The Faculty Caste System: Auto-Ethnography of an Adjunct

We are reprinting, with the author’s permission, a fantastic piece by our comrade Ruth Wangerin from College of Staten Island, a fierce adjunct organizer with whom we are fortunate enough to collaborate. welcomes submissions about the lived experience of the CUNY system, and this piece is exemplary to that effect. We have posted Part I, which originally appeared on New Faculty Majority, and have linked to Part II, on the same site.


cropped-Buttons-header-photo1A button designed by Anne Wiegard for a UUP event says, “I was contingent before contingents were cool.” Well, I was contingent before anyone had even heard of “contingents.” Specifically, I was hired by the City College of New York in 1970 as an adjunct lecturer when I was in grad school. At that time, the City University of New York did not have graduate assistantships. I have since learned that CUNY had a lot of adjuncts back then, particularly in continuing education courses for which students paid tuition (CUNY was free otherwise, back then).

I was in a regular department teaching undergraduates. It felt like a privilege to get the experience. I loved the anthropology department at City College, it was fun being a “professor” at my young age, and the money helped. However, I wasn’t altogether naïve. I could see that the college was being pretty cheap with us, not only in the rate of pay but also in taking their sweet time getting our first paychecks out each term.

Auto-ethnography. In thinking about what’s happening to the college teaching profession, I realized that I possessed a great deal of data in not only my own experiences but also my own reactions to those experiences. Fellow anthropologist and adjunct activist Yvonne Groseil tells me this is called “auto-ethnography.”

With the distraction of preparing courses and teaching at such a young age, I took a long time to finish my doctorate. But when I did, I resigned the adjunct position, saying it would be unprincipled for anyone with a PhD to work under these arrangements. “Give this job to a grad student,” I nobly proclaimed. The joke’s on me. Nearly half a century after my first adjunct stint, here I am again teaching for peanuts, this time to supplement a pension from the job I found outside academia when I realized that there was no tenure track position in anthropology for me.

And why wasn’t there a tenure track position in anthropology for me? All this time I’ve blamed myself for the bad choices that resulted in my failure to score the job I’d trained for all those years. But was I the only one making bad choices? Didn’t the U.S. system of higher education make a couple of bad choices, too?

Today, some of my grad school cohort are tenured faculty, while others have been contingents since before contingents were cool. So why weren’t there tenure track positions for so many PhDs in my cohort? When we looked around in our grad school classes, many of us were new to these academic heights; we were women, working class, minorities, returning Viet Nam veterans, just like the students who were entering CUNY under open admissions around the same time. Back then, I thought it was a bright new day. But now I think that, as we entered, our society was starting to disinvest in public higher education.

Breaking a taboo! Everything became obvious at commencement. I had decided with two other members of our adjunct organizing committee to rent academic gowns and march in Commencement to demonstrate AAUP’s “one faculty” philosophy. But the others backed out after I had already paid for my gown, and I wasn’t able to get a refund. Thinking about attending Commencement without them, I felt incredibly exposed! Anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker once wrote that when you feel terribly uncomfortable and fear that something dreadful is about to happen – even when what you’re doing is legal and seems perfectly rational – you are probably violating a taboo.

Quite possibly I too would have backed out of the whole adventure had the incoming chairperson of my department not graciously thanked me for volunteering to attend and asked me to meet her before the ceremony. Though there’s no written rule banning adjuncts from Commencement, only tenure track professors put the velvet 8-cornered tam on their heads and march in the Commencement convocation. I had been looking forward to wearing that velvet tam for the first time since my own graduation and posing for pictures with the students, but when I saw that what came with my rental doctoral gown was an ordinary mortarboard, I felt ashamed and exposed all over again. Luckily, within a few minutes (and before I could bear to put the cursed mortarboard on my head), I saw that some other faculty with doctorates were also wearing mortarboards. One of them told me this is what came with all the rental gowns.

In the weeks leading up to Commencement, adjuncts I had spoken with about attending had said they didn’t feel welcome. As far as I know, in the end only four adjunct faculty members attended, and we were the “exceptions” who proved the rule. (A fifth adjunct colleague was on campus that day, but he stayed in the office grading papers.) Two of us marched in the faculty processional: me (feeling self-conscious and out of place) and someone who was technically not an adjunct at that time because she was in a temporary appointment as a full-time substitute. Two other adjunct faculty were at Commence­ment – on the stage, in fact. But though they looked poised, professional, and all-around amazing, they did not don gowns or join the processional; they were attending not as faculty but rather as sign language interpreters.

A theoretical model: caste* within a split academic labor market

Given that all faculty I’ve ever spoken with have agreed that the pay is too little for the work that adjunct faculty perform, one question has perplexed me all these years: Why don’t tenured faculty demand an end to this system? Why are contingents the only ones who can see that it is destroying the academic profession?

Let’s see if Edna Bonacich’s classic 1972 model of the “split labor market” can explain the tenured faculty’s blind spot, my discomfort at Commencement, and all of the following mysteries:

  1. Why the two-tier system persists and even grows;
  2. Why “brothers and sisters” in faculty unions and colleagues in academic departments turn a blind eye, cry crocodile tears, or even justify the lower pay scale for contingent faculty;
  3. Why some grad student organizers prefer to unite with grad students as far away as the other coast of this country rather than with adjunct faculty on the campuses where they work;
  4. Why contingents are rarely interviewed for full-time positions that open up in the departments where they have been teaching; and
  5. Why adjuncts need a special invitation to attend “faculty meetings” on our campus, and it’s assumed that they’re not allowed to vote.

Caste. Caste is a system that assigns people permanently to closed social groups ranked from higher to lower. There is virtually no movement from one caste to another, and there’s no socializing between castes.

The clues are everywhere that university faculty are in a caste-like system.

  • Adjuncts complain about being looked down on by full-time faculty.
  • In a gathering of adjuncts who don’t know each other, they each invariably mention their extensive experience, their PhD (if they have one), and/or their other “real” job, as if to say the stigma doesn’t apply to them.
  • Many contingent instructors resent how administrators or full-time faculty may use the word “faculty” to refer to other people, not including them, even when they’re standing right there.
  • Inclusion and collegiality are near the top of the wish list for many adjuncts.
  • Once made aware of their lack of representation or a role in governance, contingents begin to demand what I call a “path to citizenship.”
  • I have sometimes felt like I’m of a different race than the full-time faculty.
  • There are places we know we don’t belong; no one even has to tell us: faculty meetings, Faculty Senate, receptions at the President’s house, Commencement.
  • Grad students and recent PhDs are sometimes advised to beware being “labeled” by teaching too long in an adjunct position.
  • Some union members signing in for a large meeting on my campus acted offended when I asked them if they were adjuncts.
  • Some graduate students and full-time faculty cut the conversation short when they learn one is an adjunct – it’s unclear if they have quickly changed their mind as to whether this person has anything to offer, or if they are trying to avoid “pollution” by too much contact with the lower caste .
  • Some grad students working in adjunct titles say the grad students with assistantships think they’re superior.
These are the signs of a caste system, somewhat analogous to the American race system. Contingents and part-timers are a lower caste, and full-timers are a higher caste. Grad students are candidates for entrance into the higher caste. We don’t socialize with each other across caste lines. And if we happen to be married across these lines, there are awkward moments for everyone.

A split labor market. According to Bonacich, a caste system can arise because of a split labor market. That means there are two groups of workers who, for whatever reasons, can do the work for significantly different prices – higher priced labor and lower priced labor. The third player in a split labor market is the employer, who wants to get labor cheap and doesn’t mind training lower-priced labor to do the work previously performed by skilled higher-priced labor. The conflict inherent in a split labor market, in which higher-priced labor feels threatened by the existence of lower-priced labor, can result in hostility between the two groups of workers.

In a split labor market, higher priced labor historically has used two strategies to protect their higher wage rate, according to Bonacich:

  • Exclusion is the strategy of preventing lower-priced labor from entering the labor market in the first place. Bonacich uses the example of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which kept workers from immigrating from China to the Pacific coast of the USA.
  • Caste is the fallback strategy when exclusion is impossible, when the lower-priced workers are already in the labor market. In this case, higher-priced workers form an uneasy alliance with the employer class to try to protect their own wage rate. Certain jobs and titles are reserved for higher-priced labor. Bonacich cites Jim Crow laws in the US South, which set up a protected sphere of “white” jobs and business markets that were off limits to several million newly freed African American workers and potential entrepreneurs.

Clearly, college teaching is a split labor market. For years now, graduate assistantships and many kinds of contingent instructor positions have been used by university administrations as a way to purchase academic instructional services for a lower rate than what is commanded by the prestigious, organized, tenure-track professoriate.

Clearly, exclusion has failed, if it was ever even attempted. The colleges are full of a “new majority” of professionals teaching classes at the lower rates of grad assistants, part-timers, and contingents.

When exclusion fails, predicts Bonacich, higher-priced labor, the professoriate, will depend on a caste system to protect its wage rate. It will reserve higher paid jobs for themselves and relegate lower-priced workers to a stigmatized category with many restrictions and a lower wage scale.


Ed.: More on the caste system in academe in Part 2 of this article, coming soon.

*”Caste” has been used in numerous ways to describe adjuncts’ situation: in a piece on the Chicago COCAL site in 2003 ( and Pablo Eiseberg’s piece from 2012 (  An adjunct in history at AU gave a paper at the SEIU500 conference in 2011 also explored the caste metaphor. –Maria Maisto

Ruth Wangerin teaches anthropology and sociology as an adjunct assistant professor at College of Staten Island (CSI) and Lehman College. Previous to a career in public health, she was an adjunct at City College. Following up on the results of their large CSI Adjuncts Survey, Wangerin and others founded the Adjunct Faculty Assembly (AFA). This group is organizing adjuncts to address issues such as excessive unpaid workload, develop campus best practices (e.g., seniority), and make sure adjuncts are routinely included in campus institutions. Thanks in part to increased attention to adjuncts’ issues, a total of 17 adjuncts (on 2 slates and as independents) are running for office this April in the CSI union chapter.

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