In the 1970s roughly 20 percent of all US college courses were taught by adjuncts. In recent years, especially since the global financial meltdown, the number of adjunct professors has exploded to the point where they might be considered a floating population of migrant laborers. According to a report from the National Education Association (NEA), currently more than half of all US college courses are taught by adjuncts, or what Sarah Kendzior calls “Academia’s Indentured Servants.”
The 2013 American Association of University Professors annual report paints an even bleaker picture, finding that 76 percent of the academic workforce is made up of adjunct, part-time faculty, teaching graduate students, and non-tenure track, full-time professors.
We have entered an era in higher education where many alarming forces are converging.
As operational costs for universities have skyrocketed, and salaries for high-level administrators and senior tenured faculty have ballooned in the Wall Street fashion of “attracting talent,” the cost of a degree in fields like architecture has dramatically increased (tuition has increased more than 500 percent since 1982). To keep costs down architecture programs increasingly rely on a ready pool of adjunct faculty, willing to run studios for low pay and no benefits. Four out of five adjunct faculty make $20,000 or less per year.
According to the NAAB 2012 Report on Accreditation in Architecture Education, adjunct faculty comprises 45 percent of overall faculty, an 8 percent increase from the previous year. But these numbers are misleading because they are for “overall” faculty. Of the total number of professors teaching in architecture, 47 percent are ranked as “instructors.” Of these, a staggering 66 percent were adjunct.
Across the board, from the humanities and even the sciences, and into fields like architecture, departmental reliance on adjuncts, or faculty as wage-labor, is becoming the new norm.
What is most alarming about the NEA report is that it debunks the popular assumption that in recent decades too many advanced degrees were handed out and the lack of full-time, tenure-track teaching jobs is simply “market forces” correcting for this. Demand for faculty has actually increased as enrollment in post-secondary institutions grew 38 percent between 1999 and 2009, the report states. Universities need more faculty not fewer. Increasingly, they are swelling their ranks by hiring adjuncts. From 1997-2007 over 2/3 of faculty opening growth was non-tenure-track.
As an academic discipline, architecture has always had an interesting and complicated relationship with adjunct faculty. It might be argued that architecture programs rely on adjuncts to infuse their studios with the creative energies of “young” designers practicing on the cutting edge, many themselves recent graduates, too busy with their own practices to commit the time and energy to full-time teaching. Being adjunct gives them the opportunity to teach without having to give up their “day jobs.”
Moreover, they like being affiliated with a university for the research, exhibition, and publishing opportunities the connection affords. Being an instructor in a well-known architecture department can enhance one’s visibility in the profession and the community.
So, is it possible that architecture doesn’t have the same problems with adjuncts that other disciplines do? There are no statistics for this, so it’s hard to say. My suspicion is that, like in other disciplines, most adjuncts in architecture would prefer to have more security and the option for tenure.
Creating engaging and relevant studios is not a simple task. It’s not the typical kind of wage-labor job that requires one to simply show up and push some buttons or flip burgers, after all. To make a studio successful instructors must spend significant amounts of time on the outside doing research, prep and organizational work. For adjuncts this is all unpaid time. Are adjuncts really able to put in the time and effort when they are paid so little, have no support and depend on non-teaching work to survive economically? Are these the best studios or courses an architecture department can offer?
When schools depend on a high percentage of adjuncts to do the buck of the teaching, this leads to the issue of quality in architectural education.Do students, who pay a premium for their educations, really want to be taught by an untouchable class of wage-labor faculty?
This is not to say that adjuncts don’t give it their all. They do because they want to and because they have to—or they will be asked to leave through the revolving door. This puts adjuncts in a precarious situation. All that time they put into teaching for very little financial return could be put into developing their primary businesses. In contrast, part-time or full-time tenure-track professors have the security to focus on teaching and research that can enhance their practices. Because they are in more secure, better-paid teaching positions, they can afford to make teaching a priority.
In another sense, the adjunct problem is the flipside of the “intern” problem. Underpaid faculty who put in long hours are exploited by architecture departments as flexible low-wage workers. Departments rely on well-meaning, enthusiastic adjuncts, willing to prove and sacrifice themselves for their students.
The main question is: do we want adjuncts to be the norm in architectural education? Do we want the majority of new teaching opportunities to be for adjunct positions? I would argue that this represents the erosion of advanced architectural academe as we know it. Academic disciplines require certain conditions to thrive. Again, the NEA study is relevant to the discipline of architecture:
Intellectual independence, in both private and public institutions, without fear of reprisal from donors, administrators, or other parties has been deemed essential to promote innovative intellectual work. Most fundamentally, tenure and academic freedom protect modes of inquiry with the potential to upset the status quo, historically making such endeavors inherently progressive, separate from any attachment to specific policy positions or political party platforms. Meaningful investigation into the natural and social worlds depends on the scientific method, which insists on no particular allegiance to orthodoxy but, instead, embraces the “necessity for wandering.”Challenges to conventional thinking are often rewarded. Modern universities ground the expansion of knowledge in empiricism rather than theology, a practice that accepts the uncertainty of conclusions and the likelihood that they will be modified with the discovery of new evidence. In its broadest consequences, constricted academic freedom threatens the foundation of scientific inquiry and universities as sites for searching, discovering, and advancing understanding. Embedded in this approach is a recognition that the evolution of knowledge should be celebrated, not feared. This is a perspective that contains a disruptive potential.
Architecture as an academic discipline will not be able to sustain its relevance as a cutting-edge, forward-thinking, “disruptive” endeavor by relying on an unstable, exploited class of faculty. It’s time to change the paradigm. As architecture departments expand due to increasing student demand and interest in the profession, they cannot keep pace and develop intellectually without opening more tenure-track positions. Architecture schools have become addicted to a steady stream of adjuncts as a way to address cost issues, but by doing so they are sacrificing a class of smart, talented people and the discipline itself.
Guy Horton is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring “The Indicator”, he is a frequent contributor to The Architect’s Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and The Huffington Post. He has also written for Architectural Record, GOOD Magazine, and Architect Magazine. You can hear Guy on the radio and podcast as guest host for the show DnA: Design & Architecture on 89.9 FM KCRW out of Los Angeles. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyHorton.