Reclaiming a Sustainable Higher Ed Workforce

Intro: The Open Secret of Higher Education

A growing movement of part-time faculty union members and activists is raising public awareness of the unsustainably long hours, low pay and insecure, time-limited employment of nearly three-quarters of the people employed to teach undergraduate students at U.S. colleges and universities.

Those who know these numbers find them shocking—even unbelievable—despite the fact that we’ve been living with them for far too long. In 2011, the latest year for which we have a full count, colleges and universities employed 1.8 million faculty. Of that number, only 436,293 were full-time, tenure-track faculty. More than 1 million of those professional educators were part-time/adjunct faculty or graduate employees.

graph - becoming contingent

  • Notes: Percentage growth is from 1975 for full-time faculty members, and from 1976 for all other categories. In 1976, graduate-student employees included both full- and part-timers; in 2011, all graduate-student employees were defined as part-time.
  • Source: Analysis of IPEDS data by John W. Curtis for AAUP

The AFT has been working for decades to expose the alarming trend that shows a complete flip in the proportion of full-time, tenure-track faculty to nontenure-track and part-time faculty since 1976. We want the public to understand this reality and the implications for students.

But the dramatic higher education workforce shift is not information that institutions routinely share. Thus, our locals and state federations, and other labor and advocacy organizations, frequently encounter questions and challenges that reflect outdated beliefs—and some outright myths—about part-time faculty, their role in educating college students in the United States, and the conditions under which they do that vital work.