At Montana State University, as at every US college campus, non-tenured faculty are underappreciated and under-paid


About ten years ago, before my professional title at Montana State University in Bozeman was changed to “Non-Tenure Track” (NTT) faculty, my freshman comp students used to get a laugh hearing my old title. On the first day of class while introducing myself and course objectives I used to write it on the blackboard, telling them I would look favorably on students using this designation when addressing me. Here’s what I wrote: TEMPORARY PART TIME ADJUNCT INSTRUCTOR OF COMPOSITION.

Students squinted, shook their heads, and asked me to explain. “It’s like a yellow leaf at the end of a branch on the last day of October, poised to be tossed out by wind,” I would say. Then, seeing my poetical description hadn’t helped, I would try something more visceral: “Adjuncts are those small fish attached to the body of a shark, living on scraps from a kill—what do you call them, again?” A few kids would blurt out “suckerfish,” causing mild, first-day chuckles among their classmates; while others, knowledgeable of marine nomenclature, politely offered “remora” or “pilot fish.” All these answers were perfectly correct.

NTT’s can often feel like suckerfish attached to the body of a university that thrives as if in spite of our fervid desire to co-exist. That is because NTT’s, despite shouldering a large—and increasing—share of the teaching load at MSU and hundreds of other institutions, enjoy few of the benefits given tenure-track faculty.

First, for doing roughly similar work, English NTT’s at Montana State are paid very little compared to tenure track faculty. Average pay among the most experienced full-time English adjuncts (a handful of instructors with at least a master’s degree and nearly 20 years’ experience) is around $35,000. Associate professors of English average $65,000. Yet, perhaps a better comparison is between local high school teachers and MSU adjuncts: Bozeman High’s base salary for a teacher with a master’s is just under $45,000, and the same teacher with 15 years of experience earns about $57,000.

Second, MSU provides no consistency in adjunct pay. An adjunct with a master’s in English might be paid around $3,700 per course, while adjuncts with similar qualifications receive about $5,000 from University Honors and up to $7,000 in Land Resources & Environmental Sciences. And Land Resources likely does not represent the top end. Which program or department does? That is a difficult question to answer.

Why? Because—third—even when NTT’s gain employment, much about it remains mysterious. They have little control over the number of classes, the academic level of the classes, and duration of their teaching assignments. This information is often given to them on a need-to-know basis. Whether an adjunct is assigned one, two, three or five sections for one or two semesters or for twenty years, depends on variables outside the adjunct’s control and knowledge.

Fourth, NTT’s have little job security. Many NTT’s hired in the fall semester are unsure if their services will be wanted in the spring. Instead of signing multi-year contracts, most NTT’s sign letters of agreement that, often as not, only guarantee employment for a semester.  

Fifth, some tenure faculty consider NTT’s to be the hoi polloi. A decade ago in the English department, all adjunct faculty (there were probably about 15 of us then) added together amounted to one vote on the English faculty committee: each of us was equivalent to 1/15 of a faculty member. That situation has since been vastly improved.

Still, across campus today, many tenure track faculty are alarmed by the swelling ranks of adjuncts at MSU, because our increase signals a commensurate decline in more deeply schooled instructors and top researchers. Their alarm is not altogether wrong.

I am not arguing here that adjuncts’ contributions to college campuses are the same or even equal to top professors’. Furthermore, I acknowledge that tenure track professors have obligations that go well beyond classroom instruction. Finally, full professors typically have deeper and broader knowledge of their field than adjuncts do.

Like most adjuncts, I love my job despite its limitations. Things are worse for adjuncts in other institutions. I am lucky to have work and luckier still to be doing something I love. Yet I know that I am underpaid, sometimes disrespected, and often under-appreciated. And I know that the administration that hires me knows it, too.

Look, it doesn’t matter how I and all the nation’s NTT’s came to be in our position (that of suckerfish). Because the reality is, most of us are smart, experienced, dedicated, and of great benefit to students and society. We can confidently stack our classroom performance against that of any tenure track professor in our field.

At MSU, NTT’s teach in every program, department, and college. And, nationwide, our numbers are going up everywhere—both at “broad access” and at “elite” institutions.

We are the workhorses of today’s university system. Some of us have PhD.’s, most have a master’s. We are not slackers. We are not merely failed academics who couldn’t cut it in PhD programs. We have become adjuncts by following a multitude of different paths, some of them intentional and smooth, others loaded with accidents and setbacks. But adjuncts, whether at Stanford or Montana State, are united by two things:

First, our passion for teaching at the college level.

Second, our membership in a nationwide surplus of qualified people sharing this passion.

The second goes farther than the first in explaining our disadvantageous work conditions. From a macroeconomic perspective, we surplus adjuncts are liabilities to each other: we drive down the asking price of each other’s labor.     

Of course, there is more to the story. Foremost is the massive inequality of income in our country, fueled by an unfair tax system that, in giving the uber-rich a perpetual tax break, shrinks state coffers, thus discouraging states to invest more heavily in post-secondary education. A Montana state legislator might agree that skilled adjuncts with a master’s degree and 15 years of experience should earn as much as high school teachers with a similar background—but where will she find money to pay adjuncts more?

Our national economy presents a bleak stage where adjuncts might argue their case for higher salaries. Nagging unemployment, stagnant wages, and increasing obligations to entitlement programs—these and other factors drown-out the scattered cries for adjunct salary increases. Meanwhile, the spiraling cost of a college education has become a much-talked-about, yet intractable national issue that seems never to reach the solution stage.

Adjuncts happily stand in front of the nation’s youth, acting as hopeful models of students’ own future achievements; we urge students to develop their minds and sensibilities, to have a positive impact on society. To avoid disillusioning them about college teaching, we seldom talk about our own fortunes.


Editor's Note: Columnist, essayist and poet Steve Kirchhoff, a Bozeman native and world traveler, is a former Bozeman mayor and city commissioner. Today, Kirchhoff is an adjunct instructor at Montana State University.  Steve and his wife, Colette, a family physician, raised three children who were educated in the Bozeman Public Schools.  When not in the classroom or behind his writing desk, you may find Kirchhoff hiking a local trail or cruising on his classic old-school bicycle.