students, renewing collegial bonds, sharing disciplinary passions, resuming shared research, and engaging in the discussions that are the hallmark of a more stable and rewarding campus life. For the million-plus faculty hired outside the tenure-track system, however, stability remains elusive, and returning to campus serves as a reminder of the chasm that exists between “regular” faculty and those on the margins of academic life.

Non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty—typically contingent faculty hired on fixed-term contracts—know that budgets tightened during the pandemic likely mean fewer jobs, with little or no hope of professional advancement. Cost-conscious administrators often resist extending benefits to such instructors or look to trim those already in place, leaving faculty with health or retirement concerns—and their families—to fend for themselves. For those on the lowest tier, pay raises are easily frozen, and research and travel funds are vanishingly scarce, further limiting pathways for professional connections and growth. NTT faculty, whose contracts depend on fluctuating priorities and enrollment, bear the brunt of curricular shifts and reallocation of funds in response to fiscal demand—while simultaneously being called to meet student needs for increased mentoring, technical assistance, and support, generally for no added pay or assurance of a continuing job.

Tenured colleagues have, of course, shared in pandemic stresses, yet the impacts land quite differently on those whose jobs are already tenuous, who carry a greater proportion of the undergraduate teaching load, and who are paid a fraction of tenure-track salaries for often identical classroom work. A third of NTT faculty surveyed by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in 2019 made less than $25,000 a year, below the poverty line for a family of four, with nearly another third making less than $50,000, below the standard for a middle-class wage.

These stresses on NTT faculty, while heightened as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, are decades in the making. As college costs rise, parents and students have naturally come to expect a practical return on their investment, including top-tier amenities and career advice and connections. Responding to customer demand, administrators maximize high-visibility perks while minimizing embedded learning costs. Hence, the rise of what has been termed the “gig academy,” in which contracts need not include costly overhead and faculty can be shed as market conditions require.

Ironically, institutions of higher learning take pride in serving as agents of social equality, lifting those at the margins to meaningful participation in their communities and empowering the full expression of their vision and gifts. But how can educators espouse these values while relying on the exploitation of colleagues to help advance justice and serve the common good? It is not enough to promote social justice for business, government, and civic institutions; it is past time to rethink the structures of faculty labor, to redefine collegiality and professionalism, and to create new pathways for faculty to work together toward a vision of excellence in which all can share.

Contingent positions are defined by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) as either part- or full-time NTT roles with no long-term assurance of employment. Often labeled as “adjunct” (“a thing added to something else as supplemental; a nonessential part,” as defined by Oxford Languages), many NTT faculty actually teach a full-time course load, often contracted for years or decades with the same institution(s). In fact, a 2012 Coalition on the Academic Workforce survey of contingent faculty members found that more than 80 percent of NTT faculty had taught at their institutions for three years or more and that more than 30 percent had been NTTs for more than ten years—hardly the short-term, stopgap workforce that a “part-time” or “adjunct” label implies. And with varied sources showing that more than 70 percent of US college faculty now employed in such roles, NTTs are an integral feature of higher education, a permanent subclass of academic workers whose labor sustains the salaries of tenure-track faculty and senior staff.

Many parents, taxpayers, and even other faculty assume that NTTs have adopted that path as their chosen way of life. Some assume they have lucrative outside careers and teach occasional classes for prestige, connections, maybe a few extra dollars on the side. Others see them as young scholars just finishing advanced degrees. In fact, among NTT faculty at two- and four-year colleges, more than 60 percent are fifty or older, and nearly 40 percent have been teaching for more than fifteen years, according to a 2020 AFT report. Fewer than a third of respondents in a 2011 Higher Education Research Institute survey of part-time faculty reported that their status was voluntary or desirable.

Another common perception is that NTTs are quasi-professionals who simply prefer part-time work to accommodate personal priorities such as spousal jobs, children’s schedules, or other nonacademic pursuits. If that’s not the case, then they must be second-rate scholars who couldn’t get a “real” job and are lucky to get the occasional teaching gig. Even some in the academy believe that the NTT role is by definition less worthy of pay, security, benefits, advancement, and autonomy. “If [NTTs] do have a PhD, [they] were not hired into a tenure-track position—which signals a lack of quality. So, why would they expect job security or other rights?” wrote one tenured professor in a 2021 informal campus survey.

The tenure system, however, was not designed as a reward for outstanding scholarship (though in practice it often serves this end). Rather, according to the AAUP, its purpose was to safeguard the foundational value of academic freedom, which rests on the trust of all faculty that the merits of what they think, say, or publish are tested in fair dialogue with colleagues, students, and discipline peers and that their jobs are not subject to the political whims or financial interests of those wielding power.

And while some NTTs do work as nonacademic professionals and some do lack postgraduate degrees, across four-year public and private institutions in the United States, as of 2004 about 76.5 percent of NTTs possessed either a doctoral or master’s degree, with 30 percent holding a PhD, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

At many institutions, NTT faculty, usually paid by the course, start the year unsure of what classes (if any) they will teach from one semester to the next. Indeed, even scheduled classes may be canceled up to the start of the course. That precarity leads some to accept whatever assignments they can find, often commuting among two, three, or more campuses each week to cobble together a full-time living. Many NTT faculty lack insight into policy decisions that affect their lives, much less a formal channel to raise concerns or express their views. Many are not invited to, or informed of, department meetings. Some are assigned to develop curricula for no added pay or even assurance that they will teach the courses they create. Often they are not aware of, or eligible for, service on governance councils; if they are, such work is almost always unpaid. Most lack advancement channels such as departmental advice, peer evaluations, support for research and travel, or a process for achieving professorial or administrative roles within their own institutions. This gap may help explain why once launched on an NTT path, many find it nearly impossible to attain a stable, tenure-track position. As Georgetown ethicist Kerry Danner writes in a 2019 Journal ofMoral Theology article, “Every year in which one is not hired, one becomes less competitive” in the academic market.

And contingency has personal impacts. “We put so much intellectual and emotional energy into staying employed that we may not have much left in the tank for attending to our authentic selves and boldly teaching, researching, and writing out of our particular gifts,” writes Claire Bischoff, an assistant professor of theology at St. Catherine University, in a 2019 Journal of Moral Theology article.

Indeed, in both formal and informal surveys across multiple institutions, scores of NTT faculty describe experiences like these:

“My salary covers either rent or childcare—not both. I am supporting my family with credit cards, which I see no way to repay any time soon.”

“I am an adjunct since 2014 and commute among four colleges in this state. What is ‘normal’ about this situation? Absolutely nothing, and yet adjuncts live it day after day, year after year. Enough is enough.”

“At this university, a lecturer who focuses exclusively on being a great teacher is considered a second-class citizen for not doing research. And that’s a big disadvantage when we seek to apply for a full-time, tenure-track role.”

“With a PhD and fifteen years’ experience, I make $10,000 less annually than a starting high school teacher in this community.”

In response, some point to academia as a noble vocation; lower-rank colleagues should be grateful for the privilege of sharing the mission rather than focusing on the mundane concerns of a common laborer. A past NTT colleague recalls a tenured associate asking, “How can you possibly complain about working conditions? Consider yourself lucky to have a job!” But as Santa Clara University law professor Stephen Diamond writes in an AAUP blog post, “While we may annually wear academic garb, in the meantime we have to put food on the table and roofs over our heads for our families just like everyone else.” Labor, however uplifting, is still labor and, as such, requires pay.

Of course, tightening budgets play a role in the overreliance on short-term hires. But funds have been found for other needs: From 1976 to 2011, the ranks of senior administrators grew by 141 percent and those of tenure and tenure-track faculty grew by just 23 percent, according to a 2014 AAUP report. In that same period, part-time positions increased by 286 percent and the number of full-time NTT faculty grew by 259 percent. In its 2021 economic report, the AAUP notes that between fiscal year 2011–12 and fiscal year 2018–19, annual salary outlays for upper-level administrators, calculated on a per-student basis, had increased by 19 percent overall and by 24 percent for public colleges and universities.

Given the aspirations of nonprofit and public universities—to nurture, heal, inspire, and create a more just and sustainable world—how did we come to build a permanent and exploitable subclass in our midst? As a business model, our current two-tier system took decades to evolve. Following World War II, sustained public investment in higher education seeded rapid growth in science and technology, as historian Richard Moser explains in his 2014 essay “Organizing the New Faculty Majority.” During this period, a rich cross-pollination between government and universities brought prosperity to a broad spectrum of private enterprise, which in turn tolerated unions and provided a rising standard of living for the working public.

The turbulence of the 1960s, however, led to growing controversy around political and cultural institutions, and funding for academic hiring and research began to lag. This trend has only increased: Between 2003 and 2013, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, funding for public colleges and universities declined dramatically. As per-student public funding drops while costs rise, the difference is passed along to consumers in the form of tuition hikes supplemented by internal cost-cutting in which administrators, following the lead of industry, increasingly turn to low-wage, contingent labor to sustain revenue growth. For public institutions, the strategy of shifting costs to workers has followed public demand for lower taxes and smaller government, perpetuating a spiral of funding cuts for higher education. The pressure to trim costs and increase productivity, as Daniel Maxey and Adrianna Kezar explain in their 2016 essay “The Current Context for Faculty Work in Higher Education,” inevitably extends to private colleges as well—with a particular impact on liberal arts programs whose leaders take pride in encouraging students to challenge the status quo.

That shift from a culture of abundance and expansion to a corporatized model of hierarchy, efficiency, and control has had a profound effect on faculty hiring. In 1969, full-time appointments off the tenure track accounted for 3.3 percent of all full-time faculty positions, according to AAUP data; today, for every tenure-track position filled, three more faculty members are hired as NTT employees.

From a purely business standpoint, these practices seem to make sense. A nonpermanent faculty enables institutions to pay instructors at lower rates and with less overhead, while retaining the option to cut classes and programs when budgets are tight. Meanwhile, funding flows to top-tier athletic centers, state-of-the-art technology hubs, endowed policy institutes, high-tech dorms—whatever colleges and universities believe will draw customers (and donors) to their doors.

The problem is that learning is not a commodity, students are more than customers, and education is not just job training. While students gain from investments in technology, labs, libraries, and institutes, research shows that one of the key factors that drives student success is having faculty who know and care about them, who invest time to support them academically and personally, and who are deeply committed to their learning and growth. As Kezar and her University of Southern California (USC) colleagues Tom DePaola and Daniel T. Scott write in their 2019 book The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University, “Gig academy employment conditions are negatively associated with persistence, retention, graduation, academic performance, transfer from two-year to four-year institutions, early-college experiences, and high-quality faculty-student interactions.” Said differently, faculty working conditions are student learning conditions—the soil that nurtures and strengthens student success.

Unfortunately, for NTT faculty, continued employment may depend upon varied likes and dislikes of students, vague impressions of administrators or chairs, and even current funding priorities of donors, trustees, and legislators (and their donors and voters)—all of whom wield extraordinary power over what happens in classrooms and beyond. These nonacademic priorities erode not only the voice of the entire faculty but the integrity and credibility of the university itself. Indeed, by excluding an entire sector of the academic community from the decision-making process, we risk losing focus on the mission we share.

The tenuous position of NTT faculty also poses a serious threat to academic freedom. Writing for the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom in 2013, Jan Clausen and Eva-Maria Swidler ask: if three-quarters of higher education faculty today are hired off the tenure track, “is it meaningful any longer to talk of academic freedom as a ruling principle in higher education?” We often refer to academic freedom as a professional right, and speak powerfully of the need to defend that right against the onslaughts of populism, politics, and capitalist values. But rather than framing our battle as a defense of “elitist” rights, Clausen and Swidler suggest that “we would do better to frame our struggle as one to establish academic freedom for that large proportion of scholars and teachers for whom it can scarcely be said to exist.” To do this requires solidarity across faculty ranks—a challenge when, as theologian Jim Keenan of Boston College notes in his book University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics, “Tenure-track and tenured faculty as well as departmental chairs simply take for granted the secondary status of adjunct faculty,” with little thought to compelling interests in which all scholars have a share.

So, where do we gofrom here? Faculty models across public and private, two- and four-year, research and teaching institutions are complex and dynamic, with no one-size-fits-all model to resolve all ills. On the horizon, however, are multiple models of effective structures and of faculty-administrator partnerships that reinforce democratic principles of equity and transparency and ensure all stakeholders have a seat at the proverbial table.

A number of proposals have been advanced by a wide range of authors, notably education scholars Kezar, DePaolo, and Scott of USC; sociologist Karen Cardozo of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; historian Henry Reichman of California State University East Bay; anthropologist Debra Klein of Gavilan College; and researchers at the AAUP. A few of the proposed actions include the following:

Create structures promoting reliable workplace democracy, including voting systems, debates, clear systems for input, due process, and rights and structures for appeal. “A democratically controlled workplace would need a more equitable distribution of power than what is afforded through limited shared governance, such as a faculty senate,” Kezar and her colleagues write, noting that “collective action (through unions, alliances or similar collective efforts) is by far the most efficacious tool” for advancing workplace democracy. Where a union is not possible, even greater need exists for institutional trust and good-faith agreements that are open, binding, and enforceable on all sides.

Increase salaries to make contingent hiring less attractive. And, where applicable, remove caps on how many part-time hours NTT faculty may teach within a given semester or year, enabling those faculty to earn a living while focusing their efforts on teaching and mentoring within a given institution’s community.

Rethink ranks and contracts. While most universities have a well-defined structure for faculty to advance through the tenure process, NTT ranks often proliferate with no clear or consistent plan for hiring, compensation, evaluation, mentoring, or promotion. Simplifying the framework with a clear and transparent structure and an equitable process for advancing across ranks promotes greater solidarity among faculty while lessening the competition and resentments that come with secrecy and a lack of pathways toward a sustainable career.

Rethink criteria for scholarship and professionalism. Contingent faculty bring perspectives shaped by real-world commitments that have led them to this role; universities can find ways to integrate, recognize, and reward their contributions, outside the criteria of quantity and quality of publications and the numerical metrics of student evaluations.

Replace outdated academic career paths and the strict boundaries between tenure-stream and other positions, with flexible and creative work policies that foster humane, mission-driven cooperation across all categories of academic work. Reframe tenure not just as a prize for top-tier research but as a means to reintegrate teaching, including its innovative and service-based models, within the practice and identity of scholars at all levels.

Arrange forconsortial hiring across institutions, with multiple institutions bearing the costs. Such cost-sharing plans can increase job security for contingent faculty without creating hardship for the individual campuses.

Where contingency prevails, establish a policy allowing for portable benefits to support faculty who shift from one institution to the next. Such a structure could preserve flexibility for both colleges and faculty while ensuring stability for those who work as longtime contractors moving among multiple institutions. At public institutions, faculty who teach at multiple intrastate colleges could combine fractional course loads to qualify for regular, full-time benefits paid by that state.

Some institutions are already experimenting with open pay schedules across all ranks and have created systems for successful instructors to advance without continually competing for their own longtime jobs. These include raising NTT teaching salaries to parity with their tenure-track peers, thus removing a reason to hire faculty into part-time roles. As a complement, design and publish policies that enable longtime, successful NTT faculty to transition into permanent (nontenured) roles after a specified period of time. The California State University system, as one example, provides a process for NTT faculty who have taught in that system for a full six years to transition to a three-year appointment, renewable indefinitely. And at Amherst College, faculty who have taught at least half time are eligible for tenure with the same quality standards that apply to their full-time colleagues.

A transformation ofacademic structures cannot be achieved with a fractured faculty, distrustful of each other and hostile to one another’s needs. These conditions affect us all; we must own this struggle together. “Those with permanent employment often show little interest in hearing about or considering the experience of their less-privileged colleagues (even while we firmly identify as champions of human rights, and allies of the marginalized and downtrodden),” writes Santa Clara English lecturer Margarita Levantovskaya in a 2020 essay on the online platform Medium.

Engaging in practices that erode our own communities while closing our eyes to the inequities that we sustain undermines our integrity, erodes our values, and belies our commitment to the solidarity and partnership that we profess to share. At the 2021 Triennial Conference of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Frederick Lawrence, secretary and CEO of the society, reminded delegates that “the goal of liberal education is to understand the world in all its complexities, to challenge us, and yes, to make us uncomfortable from time to time.” But how can we work toward this aim within a factionalized, defensive, and self-interested faculty system? We cannot pretend that success as a mission-driven college or university can be won by preserving the privilege of one class through silencing the voices of another. Honoring our mission requires that all of us step forward as partners and take our seats at the table, working across ranks to rediscover a shared purpose, to declare a new future, and to commit ourselves to the work of finding, and leading, another way.

Illustrations by Doug Chayka


  • Deirdre Frontczak