The Gig Economy in the Academy – a note

The values of capitalism, especially as expressed through free market (neoliberal) ideology, have come to dominate how we organize our lives. Silicon Valley and the tech sector is busy celebrating the “gig” economy. Companies have simply stopped hiring employees and now conduct much of their work using “temps”, “1099ers”, part-time contract workers. The companies, and the champions of free markets, tout this as a wonder of flexibility and opportunity. For gigers not being recognized as an employee means that they lose out on all sorts of direct and indirect benefits long part of the contract between employers and employees: minimum wages, overtime benefits, health insurance, workers compensation for those hurt on the job, unemployment benefits for those who are laid off, proof of employment for those trying to rent or get a loan, and, perhaps most significantly, lower taxes (workers who are “independent contractors” have to pay the employer’s share of  payroll taxes, thats an additional 7.7%). Part-time employees have no regular schedule, in many cases no regular place of work, no regular contact with other employees, or even a job at all. They are the ultimate commodity, entirely replaceable with very few contingent liabilities for companies.

American higher education long ago became an essential part of the corporate state and therefore focus for application of free market ideology. (( By corporate state I mean the current situation in which our government, rhetorically democratic, is really the captured entity of the rich and corporations.))   As the accompanying chart shows, in 1975 the  contingent  faculty (full-time non-tenure, part-time and graduate assistants) made up 55% of the academic workforce. By 2014 administrators had successfully overcome the power of tenured faculty and increased the portion of contingent faculty to 71% of the staff, a 29% increase in their share of the total faculty. The largest portion of this increase by far was the shift to part-time faculty holding 41% of the positions in 2104 up from 24% in 1975. In matching proportions, the tenured and tenure-track faculty shrank from 1975’s 45% to 29% in 2014. ((“Higher Education at a Crossroads: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2015-16 | AAUP,” accessed December 29, 2016,


No surprise the average salary of an adjunct professor is $20,000 to $24,000 per year. ((Tyler Kingkade, “9 Reasons Why Being An Adjunct Faculty Member Is Terrible,” Huffington Post, November 11, 2013, sec. College,  The cost savings to universities are obvious. Just like workers in most other parts of the economy where “at will” rules apply ((“at will” means that a company may fire a worker for any reason at any time without any recourse. This is the dominant form of contract between workers and employers in the US. the only countervailing forces are labor unions and a a very limited number of other contracts, such as tenure.))  management has almost complete flexibility in scheduling, work loads, and pay.

Just as Walmart, MacDonald’s and many others in the low end of the economy have been criticized for using government assistance programs to subsidize their poor wages, universities can be added to this list of living wage exploiters. The University of CA Berkeley’s Labor Center reports that 25% of part-time faculty are on public assistance.


This explosion in low-cost labor in higher education has consequences for students and universities as well as for society as a whole. For students, part-time faculty, frequently burdened with many classes sometimes at different campuses, cannot provide support to their classroom work nor engage in innovations in teaching methods and new content. Further, part-time faculty engage in much less research than their tenured and tenure-track brethren. ((see footnote 2)) We as a society have invested in the education and mentoring of all these PhDs, but we have created an environment guaranteed to minimize their ability to contribute to increasing our knowledge base.