The academic workforce in the U.S. is slowly but surely relying more heavily on contingent faculty and graduate student employees as tenure and tenure-track faculty positions decline, according to a key summary from the American Association of University Professors.
The study identified contingent professors as positions ineligible for tenure that are either part-time, full-time non-tenure-track or full-time no-tenure system. This group made up 68% of the academic workforce in the Fall of 2021, which is a 21% jump since the Fall of 1987 (47%). Part-time faculty, usually placed in adjunct appointments, made up almost half of the entire academic workforce at 48% in 2021 and are the primary driver behind the rise in contingent workers. In 1987, part-time faculty made up 33% of the workforce. Full-time non-tenure track faculty, usually in contract-renewable positions, rose by 8%.
As contingent faculty appointments rose, the proportion of full-time tenured faculty fell by 15%. In 1987, they made up 39% of all academic appointments, but in 2021, it shrunk to 24%. Full-time faculty on track for tenure also fell 5%.
Combining all institution types, as recognized by the Carnegie classification type, contingent faculty outweighed tenure and tenure-track faculty 67% to 32% in 2021. Contingent faculty outweighed their counterpart across all institution types, save R1: Doctoral Universities, where it was split evenly.
“Tenure is the primary means of protecting academic freedom and exists not only to protect individual faculty members but also to benefit students and serve the common good by ensuring the quality of teaching and research in higher education,” wrote AAUP in the report. “Overreliance on contingent appointments, which lack the protection of tenure for academic freedom and the economic security of continuing appointments, threatens the success of institutions in fulfilling their obligations to students and to society.”
AAUP does not provide any reasons as to why tenure and tenure-track professors are declining with respect to contingent positions.
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Women and underrepresented minorities (URM) make up a greater proportion of part-time and other contingent appointments. Among full-time employees, for example, 65% of men are tenured or on track, while the same is true for only 54% of women. By race and ethnicity, 67% of Asian full-time workers are tenured or on track, compared to only 58% of URM.
As the proportion of academic appointments has changed in favor of non-tenured faculty, the number of graduate student employees has skyrocketed in the last 20 years, increasing 44% since the Fall of 2002. In that same period, full-time and part-time faculty rose 19%. Many graduate students are tasked with teaching responsibilities, which could lend them the classification of contingent faculty, but the data lacked a definitive understanding of how many of those students are teaching. However, this significant increase in graduate student labor may support the claim that the proportion of contingent faculty is higher than AAUP’s report is willing to suggest.
The AAUP report amalgamated data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) database and the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF) to study patterns of academic appointments and graduate student employment trends.