For Some Adjunct Professors, It's Speak Your Mind versus Keep Your Job

For Some Adjunct Professors, It's Speak Your Mind versus Keep Your Job

Ilana Redstone and John Villasenor
Ilana Redstone and John Villasenor
8 min read

The issue of academic freedom is particularly tenuous for the growing number of college teachers who hold positions that are neither tenured nor on the tenure track. Various titles are used to describe these positions, including adjunct professor, visiting professor, professor of practice, professor in residence, acting professor, and lecturer. There is wide variation in the job duties, qualifications for appointment, and appointment procedures associated with such titles. (And in some rare cases, it should be noted, university instructors who aren’t tenured faculty do have security of employment—such as at the University of California, at which some adjuncts have a “Lecturer with Security of Employment” job title.) But for simplicity, we will use the term “adjunct” to describe any college instructor who does not have, and is not on a formal track to receive security of employment through the tenure system.

There is tremendous variation regarding the length of service and level of involvement that adjuncts have with colleges. An adjunct might be hired for a period of only a few months to teach a single course. Alternatively, an adjunct might be hired sporadically over a period of years, teaching one or two courses at a time during some semesters, and not at all during others. It’s also common for adjuncts to teach simultaneously at multiple colleges, piecing together part-time jobs with the goal of constructing the equivalent in compensation terms, at least temporarily, of full-time employment.

In some cases, an adjunct might be a full-time employee of a college, teaching as many as four or more courses simultaneously for a continuous period that spans years. Some have responsibilities similar to those of tenured professors, including performing research as well as teaching. However, even an adjunct with a multiyear contract is less protected than a professor with tenure, who effectively has a right to permanent employment. As Adam Kissel, then-vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), wrote in 2008, “Adjunct contracts often make no mention of academic freedom, but the contracts often do remind instructors that their schools can fire them at any time, for any reason, or simply refuse to rehire them once a contract is up.”

Adjuncts add enormously to the intellectual vitality of a college. Adjuncts are often better teachers than full-time tenured professors because many of them combine their academic duties with a professional practice in their field, and thereby bring to the classroom invaluable perspectives from the world outside academia.

But from the standpoint of colleges, the primary benefit of an adjunct workforce is the flexibility to easily adjust the number of teachers up or down in response to changes in institutional priorities and student course demands. These arrangements can be exploitative, particularly in fields where there are fewer employment options outside of academia. As a result, adjuncts are often paid poorly, and in many cases lack access to benefits such as health insurance. This increases the financial incentive for universities to rely on them for teaching.

Adjuncts now constitute a much higher fraction of college teachers than in the past. As Chad Gregory Evans observed in his 2018 University of Pennsylvania doctoral thesis, the fraction of “tenure-ineligible” faculty grew from under 25 percent in the 1960s to almost two-thirds in 2009. A 2013 report from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) concluded that even by 2009 (the latest year for which national data was available), more than 75 percent of US faculty appointments were off the tenure track.

But while adjunct ranks have grown, concerns about their academic freedom aren’t new. The AAUP has been sounding the alarm for decades about the challenges faced by adjuncts. In 1999, a Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “To Many Adjunct Professors, Academic Freedom is a Myth” noted that “As the ranks of part-timers swell, they lament how easily colleges can dump them.” A more detailed journal article published two years later by Georgetown law professor J. Peter Byrne on Academic Freedom of Part-Time Faculty explained that:

The tenuousness of the adjunct’s contractual claim against the university and her frequent invisibility to peers create persistent risk of violations of academic freedom. The adjunct professor’s supervisor can simply decide not to renew the adjunct contract because, in that supervisor’s opinion, the course is not needed or can be taught better by another… Thus, it is easy for the supervisor to dump someone who criticized a colleague’s work in class or argued for social policy against the interests of a school benefactor. Even when this discretion is exercised with appropriate regard for the values of academic freedom, as no doubt it generally is, the structure itself ex ante will encourage faculty to avoid controversy.

One of the most thorough examinations of the issue was conducted by Jan Clausen and Eva-Maria Swidler in their 2013 paper, ‘Academic Freedom from Below: Toward an Adjunct-Centered Struggle.’ The authors noted that:

adjuncts and other contingents are not only three-quarters of the college and university faculty, but are overwhelmingly the teachers of the required classes, the introductory courses, the largest and fullest sections, the lower-level classes that those who never graduate attend nonetheless. Adjuncts fundamentally are the college experience for many students. For those who care about college faculty, those who care about the future of the academy and its ability to live up to its own stated ideals, but most of all those who care about what higher education can contribute to the public good, we adjuncts and our realities must become the center of the fight for academic freedom.

The incentives facing adjuncts produce a climate of self-censorship: If they want to maximize their chances of getting a new contract after their current one expires, they need to steer clear of doing or saying anything controversial. And, the boundaries are set by the most easily offended student in the room, as even a single complaint could lead a department chair to decide that future offerings of the class should be taught by someone else.

Consider the case of Mike Jensen, who in September 2015 was teaching an undergraduate writing course at the University of Northern Colorado. Jensen asked his students to read Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s then-recent Atlantic article, “The Coddling of the American Mind” (which the authors subsequently turned into a well-known book), and engaged in a classroom discussion regarding transgender rights. During the discussion, assertions were made that at least one student claimed to have found offensive. A few days later, the student submitted a “Bias Response Incident” report. Following the complaint, Jensen was called in to meet with the university’s head of human resources, Marshall Parks. (Jensen’s name is redacted in the public version of the Bias Response Incident documentation. But in 2016, Jensen himself went public with the fact that he’d been the subject of the complaint.) In summarizing the meeting, with notes added to the case file, Parks wrote as follows:

[Jensen] provided me with a copy of an article from The Atlantic that he shared with all 4 sections [of his class]. [Jensen] described the purpose of the article as spurring conversations on difficult topics that could be interesting to write on. He then asked the class to come up with examples of difficult topics. He said a number of controversial topics came up: gay marriage, abortion, global warming etc., and he provided examples of what people who hold differing positions on those topics might say. He said that transgender topics came up in two of the four sections, and he laid out opinions on that topic the same way he had in other topics—he never gave any personal opinions on any of the topics, only opposing perspectives on the topics. He also stated that he shared with the class early in the semester to communicate to him if there are topics that students find uncomfortable and he would be respectful of those concerns.

We then reviewed some of the documents [a staff member of the school’s Community Standards and Conflict Resolution office] had shared with me on understanding transgender identity. [Jensen] was fairly informed on the subject and did not share with me any personal opinion on the topic. I advised him not to revisit transgender issues in his classroom to avoid the [student’s] expressed concerns. He then asked what to do if the topic is again brought up by another student. I told him to avoid stating opinions (his or others) on the topic as he had previously when he was working from the Atlantic article. He felt this was workable, as the topic had not come back up in any of the sections and they had moved past the general discussion on how to identify interesting topics to write on as the semester has progressed.

I found [Jensen] helpful and cooperative, and he was clear with me that the intent of the discussion was to be thought-provoking and not in any way [promote] his personal opinions on any of the topics discussed. He asked if he need[ed] to reach out to the student, and I said that at this point, the student has asked to remain anonymous, therefore it would not be possible.

While the tone of Parks’s description is collegial, it nonetheless contains an explicit instruction to self-censor: Jensen was instructed to avoid bringing up the topic of “transgender issues” entirely, and, if the topic was nonetheless raised by a student, to avoid stating any opinions at all, including opinions of others. In short, an entire topic had been declared off limits—an ironic outcome in the context of university education, which, at least in theory, is aimed in part at teaching students how to engage with and analyze complex topics on which there are a diverging range of views.

The events noted above occurred in the fall 2015 semester. Jensen was not invited back to teach in the spring 2016 semester, though the public record does not identify a reason why. By early 2016, concerns about the University of Northern Colorado’s Bias Response Team (which had been involved in Jensen’s case) attracted broader attention, including from FIRE. And in September 2016, University of Northern Colorado president Kay Norton announced that the school would “no longer have a separate process for bias-related concerns.” But as of 2018, Jensen still hadn’t gotten another chance to teach at the university—though it is impossible to say why.

One approach would be to expand the tenure system so that it covers more adjuncts. But for a host of reasons, in most cases this is financially impractical—especially since the lower cost of adjuncts, and the short-term nature of the contracts under which they are typically hired are now embedded into the annual baseline financial planning of colleges and universities.

Moreover, there is a long list of completely legitimate reasons (e.g., a drop in student demand) why an adjunct who teaches during one semester might not be asked to return to teach in the next semester. Even in cases where there’s a “smoking gun” tying the decision to not rehire an adjunct to a clear violation of academic freedom, the burden of disproving the many other possible legitimate rationales for not renewing a contract would fall to the adjunct, who might not have the time and financial resources to pursue the grievance process.

And victory, even if it were obtained, would be limited in scope. A tenured professor who successfully contests an attempt at termination over an academic-freedom issue is rewarded with the prospect of years of further employment. An adjunct who wins an analogous battle is rewarded with a return to the pool of eligible adjuncts, which may or may not result in a contract for future work. In addition, colleges, like most organizations, are not particularly enthusiastic to enter into new contractual relationships with people who have filed grievances in the past. Other colleges might also be hesitant to employ an adjunct whose name is associated with this kind of fight.

As a result, academic freedom for adjuncts will likely remain closely tied to the intellectual climate of campuses more generally. So long as on-campus discourse remains narrowly constrained, adjuncts will be making themselves vulnerable when they stray from the ideologically preferred script.

Adapted, with permission, from Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education, by Ilana Redstone and John Villasenor. Copyright Oxford University Press 2020.

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Ilana Redstone and John Villasenor

Ilana Redstone Akresh is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Illinois John Villasenor is a professor of engineering, public policy, and management at the University of California