Amanda Plumb: Adjuncts and the Corporatization of Higher Education

Amanda Plumb: Adjuncts and the Corporatization of Higher Education

The nature of the academy has changed significantly over the past 30 years. Today, universities are run like businesses. The corporatization of higher education began two to three decades ago in response to state and federal budget cuts. Universities began to recruit administrators with business backgrounds to solve budget crises and manage the growing bureaucracy. In an effort to cut costs and explore new economic opportunities, universities have hired more graduate employees to teach and research. Graduate employees no longer have a purely academic relationship with their universities. While graduate assistantships can provide valuable experience, graduate students work not only for their own benefit, but because universities are dependent on their labor.

Scholars attribute the growing labor movement in higher education, in part, to the rise of the corporate university (Steck, Johnson, Kavanagh, and Mattson 2003). A 1997 Chronicle of Higher Education article describes how the corporatization of U.S. universities drives graduate students to pursue union organizing:

Whatever security teaching assistants may have felt generations ago has been eroded by downsizing and streamlining in the academy. Those management approaches have changed the academic workplace to make it look a lot more like other workplaces, and to make teaching assistants look like many other workers. (Leatherman, 1997).

Henry Steck, a political scientist at the State University of New York, defines the “corporatized university…as an institution that is characterized by processes, decisional criteria, expectations, organizational culture, and operating practices that are taken from, and have their origins in, the modern business corporation” (Steck, 2003). In addition to creating entrepreneurial opportunities such as big athletics, conference services, corporate sponsorship and licensing, corporatized universities apply corporate sensibilities to the academic profession. Focusing on the bottom line, universities are cutting costs by replacing full-time faculty with a cheaper contingent workforce.

Universities are increasingly relying on graduate employment. “I used to think graduate students were apprentices learning scholarship and not employees in the normal sense of the word,” reflects Clara Lovett, President of the American Association for Higher Education, “But over the last 20 years or so, we have turned graduate students into a very significant and very underpaid part of the academic workforce”(AFT, 2004). Between 1993 and 2001, graduate employment increased 29% (AFT, 2004). At large research universities, graduate students teach over 40% of undergraduate class hours (CGEU Website, viewed October, 2004).

Universities are following a common trend in the U.S. economy—replacing full-time jobs with part-time positions with fewer benefits and job security. (1) Steck describes this pattern as “following the corporate model of employing just-in-time labor as a flexible, fluid, and disposable low-cost labor force” (Steck, 2003: 11). Universities further undermine job security in the academy by awarding tenure less frequently (Ibid.). The implementation of corporate practices in the university is making higher ed employees experience work more like industrial employees. When a faculty member leaves the university, his/her tenure track position is often downsized, being divided into several part-time positions with less pay and fewer benefits. In the mid-1990s, less than one third of vacant tenured positions were filled with another tenured position (Johnson, Kavanagh, and Mattson, 2003). The erosion of tenured positions has two major effects on graduate students: 1) more graduate students are hired and 2) there are fewer tenured positions available for graduate students after completion of their doctorate.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) reports that full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty make up only 30% of the instructional workforce in postsecondary education. Part-time/adjunct faculty and full-time nontenure-track faculty compose 35% and 15% of the instructional workforce, respectively. The 260,000 graduate employees across the nation make up the remaining 20% of the postsecondary instructional staff (AFT, 2004). Similarly, a 1999 study of humanities and social sciences classes at Yale revealed that tenure-track faculty taught 30% of the classes, adjuncts taught 30% and graduate assistants taught 40% of the classes (Johnson, 2003: 66-7). Both of these studies show that the majority of classes taught at universities are taught by a part-time workforce, which includes graduate students.

Before the corporatization of higher ed institutions, graduate programs were considered apprenticeships for tenured positions in universities. This is no longer the case:

There once was an unwritten deal. If you were smart and willing to devote up to 10 of your most productive years studying for a doctorate, certain things would likely happen. A college or university somewhere would hire you. And if you did well there, there was a full-time tenured job in your future. The money wouldn't be great, but you'd be part of an academic community. You'd do research in your field. You'd live a life of the mind.
Then the deal changed (Wee, 2002).

The number of doctorates awarded between 1977 and 1997 increased 38%. At the same time, the number of new full-time faculty has fallen by 3% (AFT, 2004). Consequently, the supply of doctorates is surpassing the demand for new faculty, flooding the academic market (Ibid.). Graduate students are spending more time earning a degree (2) and have fewer opportunities for tenure-track positions after they graduate. Instead of being an apprentice for a professional position in the academy, graduate students have become contingent workers for our nation’s universities.


American Federation of Teachers. “Recognition and Respect: Standards of Good Practice in the Employment of Graduate Employees.” June 2004.

Johnson, Benjamin; Kavanagh, Patrick; and Mattson, Kevin (Eds.). Steal This University: The Rise of the Corporate University and the Academic Labor Movement. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Leatherman, Courtney. “As Teaching Assistants Push to Unionize, Debate Grows.” Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 44, Iss. 6: (Oct. 3, 1997), p. A12.

Steck, Henry. “Corporatization of the University: Seeking Conceptual Clarity” The Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science. January, 2003.

Wee, Eric L. “Professor of Desperation.” The Washington Post Magazine. July 21, 2002.


1 The 1997 UPS strike focused on this trend from replacing full-time union positions with less secure part-time jobs.

2 Some disciplines take up to ten years on average to complete a doctorate according to the CGEU website.

The Adjunct Project, s.d.