Liberal Education

Confronting Contingency: Faculty Equity and the Goals of Academic Democracy

Much has been written about higher education’s increasing reliance on contingent academic labor over the last few decades. The narrative, which includes differing accounts of what, or who, is most to blame, has been well rehearsed: the increase came in slow and steady waves tied to significant political and economic events, including postwar enrollment surges, economic downturns, and the shift to a corporate management model; it came with the knowing or unknowing complicity of administrators; it was caused by the complacency of the tenured, the fear of the untenured, or is simply collateral damage in a war against tenure.

It is not our purpose here to analyze the causes of contingency; in this essay we focus on the efforts of those who have worked to reform or eliminate it. However, because the decades-old struggle to mitigate or reverse the trend has, in spite of a variety of efforts, seen the percentage of postsecondary faculty on contingent appointments actually rise from 43 percent in 1975 to almost 75 percent in 2010, and because troubling new developments include brazen union busting by the administration at East-West University in Chicago and the proposals by two community colleges in Michigan to outsource the hiring and administration of contingent faculty to new “academic temporary agencies,” it is impossible not to return to questions of cause—and effect. For whether one believes that the reliance on contingent employment is a positive development, a simple fact of life of contemporary higher education, or (as we believe) one of the biggest threats yet to its integrity, it is imperative that we consider the implications for the health of the profession, for the future of institutional leadership, and for the state of liberal education. Such consideration will allow us to (re)write the narrative going forward, rather than to allow the narrative simply to repeat in an endless and ever-expanding loop, as it seems to have done since the American Association of University Professors issued its first official policy statement on contingency in 1980.

We suggest that the growth of contingency reflects a gradual distancing of the practice of higher education from its purpose as trustee of the ideals of liberal education and democracy. Contingency persists for the following four reasons.

1. The solutions that have been offered by unions, activists, and progressive administrations on individual campuses have been too few and too isolated (if not too localized), and organizing efforts have been too difficult to coordinate effectively on a larger scale. Additionally, in some—particularly nonunionized—locations, contingency has become so much a part of the institutional culture that reform has been scarce and the pessimism or fear of would-be reformers difficult to overcome.

2. These same reform efforts, though isolated and sporadic, have also been substantial enough to lead far too many individual administrative, faculty, and union leaders into thinking that problems with contingency have been sufficiently addressed—or into shielding them from realizing that the problem was ever truly there to begin with.

3. The heterogeneity of the contingent faculty population, long recognized but inadequately documented, researched, or addressed, has encouraged the various stakeholders in the debate over contingency to extrapolate the experiences of one sector—usually the sector whose characteristics are most compatible with those stakeholders’ interests—to the whole. This leads many adjunct faculty advocates to suggest that the “satisfied adjunct” is an anomaly and many administrators (and satisfied adjuncts) to deny that there are any contingent faculty members who qualify for food stamps. Such attitudes create a stubborn myopia that impedes conversation and cooperation.

4. The debates that have raged within and about higher education over vocational versus liberal education, tenure, the “corporatization” of higher education, governmental oversight and accreditation, and funding models and sources have obscured, deferred, or overridden the need for action on the fundamental ethical and practical concerns that attend the professional and personal needs of faculty on contingent appointments. Yet, ironically, attending to those concerns—ensuring a living wage, access to health care, professional development, and the protections of academic freedom—would exercise the very values of academic democracy that these debates are really all about.

While the roots of contingent academic employment go back many decades, and surged in the early 1970s (Berry 2005), it was not until the 1980s that the higher education community really began to notice that contingency had exploded to a level of concern. Marked by radically reduced wages, frequent lack of access to benefits, limited access to professional support and opportunities for advancement, and institutional disrespect, contingency is one of higher education’s darker secrets. In the last twenty-five years, however, and particularly in the last decade, there have been sincere, if belated, efforts to respond. These include a proliferation of studies, articles, and books; resolutions, statements, guidelines, and best-practice publications by unions, institutions, and associations; and most effectively, both union- and nonunion-affiliated organizing efforts leading to successful collective bargaining, cooperative negotiations with receptive administrations, and groundbreaking litigation and legislation. All of these efforts have resulted, practically speaking, in some improved working conditions for many adjunct faculty members.

Yet, paradoxically, even as these accomplishments have signaled a huge step forward, they have not succeeded in substantially alleviating the sense of foreboding over the status and future of the professoriate, or the ramifications for education that the higher education community began to recognize a generation ago. In fact, that sense of crisis has been heightened as the federal government, allied with major corporations, seeks greater influence over college curricula, particularly at the community college level, with the danger of minimal—or token—consultation with higher education faculty (Wilson 2010).

Several years ago, activists in the contingent faculty movement recognized the impasse at which the movement found itself in the face of this lack of progress (Hoeller 2007), and initiated discussion about the need for a structured national organization. In 2009, such an organization was founded. New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity (NFM) is the only national organization exclusively devoted to improving the quality of higher education by improving the working conditions of the majority of its faculty.

NFM came into existence because we believe that higher education needs to move into a new phase of coordinated, intentional, and ethically grounded activity to confront contingency. The goal of such efforts should be to repair the damaging effects on students, faculty, and the country of the haphazard and shortsighted decisions that led to the spread of contingency in the first place, and to bring to fruition the valiant but uncoordinated and all too often superficial reforms that a generation of educators has tried to implement. And, while incremental change may continue to be the only way forward, we believe that what is needed is a new sense of urgency and a defined goal that acknowledges the need for a transformation of academic culture from its current hierarchical, stratified structure into real academic democracy rooted in the values of liberal education.

The current lay of the land: One step forward, two steps back

The first decade of the new century began with many advocates for contingent faculty feeling hopeful. The previous two decades had seen a gradual intensification of awareness of the severity of the contingent faculty problem, along with efforts that culminated in the formation of two important groups: the Coalition on Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), a loose coalition of unions and activists, and the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW), notable because it brought disciplinary associations, higher education associations, and unions together with a wide range of representation in its membership. COCAL was instrumental in creating a national community of adjunct activists where none had existed before, which aided tremendously in organizing efforts and in the ability of unions to consult with contingent faculty members in the development of many union positions and policy statements. CAW encouraged its member organizations to focus attention on contingent faculty issues.

Several milestones from the 2000s deserve special mention, not least because they represented concerted efforts by contingent faculty to effect change themselves: two Washington State part-time faculty class-action lawsuits related to retirement and health care, which cost the state $25 million (Ruiz 2007); the efforts in California to work legislatively to eliminate caps on part-time faculty workloads (Yoshioka 2007); Barbara Wolf’s documentary A Simple Matter of Justice (2002), a follow-up to Degrees of Shame (1999); and the 2005 publication of Joe Berry’s Reclaiming the Ivory Tower and his later guide, along with Helena Worthen and Beverly Stewart, for contingent faculty applying for unemployment insurance.

Even as many conscientized faculty, higher education associations, and unions were mobilizing to resist the new trend toward contingency—albeit with different motives, levels of urgency, and conceptions of the crisis—institutions themselves were also beginning to recognize that the cost savings of contingency come with educational and human costs that require reform. While much of the literature dealing with contingency from managerial perspectives is marked by paternalism or rhetorical distancing from contingency’s real-life effects (some of the more disconcerting titles include “Making Adjuncts Part of the ‘Family,’” “A Systems Approach to Strategic Success with Adjunct Faculty” and, incredibly, “Managing a Department’s Adjunct Faculty: Let Them Eat Sweet Rolls”), more tenure-stream faculty and administrators began to confront the contradiction between institutional and professional ideals, on the one hand, and the day-to-day reality of life on contingent appointments, on the other. Outspoken professors like Dan Maguire at Marquette University (2009) and administrators like A. G. Monaco (see Jaschik 2008) made moral and ethical cases for reform, and quantitative studies (Jaeger 2008; Eagan and Jaeger 2009; Umbach 2007; Bettinger and Long 2010) debated the effectiveness for student outcomes of so-called “exposure” to contingent faculty.

The effect of this heightened awareness has been undeniable: concrete improvements in contingent faculty working conditions in many places, from mailboxes and parking passes to faculty senate representation and access to professional development funds. Some unions have even obtained access to due process, benefits, and increases in pay for adjuncts, while nonunionized adjuncts are occasionally able to work with administrators to address working conditions (McGrew and Untener 2010).

It has become increasingly clear, however, that cumulatively, these improvements have been the equivalent of faint praise, and are equally damning (or at least confusing). A recurring theme over the last ten years has been the periodic impulse to restudy and resurvey the issue or to issue guidelines and recommendations that are promptly ignored or that lack any enforceability.1 These studies and guidelines, along with limited improvements, may allow tenured faculty, administrators, and presidents to remain ignorant of the reality of life for many contingent faculty and of the effects on education. At the 2009 Chronicle Leadership Forum session on “The Road Scholar,” for example, an administrator responded with incredulity to the session presenters’ descriptions of the typical hardships faced by many adjuncts, claiming that she had “never heard” of any such thing, and a significant number of her fellow attendees indicated a similar perspective. If contingent faculty members remain silent, either by choice or out of fear (because they have no union—or, worse, a union that replicates the divide between the two tracks), then campus leaders must have the interest and ability to seek out the truth, which is certainly more complicated than the administrator above understood.

Complicating matters further is the release of studies and surveys that identify a percentage of contingent faculty as “satisfied” with variously described working conditions (Gappa 2000; American Federation of Teachers 2010), blurring a crucial distinction between the gratifying nature of teaching and satisfactory working conditions. Seldom adequately parsed, such studies challenge administrators and faculty activists alike to confront the complicated reality that the contingent faculty population is not homogeneous. The response to that challenge, all too often, has been entrenchment rather than engagement.

Entrenchment persists in matters of finance, as well. While attempts to “integrate” faculty more effectively into the life of the institution have become more commonplace, institutions making these efforts have largely ignored bread-and-butter issues like salary, benefits, access to due process, academic freedom, job security, and professional advancement. These institutions cite financial hardship and resist inquiry into the questionable prioritizing suggested by recent studies that show massive increases in spending on such items as presidential and administrative salaries, facilities, athletics, and public relations along with sharp decreases in spending on direct instruction (Desrochers, Lenihan, and Wellman 2010; Schneider 2009).

In short, solutions meant to alleviate the worst aspects of contingency have had the paradoxical effect of promoting it. For example, institutions often cite with approval the rapid growth of the category of the full-time, nontenure-track instructor. However, this trend has made the divisive academic class system even more so, and more firmly entrenched; with three classes of faculty rather than two, the “division and conquering” of faculty solidarity is more pronounced. Part-time faculty who see a possible promotion to full-time status have incentive not to speak out, and those who get such a contract, maybe after years of part-time service, are so relieved that they may not dare express concern about their own position and prospects, much less that of their colleagues on the often inaccurately named “part-time” track. Similarly, workload caps imposed on contingent faculty members by their unions are proclaimed to be in the interest of contingent faculty themselves, but, without real progress on per-course compensation or an ultimate goal of equity, caps force many contingent faculty members to teach on multiple campuses in order to earn a living wage.

From incrementalism to goal-oriented structural reform

In practical terms, these examples point to the short-sightedness of many of the solutions to the contingent faculty crisis that have been enacted over the last twenty-five years. The problem has been that, to date, there is no common goal toward which to work and no benchmarks by which to assess the changes that have been made. Like the growth of contingency itself, the response to contingency has been haphazard, localized, self-interested, arbitrary, and defined by the very institutional structures that created it. (Indeed, the claim that “many part-timers don’t want to be full time” is a common objection in discussions of inequity, as if the notion of equivalent compensation for equivalent work can only be addressed in terms of the very two-tiered system that needs to change.) Many of the advances that have been made have been short-term gains and long-term losses, treatment of symptoms rather than causes: a new orientation program here, a $100-per-credit-hour gain there.

Incremental or piecemeal change that brings occasional, by no means comprehensive progress on some fronts while lacking a clear understanding of why change is necessary or what kind of change must ultimately be achieved, we contend, is not deep enough change. Treating symptoms does not necessarily lead to the correct diagnosis or treatment of the underlying disease, and in fact it can further mask the real root disorder. The danger of incrementalism, in other words, is not that it makes small changes over time; it is that without a clear view of the ultimate destination, small changes over time can actually obstruct progress toward a definable goal.

But of course the question becomes, what is the definable goal? If the problem is that no consensus exists on how to define that goal, then addressing that problem becomes the first step. At NFM, we propose adapting the thriving example of the Vancouver Community College model, where, among other things, there is a single salary schedule and where all faculty have equal access to permanent status. We have articulated the goals of equity in compensation, job security, academic freedom, faculty governance, professional advancement, benefits, and unemployment insurance. We contend that each of these goals is rooted in a larger goal that has long been defined in the foundational principles of the idea of the university and in the purpose and functioning of our democracy: the protection and refinement of academic, or campus, democracy for the purpose of ensuring quality education and safeguarding and advancing our national democracy. As Rich Moser (2004, 5) explains, “the concept of campus democracy implies that the campus is a distinctive but integral part of the broader society serving the public good. If we take a step further and define the public interest as the defense of core values, then the campus should become an exemplar of freedom, democracy, equality, and justice. The constitution of the campus could be considered its most important pedagogy and the efforts to shape that constitution our best classroom.” There are few more compelling definitions of the purpose and process of education. As every parent and every educator knows, there is no better—or more unforgiving—pedagogical tool than the power of example. The next step forward, then, involves a look inward.

From ivory tower to academic democracy

To many observers, the formation of NFM was puzzling and counterintuitive; hadn’t unionization efforts among contingent faculty increased and hadn’t advances been made through collective bargaining? And weren’t many institutions now paying attention to and implementing the types of reforms and strategies that for years had been recommended for the purpose of “integrating” contingent faculty more effectively into the life of the college and university and showing them respect?

If the concerns of contingent faculty had only to do with working conditions, then the progress made over the last generation might not have required NFM’s formation. Contingent faculty would have continued to support local organizing efforts and internal reform efforts, celebrating advances as they have occurred and fighting for change where necessary.

But NFM is not just about improving working conditions. It is about improving working conditions for an ultimate purpose: to ensure the quality of education and the integrity of the profession. NFM aims to remind the academy that it exists not for itself, and not simply to preserve itself­­­, but for the common good—and that the operative definition of “common” in that expression should not evoke the unfortunate connotation of “second rate,” but rather its root, communis, or community.

Clearly, the contingent faculty crisis is simply the most obvious manifestation of the steady erosion of community in higher education. The faculty (in part, through its own doing) has moved, or been pushed, away from its role as a full partner in higher education to a literally “adjunct” position—peripheral, disempowered—in terms of either numbers or function. Tenure-stream faculty, who have authority over the curriculum and at least a nominal role in governance, are now too small in number or too cowed to initiate or resist change effectively, while faculty off the tenure track, though the majority in number, must risk their livelihoods to do so. To fight against this trend is to “reclaim” the ivory tower, as Joe Berry (2005) has put it, by transforming it into the academic democracy that it is really supposed to be.

If the marginalization of the faculty as a whole is the disease whose most obvious symptom is the mistreatment of those with the lowest status, then what is needed is a cure that builds on the body’s natural strengths. What is needed is a revitalization of the concept of academic democracy, one rooted in the social contract that has traditionally defined faculty work and that embodies the values of liberal education. Again, as Moser (2004, 2) explains, “as students, faculty, and campus workers make common cause to secure workplace rights and basic economic security, we must also articulate new ideals and mobilize alternative forms of community. We could organize such a project under the rubric of ‘campus democracy, community and academic citizenship’: ideals of service that revisit classical conceptions of the university, are grounded in existing economic and political conditions, rooted in democratic traditions of freedom, and already legible in the many struggles for justice on today’s campuses.” It is those ideals and traditions—along with sheer willpower—that will be needed to combat the pessimistic notion that “once the university budget has absorbed their [nontenure-track faculty] lower cost . . . it becomes almost impossible to retreat” (Cross and Goldenberg 2002, 27–28).

Confronting contingency is not an impossible task, though it is a formidable one. As Caryn McTighe Musil has pointed out, it is “radical”—but only because it is so necessary: “Of course, treating the contingent faculty like ‘real’ faculty, especially women and women with children, is a radical act. It requires considerable shifts in attitude, in economic remuneration, and in job security. It means incorporating these faculty members as equal partners in departments, welcoming them as academic colleagues, and nurturing their professional growth” (Musil 2009). As daunting as this task is, however, Musil reminds us that we can do it—because we’ve done it before. “The academy figured out how to rethink entire fields when DNA was discovered and mapped, when technology changed everything about our lives and work, and when women’s studies and ethnic studies forever altered the foundations of knowledge. The academy should be able to make this other change too” (Musil 2009).

We could not agree more. It will take leadership, courage, trust, and a willingness to reject the ignorance and cynicism that always plague efforts to effect such massive but necessary change in institutional culture. NFM exists, and will do whatever is necessary, to facilitate that change.


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American Federation of Teachers. 2010. American Academic: A National Survey of Part-time/Adjunct Faculty. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers.

Berry, Joe. 2005. Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Bettinger, Eric P., and Bridget Terry Long. 2010. “Does Cheaper Mean Better? The Impact of Using Adjunct Instructors on Student Outcomes.” Review of Economics and Statistics 92 (3): 598–613.

Biliczky, Carol. 2010. “UA OKs Raises for Instructors.” Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio), November 2,

Cross, John G., and Edie N. Goldenberg. 2002. “Why Hire Non-Tenure-Track Faculty?” Peer Review 5 (1): 25–28.

Desrochers, Donna M., Colleen M. Lenihan, and Jane V. Wellman. 2010. Trends in College Spending 1998-2008: Where Does the Money Come From? Where Does It Go? What Does It Buy? Washington, DC: Delta Cost Project.

Eagan, M. Kevin, Jr, and Audrey J. Jaeger. 2009. “Effects of Exposure to Part-time Faculty on Community College Transfer.” Research in Higher Education 50: 168–88.

Gappa, Judith M. 2000. “The New Faculty Majority: Somewhat Satisfied but Not Eligible for Tenure.” New Directions for Institutional Research 105: 77.

Hoeller, Keith. 2007. “The Future of the Contingent Faculty Movement.” Inside Higher Ed, November 13,

Jaeger, Audrey J. 2008. “Contingent Faculty and Student Outcomes.” Academe 94 (6): 42–43.

Jaschik, Scott. 2008. “Call to Arms for Adjuncts . . . From an Administrator.” Inside Higher Ed, October 14,

Maguire, Daniel C. “Seeking the Path to Adjunct Justice at Marquette University.” Thought & Action (Fall): 47–55.

McGrew, Heidi, and Joe Untener. 2010. “A Primer on Improving Contingent Faculty Conditions.” Academe 96 (4): 43–45.

Moser, Richard. 2004. “Campus Democracy, Community, and Academic Citizenship.” Paper presented at the Conference on Contingent Academic Labor VI, Chicago, IL, August.

Musil, Caryn McTighe. 2009. “Red Blood Cells on Reserve.” On Campus with Women 37 (3),

Ruiz, Eddy A. 2007. “The Stone that Struck Goliath: The Part-Time Faculty Association, Washington State Community and Technical Colleges, and Class-Action Lawsuits.” New Directions for Community Colleges 140: 49–54.

Schneider, Mark. 2009. “Where Does All That Tuition Go?” Education Outlook 12, docLib/09-EduO-Dec-g.pdf.

Umbach, Paul D. 2007. “How Effective Are They? Exploring the Impact of Contingent Faculty on Undergraduate Education.” The Review of Higher Education 30 (2): 91–123.

Wilson, David McKay. 2010. “The Casualties of
the Twenty-First-Century Community College.” Academe 96 (3): 12–18.

Yoshioka, Robert B. 2007. “Part-Time Faculty in California: Successes, Challenges, and Future Issues.” New Directions for Community Colleges 140: 41–47.


  1. A notable exception is Phi Beta Kappa’s denial of a chapter to the University of Akron thanks to high numbers of adjunct faculty at that institution (Biliczky 2010).

Maria Maisto is an adjunct instructor of composition at Cuyahoga Community College, a founding member and current president of New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity (NFM), cochair of the Ohio Conference AAUP Committee on Part-Time Faculty, and former administrative director of the American Conference of Academic Deans. Steve Street is a lecturer in the writing program at Buffalo State College, part-time concerns representative for United University Professions on that campus, and a member of NFM’s board of directors. The authors wish to thank Joe Berry and Rich Moser for their feedback on drafts of this essay.

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the authors’ names on the subject line.

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