Of Brahmins and Dalits in the academic caste system



Traditionally, the three-pronged mission of our colleges and universities has been to provide high-quality education, encourage cutting-edge research, and promote professional and community service. The substitution of business-based policies for sound academic principles, however, has institutionalized a form of professional inequality that threatens all three. The growing distinction between tenured and tenure-track faculty members on the one hand and tenure-ineligible lecturers or part-time adjuncts on the other has produced an academic caste system that is undermining the raison d’être of our institutions of higher learning. This system is capricious, discriminatory, and unjust.

What once constituted an occasional feature of a college’s or university’s faculty—a professional musician teaching a part-time violin course, a practicing attorney offering an evening course in the philosophy of law, or a faculty member choosing to teach part-time to accommodate family responsibilities—has become the norm rather than the exception, undermining shared governance and academic freedom. The cut-costs-at-all-costs policy of reducing tenured positions by replacing them with non-tenure-track appointments may allow some new PhDs to gain teaching experience, but it frequently earns them “careers” of interminable professional frustration rather than hoped-for recognition as scholars. The corporatization of the university is the root cause of this undesirable state of affairs. The very same agenda that replaced deans and presidents with business managers and fundraisers has also replaced a once-honored majority of tenured and tenure-track faculty members with a largely invisible, freelance, itinerant teaching staff.

“The Great Unwashed”

Part-time lecturers, who now teach a good deal more than half the courses at many colleges and universities, typically do not have access to the resources necessary to develop as scholars and advance their institutions’ academic missions. According to the AAUP’s 2013 report The Inclusion in Governance of Faculty Members Holding Contingent Appointments, “the proportion of faculty appointments that are ‘contingent’—lacking the benefits and protections of tenure and a planned long-term relationship with an institution—has increased dramatically over the past few decades. . . . By 2009—the latest year for which national data are available—75.6 percent of US faculty appointments were off the tenure track and 60.5 percent were part-time appointments off the tenure track.” Some of these faculty members working in part-time positions hold PhDs from world-class institutions, have decades of experience and exemplary publication records, and enjoy wide professional recognition outside their home institution—yet are treated with less regard within their institution than graduate assistants, who are typically seen as more integrated into their university community.

Viewed as the great unwashed at the bottom of the academic caste system, most part-time faculty members lack any sense of belonging to a university or college community. They are stigmatized regardless of their qualifications, performance, or productivity and are unable to function as role models for students. Given their low standing in the university, they can hardly urge their students to pursue an academic career. Few would be comfortable suggesting to their best students that they undertake a course of study toward a PhD when they have every reason to believe that those students would stand a good chance of ending up in part-time teaching positions themselves.

Unable to make a respectable living from the meager pay offered by a single institution, many find themselves forced to take up the life of a “freeway flyer” or “road scholar,” with teaching assignments at three or four colleges or universities at once. While a teaching load of four courses per semester at four-year institutions or five at community colleges is considered a heavy load for full-time faculty, many faculty members in part-time positions teach more than double that amount twelve months a year.

Corporate-minded administrators seem not to understand that delivering high-quality education is not simply a matter of hours logged in a classroom. Dashing from one university to another, “freeway flyers” have little or no time to spend with students who may need to address problems or advance their understanding of the subject outside the classroom. Such instructors have few if any opportunities to participate in programs designed to improve their teaching skills and help them keep up with changing computer technology or to participate in colloquia or seminars that would enable them to engage with their colleagues, stay abreast of developments in their disciplines, or address issues of university governance. The sheer amount of teaching that many lecturers must undertake just to make ends meet subverts their intellectual life, stifles their research, and excludes them from service activities. It is destructive to them, their disciplines, their institutions, and, most of all, their students, who become the unwitting victims of a system that is undermining the traditional virtues on which higher education rests.

Teachers hired into part-time positions are typically not given opportunities to teach advanced courses in their areas of specialization or expertise. Instead, an expert in Renaissance poetry or the metaphysics of Spinoza ends up teaching Freshman Composition or Critical Reasoning again and again in mind-numbing repetition. Development of one’s scholarly expertise can be done only independently and for little more than the love of the subject; for most, such professional growth is made nearly impossible by unreasonable teaching loads. Engaging in research is intrinsically valuable, but it also has the practical consequence of refreshing the content of teaching and keeping faculty current in their disciplines. Sabbaticals, once thought to be an essential component of the scholarly life, are out of the question for the overwhelming majority.

Even though many institutions represent competition for research funding as being open to all faculty members, if only full-time faculty evaluate applications for such funding, reviewers may naturally feel a preference for full-time applicants, whom they view as more a part of their institutions than applicants in part-time positions would be. Typical considerations such as institutional release time, in-kind administrative support, or dedicated access to facilities place part-time faculty at a competitive disadvantage and can override issues like the intrinsic value of the scholarship.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty typically receive support and rewards for participation in professional conferences, associations, and societies. Faculty members in part-time positions, with few exceptions, have no access to such support even if they are officers of a scholarly society or presenting a paper. They may even be penalized for their participation if days of missed teaching result in docked pay. Moreover, such professional activities done at the lecturer’s own expense count for nothing as far as his or her college or university is concerned. Only hours logged in the classroom count, and even outstanding teaching performance will seldom be recognized or rewarded.

At many institutions, teaching evaluations are largely pro forma, with little or no benefit to part-time faculty, since there is no real opportunity for promotion or salary raises. Negative student evaluations may, however, be used as a reason to dismiss a part-time faculty member who refuses to compromise high academic standards. Questions of scholarly integrity and academic freedom can become moot when faculty positions are unprotected by tenure, especially at private institutions where religious dogma or political ideology might prevail.

Overreliance on part-time faculty can also create an administrative nightmare for department chairs, who are sometimes forced to make last-minute hiring decisions to staff classes with unprepared teachers. Tenured and tenure-track faculty, while generally content to be relieved of lower-level undergraduate teaching, grow resentful of the decline of tenured faculty and the resulting burden of increased administrative and committee work.

Colleges and universities are not Wal-Marts or McDonald’s franchises. Providing high-quality education and advancing the frontiers of knowledge through teaching, research, and service cannot be accomplished through part-time piecework done without protections for academic freedom. Any policy that undermines the traditional missions of our institutions of higher learning can turn them into little more than diploma factories. At some institutions, the growing tendency to replace tenure-track full-time faculty positions with an untenured part-time teaching staff may be doing just that.

Finally, for the great majority, after twenty-five or thirty years of service, sometimes even to the same college or university, faculty in part-time positions are still regarded as “temporary.” They retire, often without emeritus status—and, in many institutions, without retirement benefits—and simply disappear as if they never existed as a part of their college or university communities.

Fighting for Improvements

Just as it took more than thirty years to create the problems that exist today, it is likely to take years, if not decades, to remedy the situation. Recognizing the problem is merely a first step in a long process of reversing this trend.

In 2003, lecturers in the California State University system gained rights to health care, pensions, and other protections such as three-year contracts, thanks to the work of the California Faculty Association (CFA), which represents faculty in the twenty-three-campus CSU system, and the commitment of then governor Gray Davis to sign them into law. In this regard, the CSU’s lecturers are better off than those in many other states and are certainly better off than those in most private institutions. These important gains did not result from any efforts on the part of administrators to address the inequalities adversely affecting the quality of education and the traditional three-pronged mission of their colleges and universities. Instead, they were achieved largely through relentless negotiation at the bargaining table and despite the opposition of administrators.

Such battles may be necessary, but they are not sufficient. Since policy makers seem to lack a motive to change the status quo, collective bargaining may provide the only real hope of effecting meaningful change. But future progress requires that everyone involved address the issue. Tenured professors (who are also adversely affected by this system) need to suggest ways of overcoming the problems outlined above and should not permit administrators unilaterally to establish policies on academics, ethics, or collegial relations.

Tenure should be granted as an expression of commitment based on a demonstrated record of academic excellence. Inability to secure tenure should not be viewed as a sign of failure that forever prevents one from having a successful academic career. In some cases and especially in some disciplines, an outstanding scholar may not even wish to seek a tenured position. Senior tenured faculty should feel encouraged to treat their non-tenured colleagues— especially those who are academically active and professionally involved, regardless of contractual status—with the same respect as any other member of their discipline. No academic community should deprive itself of the talent or contributions of any of its members.

If at all possible, faculty in part-time positions should resist the potential for exploitation that comes from teaching at multiple institutions. They should rather attempt to increase their course load at one particular college or university or find other nonacademic employment to supplement their teaching income. In this way they can resist being spread too thin or easily marginalized. It is also crucial that such teachers not limit themselves to teaching; they do themselves and their disciplines a disservice if their teaching load is increased at the expense of engaging in research or other professional activities. Balancing teaching with research and service, regardless of the nature of one’s appointment, is as important to a well-rounded scholar as it is to any institution of higher learning.

Recognition as a valued member of a faculty depends on making a contribution to one’s discipline. It is harder for tenured and tenure-track faculty or administrators simply to dismiss faculty members in part-time positions as members of a lower academic caste when they have made important contributions to their disciplines through research, creative activities or performances, publications, presentations, or community or professional service—and this against all odds.


The distinction between non-tenure-track faculty and their tenured and tenure-track colleagues is based largely on and made for reasons of “business” rather than for scholarly merit, and it serves no useful academic function. A given member of one group is not necessarily more qualified, devoted, industrious, or hard-working than a member of the other. Abolishing this caste system would create an atmosphere in which all were recognized for their contributions to the mission of the institution. Administrations might then discover, and be rewarded with, a renewed sense of loyalty and commitment to the institution from their non-tenure-track faculty. That could only improve relations between faculty, students, and administrators.

Policy makers, boards of trustees, and proponents of the corporate university have deliberately created an academic caste system that fails to serve the goals of high-quality education and academic excellence. The fact that such colleges and universities present themselves as models of the high standards they expect faculty to impart to their students while at the same time institutionalizing injustices in much the same manner as corporations should not surprise us, especially given the corporate values such institutions embrace as their imperatives. The failure of such values requires a rethinking of the corporate master plan. It is certainly not what Plato, the founder of the academy, had in mind—or anyone else who has given any serious thought to fulfilling the true mission of a college or university.

Author Bios: Leemon McHenry is a lecturer in philosophy at California State University, Northridge, and a research consultant in medical ethics for the law firm of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei and Goldman in Los Angeles. Paul W. Sharkey is retired from the University of Southern Mississippi, where he was chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion, professor of community health, and interim director of the Center for Community Health with joint appointments at other institutions.