Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Adjuncts Serving As Replacements, Not Supplements

The Wisconsin State Journal has an article today on the growing number of academic staff members at UW-Madison. Not too long ago, I was an academic staff member at UW-Madison, although not the kind the WSJ story discusses.

According to the WSJ article, academic staff members are being brought to UW-Madison in hoards in order to take over some of the duties of research-strapped faculty. It paints a picture of a university that’s booming so much in the area of research that extra people are needed to supplement the work of professors in areas such as teaching.

That’s certainly one way to put it. Another, which is the preferred way among most graduate students in doctoral programs, is not nearly so positive. And those grad students don’t think of the positions as “academic staff,” but rather “adjunct” positions.

The word “adjunct” is not a desirable term in graduate school circles. It’s associated with relatively low pay and, if you can manage to string a few of them together, a significant teaching load. Most people who take these positions are newly minted PhDs who went to grad school with the hopes of landing an actual professorship – and, for most, that remains the goal afterwards.

But the trouble with finding a professorship as an adjunct is time. A full workload for grad students is typically considered 0.5 FTE – the rest of the time is spent either in coursework or doing research, writing, presenting papers, etc.

For adjuncts, on the other hand, a full workload is 1.0 FTE – just like the rest of us. The trouble with that is it leaves little time for research, writing, presenting papers, etc. And good luck landing a tenure-track professorship if you’re not on the cutting-edge of research in your field.

Add to that the fact that when you do apply for tenure-track faculty positions one, two, three years down the road, you’re not only competing against all the newly-minted doctorates from that individual year, but all those like yourself who have become back-logged in the adjunct world.

It’s intimidating, to say the least, and it’s the direct result of fewer and fewer tenure-track professorships being offered – not increasing levels of research, as the WSJ article makes out. And why hire adjuncts instead of professors? Quite simply, they’re cheaper for the cash-strapped university.

Follow this link to the employment page for UW-Madison under the category “Instruction.” Over in the far right-hand column -- “Appointment Percentage Range” -- you won’t find many positions listed at 100%. The majority are at 33%, a handful are at 50%, while some give a range between 33% and 50% or 75%.

When you open one of the job descriptions, a salary around $30,000-$35,000 will jump out at you – for nine months work, no less! Of course, you’ll need to multiply that number by your percentage, which in most cases brings you down to $9,900-$11,550 per academic year. But, then, many of the adjunct positions are only guaranteed for one semester, which cuts that academic year total in half.

Essentially, this allows the university to hire an instructor with a PhD for roughly $5,000 per course – and without any guarantees of returning in future terms.

Contrast that figure with the cost of a faculty-taught course on the UW-Madison campus. The average salary for an assistant professor (the lowest rung on the faculty ladder) is $63,600 (see here, page 26). You can expect most professors to teach about five courses per year, which puts the cost per course at over $12,000 – more than twice as much as the cost of an adjunct-led course.

Of course, the expectations in terms of research and committee work are more significant for professors than adjuncts (particularly assistant professors), so you are getting more for your buck with professors than just teaching. But if you ask current adjuncts which role they would prefer, the vast majority would take a professorship any day of the week – after all, it’s what they were trained to do.

The ratio of students to professors hasn’t eroded too much on the UW-Madison campus, but it is eroding (12-to-1 in 1995, 13-to-1 in 2005). The real test for the campus, and others, will come when the baby boomers start to retire in the coming decades. The question isn’t who will be hired to replace them when they retire – it’s how those people will be hired.

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