The Exploitation and Marginalization of Contingent and Adjunct Labor

Abstract: The present situation within many institutions within higher education is that a bulk of the faculty who are teaching within the Academy are contingent faculty, or non-tenured faculty. The focus of the following paper is exploring the history, rise, and oppression of adjunct and contingent faculty. Adjunct faculty tend to be used as the bulk of the academic teaching workforce. These individuals often face challenges inside and outside of the academy that those who have tenure do not. Additionally, adjunct faculty are more likely to be individuals with marginalized identities. I posit that the trend of utilizing a base of adjuncts impedes social justice and illustrate that the present status of adjunct and contingent faculty is the result of an oppressed and exploited workforce that cannot fully participate within the educational structure. As a result, not only are the outcomes for the livelihoods of adjunct faculty impacted, but, the outcomes of the students that higher education at large seeks to serve


The present situation within many institutions within higher education is that a bulk of the faculty who are teaching within the academy are contingent faculty or non-tenured faculty. The following paper focuses on exploring the history, rise, and oppression of adjunct and contingent faculty. It is critical to note that while the paper does highlight contingent and adjunct faculty, adjunct faculty who are part-time and tend to be more at-risk for that reason, a particular focus is placed upon their contributions. As will be expressed, adjunct faculty tend to be used as the bulk of the academic teaching workforce. These individuals often face challenges inside and outside of the academy that those who have tenure do not.

Additionally, adjunct faculty are more likely to be individuals with marginalized identities. I posit that the trend of utilizing a base of adjuncts impedes social justice, defined as, “[The] full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society that is equitable, and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure” (Bell 21). I illustrate that the present status of adjunct and contingent faculty is the result of an oppressed and exploited workforce that cannot fully participate within the educational structure. As a result, not only are the outcomes for the livelihoods of adjunct faculty impacted but, the outcomes of the students that higher education at large seeks to serve. 

What Are Adjunct and Contingent Faculty?

To understand who and what adjunct and contingent faculty are, we must explore and express who and what they are not. Within the higher education structure, there are numerous hierarchical titles that determine what rank someone has and how long they have been teaching. For clarity and keeping the subject focused, only two forms of faculty will be discussed.

The first and most common narrative to those who are not intimately involved with higher education is the full-time, tenured, or tenure-track (TT) faculty. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), tenured or TT refers to individuals who have an “indefinite appointment” and are hired with the intention of permanence within the institution (AAUP par. 1). The notion of permanence also protects the academic freedom of tenured faculty and provides several benefits and rights to those holding such positions. Childress identifies the following as such benefits: developing curriculum, publishing research, financial access to and institutional support of professional memberships, access to research equipment, taking a sabbatical, and a salary (based upon discipline and rank) that supports their livelihoods (00:42:20- 00:43:10). The wage differential is interrogated as a part of the exploitation section of this paper.

The second form of what is commonly referred to as non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty are contingent faculty. Contingent faculty can be full or part-time, and for the moment, I am explicitly focusing on full-time. The AAUP’s 2014 report on “Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession” defines contingent faculty as “both part-and full-time faculty who are appointed off the tenure track…The term includes adjuncts, who are generally compensated on a per-course or hourly basis, as well as full-time non-tenure-track faculty who receive a salary” (par. 7).

Therefore, some are full-time and salaried without the benefits of tenure and those who are part-time and receive stipends or hourly compensation within the contingent facet of the professoriate. Childress notes that NTT faculty may not have the ability to set curriculum or syllabus in their courses, must choose to teach or do research and are often not permitted to do both, and are not often provided financial and/or administrative support for professional development, conference travel, professional memberships, or publications (00:43:30). While each institution may approach these items differently, it is important to highlight distinct discrepancies between TT and NTT faculty.

Part-time faculty can be contingent or adjunct. Childress defines adjunct as “something joined or added to another thing but not essentially a part of it,” (00:41:46-00:47:00). I would also like to add the definition of ‘contingent,’ meaning “subject to chance; occurring or existing only (certain circumstances) are the case” (“Contingent”). The definitions resonate as they express quite clearly the theme of adjunct and contingent faculty in the academy.

A challenge in the research and exploration of the inequities faced by many adjuncts is that adjuncts and contingent faculty may often be put together as a group and cannot be separated for the sake of policy discussions. Adjuncts and contingent faculty may also include those who are graduate students teaching undergraduate coursework, those who teach a full-time course load but are still considered part-time, those who work full-time employment elsewhere, and are teaching a few classes part-time, and the list goes on and expands. Due to the breadth of the definition, the present discourse focuses on those adjunct and contingent faculty who seek employment within the academy and would prefer to be full-time and have the option for tenure if available to them.

Who are Adjunct and Contingent Faculty?

As before, to understand who adjunct and contingent faculty are, one must understand who occupies full-time TT and tenure roles. The following data points do shift depending on the type of institution, discipline area, and focus on research; therefore, I will only be focusing on overall numbers or all Carnegie classifications. According to the overall 2014 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data, Myers cited the professoriate is overwhelmingly white, averaging about 65% for TT and 79% for tenured faculty ( Furthermore, the professoriate is overwhelmingly male, averaging 64% and 79%, respectively. People of color are very lowly represented in TT and tenure positions, averaging less than 10% in both categories. It is important to note that this can vary by institution type and Carnegie classification; for instance, Asians may exceed 10%, such as in the case of TT faculty on ‘Very-high-activity research universities,’ which places this demographic at 15%. Similarly, Black TT faculty will see an increase from 6% (all classification numbers) to 10% in the case of Diverse-field baccalaureate colleges. That is likely due to the location of these institutions in that category (Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education).

According to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Higher Education of the 10.4% of faculty positions held by underrepresented groups in 20071, 7.6% were contingent, resulting in 73% of these faculty holding positions exploitative in nature (13). The exploitative nature of contingent faculty work will be discussed shortly. The demographics of adjunct and contingent faculty also remain overwhelmingly white; however, there are significantly more Latinx, Black, Native American, Asian, and other race contingent faculty than TT and tenured. The recognition that faculty who are not TT or tenured overwhelmingly are representative of individuals of color is critical to the discussion of who is an adjunct and contingent faculty member. Finally, is it paramount to acknowledge that contingent faculty are also overwhelmingly women. The TIAA Institute’s 2016 report that revealed that women held 56% of part-time adjunct positions and that they were less likely to keep full-time appointments when compared to men. (4). Citing IPEDS 2013 data, TIAA’s 2016 report also noted that women held 45.2% of full-time faculty roles compared to 54.8% of men (3). Some progress has likely been made since the 2013 data represented in the study; thus far, it appears that women are still significantly behind compared to men in promotion and pay in the academy.

The History and Rise of Contingent and Adjunct Labor

Adjunct faculty in so far as part-time faculty work has been around for quite some time, and some academics are traced to when women could not become full professors. Instead, the wives of TT faculty would take on these part-time roles that allowed them to teach. Fredrickson cites the work of Historian Eileen Schell who wrote Gypsy Academics and Mother-Teachers: Gender, Contingent Labor, and Writing Instruction that at one time, these adjunct roles were referred to as ‘the housewives of higher education’ (par. 9). 

Later in United States history, the rise of contingent faculty mirrors the growth and explosion of higher education. Thelin described the space between 1945-1970 as the period when colleges and universities began to prosper (311). Much of this can be attributed to the GI. Bill of 1944, which was awarded to veterans as an incentive to receive post-secondary education and retool for the workforce (Thelin 263-264). As a result of the dramatic increases in enrollment during this “Golden Era” of higher education, institutions found themselves struggling to keep up with the demand for courses using the TT faculty on staff. To accommodate the faculty’s need to teach the courses, there was a slow rise of adjunct and contingent faculty added to the rosters for teaching (Thelin 311-312).

AAUP calls the years of 1979 to 1999 explicitly as when “student enrollment in degree-granting institutions grew by 34 percent. During that time, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred increased by 31 percent, master’s degrees by 41 percent, and doctoral degrees by 35 percent” (par. 17). Once again, the explosive growth of higher education during this time meant that institutions needed to expand staffing to accommodate the need. However, rather than higher full-time tenured and TT faculty, institutions looked to adjunct and contingent faculty to fill these roles. Thelin speaks to this challenge as well when he describes how the individual faculty contract would serve to abate some of the challenges related to faculty availability and teaching loads (311).

Other critical components of history that aided in the rise of the contingent faculty were the lessening of federal government support to public institution budgets in the 1980s, state budgets having to eventually shoulder a significant portion of those budgets in the 1990s, and a shift to a focus on completion over-enrollment in the 2000s and 2010s. As an economic measure, adjunct and contingent faculty did allow institutions to save money as they did not cover some of the benefits described earlier, such as professional development and staples such as insurance.

Within the academy, policy changes have resulted in a decrease of available TT positions and the retirement of those who presently hold tenured positions. Wyatt illustrates the challenges posed by the removal of the mandatory retirement age in 1994. The policy resulted in the overall rate of professors who had typically retired at 70 from 100% to 33% (par.  4). Bombardieri’s 2006 article on the ‘graying’ of the academy further demonstrates this challenge when 9.2% of Harvard University’s full-time faculty of the Arts and Sciences were over the age of 70 teaching. In contrast, in 1992 there were none (par. 4). Institutions have attempted to mitigate this challenge in recent years by providing incentive packages or attempting to slowly decrease their academic teaching load, but, this only promotes resentment within faculty who are still using their teaching as their livelihood (Wyatt par. 14). For some of these faculty, the circumstances serve to promulgate a belief that institutions are trying to undermine tenured positions that faculty hold. 

The situation regarding contingent faculty is still growing even when the economy is strong, and enrollment meets or exceeds the needs of institutions. Achieving the Dream (ATD), a non-profit organization focused on reform within higher education, has also examined the challenges of adjunct and contingent faculty through the lens of equity and student success. Using 2014 IPEDS data, ATD highlights the number of filled instructional positions, 70% NTT, 17% were full-time instructors, 13% were graduate teaching assistants, and 41% were part-time instructional staff (par. 2). The trend continues, such that three out of four new faculty positions are appointed at NTT status. Additionally, more than half of all faculty appointments are part-time, resulting in adjuncts who may need to commute to several institutions and have little time for grading and student contact (Hurlburt and McGarrah 1). The impact on students as a result of these factors will be investigated later in the paper.

Considering the role of women in the academy, it has already been discussed how women were systemically prevented from entering the faculty role. Thelin notes that women were not permitted to enter higher education in the Colonial period of the United States (31). During the 1800s, women were slowly being integrated into some schools like Oberlin College and were permitted to enter particular fields of study (Thelin 84). However, full integration– though not without restrictions– did not occur until the 1930s and beyond (Thelin 212). Therefore, women entered the world of the academy with similar rights of participation as men much later. When they did, more women tended to enter the fields of the Arts and Humanities over STEM fields (Ritchie 540). The American Academy of Arts and Sciences completed a study in 2014 that revealed some key trends, such as half the faculty being women and also overrepresented as contingent or adjunct faculty (White et al. 15).

The depreciation of the Arts and Humanities is an on-going debate that began during the 1970s and 1980s at the advent and recognition of feminist studies and other programs focused on marginalized groups. Bianco cites the late Harvard professor Barbara Johnson’s book The Feminist Difference, which illustrates how the devaluation of the Humanities is an affront to women in the academy:

[J]ust at the moment when women (and minorities) begin to have genuine power in the university, American culture responds by acting as though the university itself is of dubious value. The drain of resources away from the humanities (where women have more power) to the sciences (where women still have less power) has been rationalized in other ways. Still, it seems to me that sexual politics is central to this trend. (par. 3)

By recognizing where the parallels of history and contemporary are drawn, a stronger understanding of the academy’s present status can be found. Additionally, one can more readily recognize where oppression originated to understand how it manifests contemporarily.

The Exploitation and Marginalization of Contingent and Adjunct Labor

Before delving into the ways that adjunct and contingent faculty are oppressed and exploited, I want to provide some working understanding of oppression. To do this, I refer to Iris Marion Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression.” Young describes how a group needs only to experience one of the five forms of oppression forms to be considered oppressed. These are exploitation, powerlessness, marginalization, cultural imperialism, and violence. She articulates that “applying these criteria to groups allows for comparing oppressions without reducing them to a common essence or claiming one is more fundamental than another” (Young 64). I find these five criteria useful in defining oppression as it can often be a nebulous concept for people.

The first of these that I would like to express is the exploitation adjunct and contingent faculty face. Iris Marion Young describes the act of exploitation as social processes that produce unequal distributions (48).  These social structures only allow some people to reap the rewards of the work, and unequal allocation of benefits exists. In this instance, the use of labor to further the capitalist ventures that higher education has undertaken for the sake of wage increases to administrators and nicer facilities (Stenerson et al. par. 1; AAUP par. 20; Fredrickson par. 14). Further illustrating this point, one example highlights Florida Atlantic University awarding a 10% raise to administrators, including the president, during a hiring freeze and budget cuts in 2009 (Fredrickson par. 16).

Adjunct and contingent faculty are, on average, paid about $2-3,500 per course, compared to the average full professor salary of $120,000 (Childress 00:47:00). Depending on the tuition of the institution, it may seem all the more egregious and exploitative to pay adjunct faculty, many of whom hold master’s and doctoral degrees, such a penance. One adjunct share their experience by highlighting that they calculated their adjunct pay to be about “$65 per student per semester, adding up to the princely sum of $2,000, noting that ‘each student paid $45,000 in tuition and took about 4 classes a semester…. I think their parents would be rather upset to learn that only $65 of the $45,000 went to pay one professor” (Fredrickson par. 17). 

Inequalities in pay are also found within these marginalized groups. So, for an adjunct who is a white man, data supports that he will likely make more money.  The National Education Association released a study that utilized IPEDs data to illustrate that women’s salaries are between 80% (public institutions) and 78% (private institutions) of men’s salaries.2 Considering that contingent and adjunct faculty are already making a much smaller portion of TT and tenured faculty salaries, this discrepancy can mean even less money for these individuals. The pay inequality is further complicated through the lens of race. While this data is not focused specifically on higher education, it is clear that education is not impervious to issues like the glass ceiling. The Institute for Women’s Policy and Research illustrates clearly that women of all major racial and ethnic groups make less than the men of that group, and all groups earn less than white men (para. 6). Therefore, if most contingent and adjunct faculty are women, they earn less money while women of color are earning significantly less.3

Furthermore, individuals classified as adjunct or contingent may be teaching a full-time course load of overload but may still be listed as part-time (AAUP par. 7). Of course, this does not consider that individuals may teach at multiple institutions and thus have full-time loads at multiple institutions. Douglas-Gabriel describes the plight of an adjunct who taught 22 courses in one semester to make ends meet (par. 22). While this may be more of an extreme example, it does not negate the struggle that adjuncts are facing today. The rewards of insurance, protection of academic freedom, job security, etc. are not awarded to adjunct and contingent faculty in the same way that they are to TT and tenured faculty (Childress 00:47:30; AAUP par. 60).

Young further portrays the exploitation of women and people of color as being a transfer of energy. The energy that goes to those in power is a result of the work that is completed for those in power (Young 50). In this instance, contingent faculty are at the mercy of their institutions and also TT and tenured faculty who set the curriculum, govern the institutions, coordinate faculty senates, determine course scheduling and assignment, etc. It is in these ways, among others, that contingent and adjunct faculty are exploited. The systemic exploitation is further compounded when one considers that the majority of the individuals who hold these positions are people of color and women. Therefore, groups that are already historically oppressed further being oppressed through the academy.

It is important to note that there is a subset of adjunct and contingent faculty who have other forms of employment. Also, those who do not desire to work full-time in the academy, may not be impacted to this degree by the lack of TT and tenure positions available to them. However, as AAUP describes, the majority of faculty working in contingent positions do not have careers outside of the academy and rely on teaching as their main form of income and goal for employment (par. 22)

Young describes marginalization as the process of barring a group of people from meaningful participation in society. Marginalization results in the group being dispossessed and potentially annihilated (Young 53). In this instance, I am articulating that it is through the nature that adjuncts and contingent faculty may need to “depend on bureaucratic institutions for support and services” that they are oppressed (Young 54). The  education systems dependancy on adjunct labor provides a part of teaching in higher education results once again in the oppression of adjuncts. In the case of class assignment, the dependency is that the institution will not cancel the class(es) that one has been assigned last minute, or, that a TT or tenured faculty will not ‘bump’ the adjunct from their assignment (Fredrickson par. 10).

The condition of many adjuncts receiving low wages, not receiving health care benefits, etc. results in a reliance on social services for making ends meet. Frederickson describes doctoral candidates and adjuncts living out of their cars, on food stamps, etc. (par. 11). The American Community Survey indicated that 31% of part-time faculty live near or below the federal poverty line, averaging around $14K for one person and up to 27K for a family of four (Fredrickson par. 12; Health and Human Services Department4 par. 12).

Dependency can also manifest in other ways. Fredrickson poses an important argument that illustrates why dependency in the case of adjunct and contingent faculty is problematic.

[N]o job security, precarious financial situations, and weak institutional support, adjunct professors may lack the independence4 And status they need to challenge students by presenting unpopular positions, critiquing commonly accepted ideas, or even giving out poor grades. Academic freedom doesn’t mean much in these circumstances. And while we tend to see academic freedom as protection for provocative scholarship, it also performs the even more important function of facilitating discussion and debate in the classroom. (par. 29)

Furthermore, an important element of marginalization is to note that having access to food, shelter, and for our purposes, independence, does not preclude one from the condition of being marginalized (Young 55). Any structure that closes a group out of social cooperation and participation results in that group being marginalized. For adjuncts and contingent faculty, getting closed out of participating fully within the structure of higher education because they do not have access to the same means of production (i.e., participation in governance, salary, benefits, professional development) as TT and tenured faculty (AAUP par. 31). Additionally, Ritchie describes that in addition to the challenges mentioned above adjunct faculty face, they are also the product of and are impacted by the attacks on the system of tenure, major shifts in academic employment trends, conservative attacks on, and downsizing of higher education (537). Once again, parallels can be drawn regarding who is an adjunct, people of color and women, and marginalized individuals.

Historically and contemporarily, women and people of color remain marginalized. The continuation of that mechanism within the academy and outside of it is seen in hiring and advancement. 

Student Outcomes

Continuing with the concept of exploitation and money, it is important to note that contingent faculty and adjuncts typically are those who are teaching the bulk of general education, lower-level undergraduate and community college courses over TT and tenured faculty (AAUP par. 2). Fredrickson summarizes what is inherently problematic about this set up in the following paragraph,  

What makes the situation worse is that adjuncts are often disproportionately assigned the courses filled with the students who need the most assistance, such as introductory courses, freshman-writing classes, or remedial education. Incoming students often need basic grammar and composition skills, which requires the kind of intensive hands-on teaching that is difficult for a part-timer with full-time teaching hours and insufficient support to provide. (par. 28)

These points are critical as the purpose of higher education is, at least to most, to educate. Therefore, if there is a process or practice that is inhibiting in whole or in part that process of effective education and meaningful relationships, then it should be addressed. Childress addresses this concern as well by highlighting that adjunct faculty can be excellent educators. However, their situation and positionality mean that they may not have space and capacity to provide mentorship, office hours, the time between class for questions, voice, and advocacy in scholarship, etc. (00:43:10).

Unfortunately, the data also supports that undergraduate courses taught by adjuncts may not have the same level of outcomes as those taught by full-time faculty. For instance, Spangler referred to statistics that were gathered from reading and writing tests provided at Los Angeles Valley College (par. 1). The study ultimately showed that students who had a full-time instructor had better course outcomes over adjunct faculty. Another study by Mueller et al. examined the outcomes in an online classroom examined 396 sections of a first-year experience course that is required. In this instance, full-time faculty are required to have office hours and work a standard schedule where they work in a collegial manner with their peers. Overall, the results showed that students who had a full-time faculty member online were more likely to complete the course successfully and were less likely to withdraw. Furthermore, full-time faculty had higher mean course grades and thus were more likely to facilitate persistence from one term to the next (par. 15).

These outcomes are well documented. While they are unfortunate because of what they mean for adjunct faculty, they illustrate a larger problem with moving to a robust base of adjunct and contingent faculty. It hurts the adjuncts and contingent faculty as described above, but it is also harmful to the students they seek to serve. The data supports that TT and tenure track faculty spend about 50-100% more time per credit hour on instruction than part-time faculty. The AAUP also notes that because there are less TT and tenured faculty, responsibilities must be shared with contingent faculty that results in less time for TT and tenured faculty to spend with students (par. 33-35). Moreover, the lack of resources and professional support for adjunct faculty has profound impacts on students. These impacts can be described as “diminished opportunity to reach beyond the limits of the course outline and the classroom, with their instructor’s support, to encounter a passion for scholarship and freedom of inquiry” (AAUP par. 27). 

The final impact that I want to address regarding students is the harm potentially caused to transfer. Through the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, Kezar and Maxey noted that the challenges that adjunct face, as described above, impact their transfer outcomes. For instance, students were more likely to transfer from a 2- year school to a 4-year school if they had a majority of full-time faculty for their educational experiences (Kezar and Maxey 1). Students were also more likely to major in a discipline area when they took a course from a full-time faculty member (Kezar and Maxey 1). Given that contingent and adjunct faculty are the majority of faculty appointments.  Two-thirds of faculty appointments in a community college setting are part-time, that all the more impacts those students who attend these institutions (Stenerson et al. par. 6). Data from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) notes that 50% of the nation’s undergraduate students who are enrolled in and start with community colleges are generally those seeking to get a head start on four-year coursework, adult learners, Pell Grant eligible individuals, and those of marginalized identity group backgrounds (par. 2-3).


Adjunct and contingent faculty have positive uses for colleges and universities. For instance, they can bring in industry experts who are working in niche or specialty areas. These roles may not warrant or require a full-time TT or tenured role. Yet, the institution would offer a course that provides this niche area of insight to students (AAUP par. 49; Stenerson et al. par. 10). In theory, adjunct and contingent faculty also serves to provide an economic boon to institutions as they are not as costly as TT or tenured faculty (AAUP par. 79). However, data also shows, according to AAUP, that the savings that are being incurred by not adequately paying adjuncts are going to areas of administration and student-services staff such as recruitment, admissions, counseling, student organizations, and athletics. In many cases, these shifts do not result in net savings but result in a stagnation of institutional budgets (AAUP par. 85).

Therefore, while there are certainly positives to institutions that utilized contingent and adjunct faculty, it is also clear that there are more negatives to relying on them to provide the bulk of instruction within an educational system.

While I do not see the use of adjuncts and contingent faculty dramatically decreasing anytime soon, I posit that the current status of these individuals in higher education must be examined to avoid a larger crisis. The AAUP provides several best practices, including integrating TT and tenured faculty with adjunct and contingent faculty (par. 50-51). Often, these groups are never in a space to meet and talk about curriculum changes, discipline-related challenges, current events, etc. Opening the opportunity for these groups to band together will also allow for more meaningful conversations about how to advocate to the administration for improved conditions for adjuncts. Peer reviews would allow groups to build rapport with one another and ensure that the curriculum meets the institutions’ desired standards. Having shared governance to the institutions such as through faculty senates would allow for adjunct faculty to have an official voice in the institution.

Lastly, and most importantly, in my opinion of these suggestions, the number of TT track positions should be increased for those who are contingent and adjunct to apply and that job security and benefits should be provided. Regarding TT positions, the AAUP recommends that those are contingent and full-time could be ‘legacies” in rather than having to bear the cost of transitioning into these roles. Regarding benefits, they recommend the following:

Job security and due process protections;

The full range of faculty responsibilities (teaching, scholarship, service);

Comparable compensation for comparable work;

Assurance of continuing employment after a reasonable opportunity for successive reviews;

Inclusion in institutional governance structures; and

Appointment and review processes that involve faculty peers and follow accepted academic due process. (AAUP par. 52-80)

While these particular items would not entirely mitigate the plethora of ways that adjunct and contingent faculty are exploited and marginalized, I think it would at least serve to improve some conditions. Having access to job security and being treated like any other faculty serving on a college campus will allow adjunct and contingent faculty access to the means of production (noted earlier as participation in governance, salary, benefits, professional development, etc.). There is much work to be done and many other facets of exploration that could be explored regarding adjunct and contingent faculty. However, these items at least begin to expose the problem and organize it through a framework of oppression theory so that these issues can begin to be considered as a social justice issue that needs to be addressed.

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