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Professors staying and the impact on adjuncts

Delayed retirement is a contributing factor in the proliferation of adjuncts
University Business, November 2016

Are universities hiring non-tenured adjuncts—who now make up two-thirds of the faculty workforce—because their tenured veterans won’t retire?

Delayed retirement is a contributing factor in the proliferation of adjuncts, says Brian Kaskie, associate professor of health policy at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health. Employees who can’t be fired and won’t retire are a burden administrators don’t want to assume.

“We’ve become increasingly reluctant in the academy to hand out tenured positions,” he says. “The labor dynamic of academic institutions has been changed by this aging of the professoriate.”

But others disagree, arguing that adjunct hiring is a response to new cost pressures and an outgrowth of new business models. “It’s more complicated than just the guys at the top won’t get out of the line,” says Todd Benson, associate director of the Harvard-based Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education.

Although an inability to replace expensive senior faculty with less costly junior hires is one contributor to budget pressures, it’s not the most important, says Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California.

More crucial are the decline in state support for public higher education and the increasingly corporate model of university governance. “If all of the senior faculty left tomorrow, we’d still be hiring as many adjuncts,” Kezar says. “Yes, it’s been a factor, but it is not the driving factor.”

Indeed, experts on academic retirement note that senior professors sometimes delay their retirements precisely because they fear they’ll be replaced by part-timers, weakening their departments or their sub-disciplines. They may hope that holding out will give them leverage over the long-term fate of their positions.

It’s a strategy that seldom succeeds, Kezar says. “The faculty don’t have the authority that they once had. They can’t exert that sort of influence anymore.”

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