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It’s time to rethink universities’ growing reliance on contingent faculty

The Adjunct Underclass: How America's Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission

Herb Childress
University of Chicago Press
223 pp.
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Imagine you’re a new academic considering an adjunct teaching job that pays $80 per hour. Sure, you’ll need to pick up a few more courses to pay the bills, you think, but this is a good start. But consider this: The quoted rate reflects only your classroom hours. You will likely work an additional 3 to 5 (or even more) hours per hour in the classroom as you email with students, hold office hours, and grade assignments. This, plus the lack of benefits, means that your actual per-hour rate will be closer to $9.

“This is how you kill a profession,” warns Herb Childress in The Adjunct Underclass, which examines the problem of faculty contingency. In this new book, Childress, a former academic turned consultant, offers a thoughtful, passionate, and evocative thesis that mixes personal accounts of his own experiences with interviews with faculty and administrators and a research-informed critique of the systemic changes that have led to the proliferation and exploitation of contingent faculty in academia.

The American education system is stratified. Students from working-class and middle-class backgrounds often end up in schools and classrooms with more contingent faculty. Wealthier students, on the other hand, are more likely to end up being taught by tenure-track or tenured instructors. Likewise, faculty trained in nonelite Ph.D. programs often end up in contingent roles, whereas faculty trained at elite institutions end up attaining the majority of tenure-track faculty positions.

An overproduction of Ph.D.s provides labor to fill contingent positions amid a shortage of more permanent faculty positions. Yet despite the cheapening of instructional labor, tuition prices continue to rise. Childress believes faculty contingency is an unintended consequence of a variety of factors at play in higher education and in the broader world, including fluctuating university enrollments, the expansion of student services offices and offices of academic support, reduced public funding, and the rise of the gig economy and outsourcing. Not only is faculty contingency problematic, it is unsustainable, he argues.

So what do we do now? Childress rules out a return to an idealized state of higher education because, he maintains, no such state ever existed. Instead, he presents recommendations for college students, graduate students, and colleges and their administrations. These include advising undergraduates to take full advantage of permanent staff at their institutions, encouraging graduate students to choose a program and adviser that will serve them in the labor market, and recommending that college administrators assess new spending opportunities in terms of costs to faculty lines.

He also offers four principles for colleges to follow that would make contingent arrangements impossible. The first—“relationships are everything”—centers on people and makes it harder to instrumentalize them. The second—“the faculty is the college”—emphasizes teaching and views faculty as key leaders in governance. The third principle focuses on openness to individual and organizational learning that would help conquer challenges and foster growth, and the fourth focuses on implementing a more gradual, stepwise, and continual evaluation of faculty performance that would better privilege instructional excellence than existing methods of assessment.

The book touches on race but doesn’t analyze contingency through a racial lens, missing an opportunity to discuss the growth of faculty of color in contingent positions and the experiences of contingent faculty of color. It also omits research on improving contingent faculty working conditions (13) and ignores the plight of other university staff who are increasingly contingent.

I also wish Childress had engaged more deeply with the role unions can play in addressing the needs of contingent university workers. By formally organizing, many graduate students and contingent faculty have not only gained improvements in their own working conditions but also provoked broader systemic changes (4).

Despite these shortcomings, The Adjunct Underclass is a competent guide to academia, deconstructing and unpacking confusing jargon, interrogating the problems of faculty contingency, and urging us to center values that will guide us toward fairer treatment of faculty. The book drives the conversation about the exploitation of academic labor forward in a meaningful and accessible way.


  1. 1. E. Holcombe, A. J. Kezar Innov. Higher Ed. 43, 91 (2018)

  2. 2. A. Kezar, Res. Higher Ed., 54, 571 (2013)

  3. 3. A. Kezar, C. Sam, Understanding the New Majority of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty in Higher Education—Demographics, Experiences, and Plans of Action (Association for the Study of Higher Education, 2010)

  4. 4. T. R. Cain, ASHE Higher Ed. Rep. 43, 7 (2017)

About the author

The reviewer is at the Pullias Center for Higher Education, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA.