Academic Ranks Explained Or What On Earth Is an Adjunct?

Bret Devereaux:

This week we’re going to take a detour into understanding the structure of academia, in particular the different kinds of ‘professors’ and their academic ranks in the American system, with a particular focus on ‘non-tenure track’ faculty (which is to say, as we’ll see, ‘most teaching faculty.’) This is intended as the first in a series of posts mixed into the normal diet over the next few months looking at the structure of the modern American university from the inside. The fact is that while quite a lot of people go to college, few students acquire much of any sense of how their college or university is structured, and so there is a tendency for a lot of folks to believe they know how academia works who don’t, in the same way that most people who eat at fast food restaurants cannot, in fact, operate their kitchens.

My own experience of course has been as a student, then a graduate student (worker), then as adjunct faculty at three different Big State Universities. Less so in this post, but more so in later posts I’ll also be drawing on the experiences of my better half a bit, as she’s been an administrative staff member for several academic departments and one research program across two Big State Universities and so has a lot of visibility into the bureaucratic structures involved. As you might guess with that background, I am going to be particularly focused on Big State Universities, but I actually think that is good – compared to the Ivies or Small Liberal Arts Colleges, Big State Universities make up the largest single chunk of 4-year-degree institutions and indeed grant a simple majority of 4-year degrees, so the Big State University is by raw dint of numbers both the median and modal higher education experience for folks who achieve a four year degree.

We are in particular going to focus on non-tenure track (NTT) faculty for two reasons. First, because while NTT make up the simple majority of student-facing teaching faculty, universities go to considerable length to obscure this fact leaving many students incorrectly assuming their professors are largely tenure-track when at many institutions they may not be. And second because I’m a NTT faculty member (who, like most NTT, would like to be on the tenure track for reasons which will become obvious below) and I wanted to explain all of this in one permanent place in part so I can point back to it, in particular because while NTT faculty members are the most common they are also the least understood by the public.But we’ll still talk a little bit about the tenured ranks too.