In a Time of Crisis, Stand with Contingent Faculty and Graduate Students

May 1, 2020

According to the American Association of University Professors, “non-tenure track positions of all types now account for over 70 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education” (AAUP). The percentage of non-tenure track faculty to tenure-track and tenured faculty differs from campus to campus, but many now see the collective imbalance across American higher education as a “crisis” (“How to Fix the Adjunct Crisis” 2018; Carey 2020), the product of the “corporatization” of American higher education during the past 30 years that has shifted “costs and risks downward [onto students] and direct capital and authority upward” (Moser 2014).

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. The official position of the American Association of University Professors is that “positions that require comparable work, responsibilities, and qualifications should be comparably compensated” and “the turn towards cheaper contingent labor is largely a matter of priorities rather than economic necessity” (AAUP). Indeed, during the 1990s, college enrollments swelled with the arrival of the first cohorts of millennials, with peak enrollments of 18.1 million attained in 2011. But as that growth occurred, “94 percent of the net increase in college professors hired to teach the millennial generation were contingent...” (Carey 2020). Evidence to date from our colleges and universities suggest that systemic solutions will not be forthcoming soon. But colleges and universities may lose the ability to formulate their own responses. Those following the selection process for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nominee know that plans have been developed—and their merits debated—that might be deployed to address the cost of a college education and the student debt now borne by so many Americans. It remains to be seen if those plans will gain traction with a divided electorate at a time when voters’ views of the merits of higher education are also polarized. If any of those plans were enacted, however, it is hard to imagine the adjunct crisis being left untouched.

While we wait for either system-wide or federal action, tenured and tenure-track music faculty can advocate for better wages and improved working conditions for part-time or adjunct instructors on our individual campuses. For example, on campuses with collective bargaining agreements, full-time faculty could work to add clauses to their collective bargaining agreements that cap the percentage of non-tenure-track positions relative to tenure-track positions and that articulate pathways designed to move long-serving adjuncts to tenure-track status. (Collins 2014 summarizes just some of the positions taken on collective bargaining and advocacy generally.) Furthermore, at the local level of the unit, department, or school, music faculty can also encourage their unit leaders, whether chairs, directors, or deans, to commit to concrete steps to enhance support for contingent faculty. For example:

  1. If music programs, departments, or schools have the authority to set pay rates for part-time or adjunct faculty teaching studio lessons and music courses, then increase those rates, immediately, and map out a multi-year plan for making ongoing cost-of-living adjustments.
  2. If music programs, departments, or schools do not have the authority to set pay rates for part-time or adjunct faculty, then provide other types of support approved by campus policy: pay for professional conference registration and travel for part-time faculty, reimburse professional membership fees, purchase teaching materials to support the work of the unit’s part-time faculty, or pay a stipend for travel to and from campus.
  3. Add additional compensated, but non-teaching responsibilities to adjuncts’ contracts to create larger, more economically stable roles for them within your unit. Playing in ensembles, tutoring students, assisting with recruitment, social media marketing, communicating with alumni, and audio/video recording are just some of the ways that smaller or mid-sized units might enhance their operations by drawing on other professional skills and abilities that your adjuncts may possess.
  4. Consolidate some part-time roles into full-time lecturer position(s). To facilitate this process, have general music courses on hand that all musicians with advanced training can teach; sections of such courses can fill out loads for full-time lecturers.
  5. Push for full-time positions whenever vacancies develop, as well as whenever new instructional needs are identified.
  6. Invite part-time faculty, adjuncts, and graduate teaching assistants to participate in department- or unit-led faculty al activities, workshops, and sessions.
  7. Embrace the expert perspective of part-time instructors and adjuncts and take seriously their input regarding syllabi, teaching materials, textbooks, equipment, and facilities.
  8. Develop policies that require music faculty search committees to interview several candidates who have had non-traditional career trajectories, including candidates with more than 5 years of experience as contingent faculty.

It goes without saying that some of these approaches can also address needs of graduate teaching assistants.

  1. If music programs, departments, or schools have the authority to set graduate teaching assistant stipends, then increase them; where necessary, advocate that the university do so.
  2. Offer more career-development support, including intentional training in skills transfer, and create a culture within the unit in which non-academic careers are embraced.
  3. Consolidate part-time instruction into additional graduate teaching assistantships, or support doctoral students no longer serving as teaching assistants with adjunct teaching assignments.
  4. Assign student worker opportunities to under-funded graduate students; maximize use of federal work study options available on your campus.
  5. Resist behavior in your unit that amounts to academic hazing of graduate students.

Fundamentally, concerned faculty should expect their unit leaders to have such a command of their institutional financial and staffing policies that they can take advantage of those policies to maximize support for contingent music faculty and graduate music teaching assistants.   


American Association of University Professors. n.d. “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty Positions.” Accessed February 24, 2020.

Carey, Kevin. 2020. “The Bleak Job Landscape of Adjunctopia for Ph.D.s.” The New York Times, March 5, 2020.

Collins, Rachel. 2014. “Can the Professoriate be Saved?” Review of Equality For Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System Keith Hoeller, ed. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014. Academe, September-October 2014.

“How to Fix the Adjunct Crisis.” 2018. The Chronicle Review, May 30, 2018.

Moser, Richard. 2014. “Overuse and Abuse of Adjunct Faculty Members Threaten Core Academic Values.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 13, 2014.

1858 Last modified on March 9, 2021
Login to post comments