Derailed: Life Off the Tenure Track even more difficult for women, people of color

Part II: A Lower Caste

By: - March 7, 2022 8:14 am

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

In 2018, Dr. Thea K. Hunter, 62, a Columbia University history Ph.D. and longtime member of Madeleine L’Engle’s Manhattan writers’ group, died from conditions related to overwork and lack of health care, according to an article in The Atlantic.

Described by colleagues as a “brilliant scholar” and “beautiful writer,” she had resigned two years into the tenure-track job she found in 2004, right out of grad school. As a rare African-American professor at Western Connecticut State University, she encountered discrimination and harassment that made her work life unbearable. She jumped to a temporary position at Princeton, expecting to be back on the tenure track soon, but that job never materialized. Instead she slid into a downward employment spiral, resulting in her death a little over a decade later. 

Hunter’s tale is a worst-case tragedy, but today’s academic job market is merciless, adjuncts say. Step off the treadmill of academic achievement, even involuntarily, and there may never be a chance to jump back on. People who get caught in the bind of extended adjuncting often have extenuating circumstances like family obligations they can’t neglect, or disadvantages like those Hunter brought to the academic job market: Black, female, and nearly 50 when she earned her doctorate, she didn’t look like many people’s idea of a history professor. As she cobbled together teaching gigs to earn a living, her curriculum vitae – the comprehensive academic resume used by higher education – looked less like those of other candidates for tenure-track jobs. The goal slipped away.

Women of color working as adjuncts have their credentials questioned and their authority undermined regularly. A widely respected professional and longtime Montana University System adjunct professor who is also a member of an underrepresented minority described being hired to teach a graduate level class — then suddenly paired with an older White male as co-professor. Although team teaching was nowhere in her contract, she said he expected her to be his assistant, writing the syllabus and doing all the grading and prep while he came in to lecture. When she refused, the administration split the class and gave her half. According to this professor, her student evaluations were far stronger, but the male professor was the only one invited back. 

Derailed: Life off the tenure track

Editor’s note: The Daily Montanan is presenting a five-part series to examine the roles and inequities of non-tenure track faculty in the public Montana University System and beyond. Traditionally, non-tenure track or “contingent” faculty – those whose jobs are not protected by the tenure system that requires significant process for dismissal – have consisted of independent professionals and academics in a community filling in as needed. But as higher education struggles with budget constraints, these positions make up an increasing portion of the faculty even at flagship universities – and the hourly pay works out to less than food service employees’.

This series examines five aspects of the rise of contingent faculty, which some describe as a lesser caste in which those who prepared for secure academic careers scramble to eke out a living.

  • Part One: Caste system Outside the tenure system, university teaching has slipped into the modern gig economy, with terms often worse than delivery driving.
  • Part Two:  Lower caste Work conditions for contingent faculty can be exhausting, demoralizing, and in the worst case, fatal.
  • Part Three: Terms of Employment Earning as little as $3 an hour, contingent faculty have no job security and little hope of advancement. 
  • Part Four: Impact on Students Despite contingent faculty’s best efforts, their tenuous position within the university can reduce their value to students.
  • Part Five: Pushing back Professional associations, unions, and universities are taking steps to improve the status of adjuncts, to protect the core mission of higher education.

Penned in by sex discrimination and gender expectations, female academics fall through the cracks more often than men. A 2021 report from the American Association of University Professors shows that women make up 42.5 percent of full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty, 53.9 percent of full-time non-tenure-track faculty, and 53.8 percent of part-time faculty. Nationally, adjuncts are a majority female workforce in a profession once almost entirely male, and underrepresented minorities are overrepresented among adjuncts as well. 

Those who responded to requests for interviews about adjuncting in Montana are, perhaps not coincidentally, all female, representing five of eight public universities. Many come from low-income backgrounds and overcame significant obstacles to obtain graduate education. They include underrepresented minorities, but Montana is a disproportionately White state, and most Montana adjuncts are White. 

The entry into academia of larger numbers of women and people of color has coincided with severe erosion of the prestige and favorable work arrangements once associated with the profession. Bound by the needs of children or elders or both, an academic of either sex who can’t move to pursue jobs may be forced into whatever is available within a few hours’ drive. This happened to Melissa Holmes in 2019 when a death in her family meant that she had to give up a tenured job at Rocky Mountain College in Billings to return to Butte and adjuncting. 

Another adjunct, who holds a master’s of fine arts, has held up to six jobs at a time to make ends meet while adjuncting for years in public and private Montana colleges. She remembers her department chair referring to adjuncts as “slave labor.” The term gets thrown around often, in bitterness or sympathy, where adjuncts are concerned. She quickly acknowledged that slavery is an inappropriate metaphor for voluntary, compensated employment and offered instead the language of caste. 

Adjuncts are a lower caste, she said, with few opportunities for upward mobility. Among the students in her master’s-of-fine-arts cohort at a leading public university, she knows of only one who found a tenure-track job. Many took adjunct positions, but like her, gave up university teaching without obtaining the full-time job they’d trained for and went into other occupations, student debt trailing after them like Marley and Marley’s “chains forged in life” in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

As employees, adjuncts are often extremely flexible, taking on full semester courses at the last minute when enrollment unexpectedly spikes, covering classes the tenure-track faculty don’t want, taking up no office space, and consuming few university resources. Former MSU-Billings adjunct Bess Lovec recalled — with a laugh, the litany of indignities so absurd it became comical —paying for an expensive campus parking permit and doing janitorial tasks to maintain her classroom because her department head was unwilling to take up the matter with the janitors’ union. 

The benefits of employing adjuncts go primarily to the university. Adjuncts’ precarious employment makes them unlikely to complain. 

One common adjuncting narrative is that of underemployed humanities professors – like the MFA who held six jobs – scrapping over an ever-diminishing tenure-track job pool. There’s still plenty of demand for people who can teach humanities subjects well, but tenure lines have dried up in favor of adjunct work. Emily Arendt, a Ph.D. and tenured history professor at MSU-Billings, estimates that out of 22 to 25 students in her Ohio State doctoral program, less than a quarter landed tenure track jobs – the usual end goal for humanities Ph.D.s. In the post-2008 recession, as universities eliminated tenure lines, she saw “enormously talented” colleagues struggle in adjunct positions until they left academia. Despite the long list of awards, fellowships, and publications on her curriculum vitae, she credits serendipity for finding one of the “rare” tenured jobs available to her generation.

The average profile of adjuncts has transformed. Fifty years ago, an adjunct professor was a professional from the surrounding community, stepping into a university classroom to share real world expertise and specialties. Montana University System Regent Todd Buchanan has done it himself, offering a popular “New Issues in Business” course that shares his global experience at Buchanan Capital with MSU-Billings students. 

Buchanan is quick to point out that adjuncts aren’t intended to be full-time or long-term faculty. He extols the value of a businessman talking business or a lawyer relating her courtroom and legislative battles, at a modest fee for a semester’s work, because they have other sources of income. For the occasional, professionally employed adjunct, university teaching can be a community service. It’s a status perk to be called “Professor.” This is how most people think of adjuncts. 

It’s not, however, reality for most non-tenure track jobs. Many adjuncts interviewed described discrimination, harassment, arbitrary dismissal, and other forms of exploitation, with only rare intervention by human resources, because adjuncts are reluctant to make waves. There’s shame and vulnerability associated with adjunct work. Many who are willing to discuss their adjunct experience with a journalist aren’t willing to be identified for fear of losing contracts they badly need, but also because they’re reluctant to reveal the humble reality of their jobs. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Carrie La Seur
Carrie La Seur

Carrie La Seur is a Billings novelist and attorney, descended from 1860s Montana settlers and a long line of one room schoolhouse educators. @claseur