If Adjuncts Are Treated Unfairly, Is There a Solution?

For the last several years, Big Labor has pushed for mandated higher pay for workers, rallying around the slogan “Fight for Fifteen!” Fifteen dollars per hour as the minimum allowable wage, that is.

The academic world has something similar: The movement for a large increase in compensation for part-time, untenured faculty who teach on semester contracts—the adjuncts. On average, they are paid less than $3,000 for teaching a course and enjoy no job security or benefits. The Service Employees International Union, which has taken up their cause, declares that just compensation for them would be $15,000 per course, according to its Faculty Forward site.

Last week adjunct faculty members at Duke University voted to have the SEIU represent them in negotiations with the administration. Duke adjuncts are already paid well above the national average ($7,000 per course), and it remains to be seen how much of an increase in pay or improvement in working conditions the union can wrangle.

It will probably be much less than the adjuncts hope for. At Northeastern University, where the SEIU won and recently negotiated a contract, adjunct faculty will receive a 12 percent raise over the next three years, according to the Boston Globe. That’s better than nothing but far short of what justice supposedly requires.

Highly pertinent to this controversy is a new paper, “Estimating the Cost of Justice for Adjuncts: A Case Study in University Business Ethics,” by Jason Brennan of Georgetown University and Phillip Magness of George Mason University, published in the Journal of Business Ethics. (A discussion of the paper is available here.)

The authors write, “American colleges and universities routinely mistreat and exploit adjunct faculty, or so many newspapers and magazines frequently claim.” Adjuncts have been likened to sweatshop laborers, indentured servants, and fast-food workers. Most hold doctorates and desire to teach, but often work for as little as $13 per hour, according to the authors’ calculation.

That compares most unfavorably with the compensation for new assistant professors, who on average earn around $34 per hour, and closer to $45 per hour when benefits are included. Adjuncts receive no benefits and often don’t even have assigned parking or offices of their own.

The market for teaching talent is glutted with sellers (those who are looking for college faculty positions, preferably full-time), which puts them in a weak position. The buyers (college officials) have capitalized on the situation, hiring great numbers of adjuncts at the lowest possible cost. “This raises the question of whether universities thereby exploit adjuncts by taking advantage of their poor job prospects and low bargaining power,” the authors write.

We expect people in business to drive hard bargains to minimize cost, but shouldn’t bien pensant leaders in higher education be better than that? Shouldn’t they, with or without union pressure, do all they can to improve pay, working conditions, and job security for adjuncts? Isn’t this a simple matter of justice?

No, it’s not, argue Brennan and Magness.

For one thing, the people who sought PhDs in the hope of landing a tenured faculty position entered that quest knowing that the odds were against them. Our PhD pipeline has, unfortunately, become much larger than the supply that is called for, but that fact has been well known for many years. Intelligent adults who chose to place bets that a doctorate would pay off but lost, are not in a position to complain of unfairness.

Moreover (and this is the authors’ principal argument) any attempt at turning adjunct work from “bad jobs” into “good jobs” would have very high costs and serious repercussions.

Currently American colleges and universities employ 752,669 adjuncts to teach 1,578,336 courses, paying them some $4.26 billion annually. So, what if higher education officials did “the right thing” and converted those bad jobs into good, secure, full-time jobs paying a “decent” amount—perhaps $72,000 per year? Doing that would lead to increased costs of at least $15 billion and probably higher.

Put aside for the moment the obvious problem (how to come up with the money) and focus on the lost opportunities for all the adjuncts who would no longer be needed if “justice” were done. Brennan and Magness show that some 490,000 adjunct positions would be eliminated if college leaders stopped “exploiting” them and created full-time teaching jobs instead.

Adjunct teaching might be a “bad job,” but if we take away that option, then a large number of people who accepted such work will have to settle for some job that’s even less desirable. As the authors put it, “Universities can at best help some adjuncts at the expense of the majority.”

It is possible that if adjunct positions were eliminated or at least greatly reduced, that would shock the PhD production system into the severe contraction that is obviously called for, thus solving the problem eventually. Even so, that creates a lot of short-term pain for many people who have already trained for professorships but can’t find anything but adjunct work, as well as those who are now in the process and won’t be able to land an academic job.

Now, what about the additional money necessary for “justice?” Universities with large endowments, the authors note, do not have nearly as much budgetary flexibility as most outsiders think and the vastly greater number of small schools that depend mostly on tuition receipts for their survival can’t make more than a tiny step toward “justice” for adjuncts. 

And, to whatever extent colleges and universities can improve adjunct pay, should they? The authors don’t see a strong case for it, writing “Instead of reallocating money to help adjuncts, universities could reduce costs, increase scholarship funds, or provide debt relief to previously graduated students. It is not obvious that universities should prioritize helping adjuncts over helping poor or debt-ridden students.”

Furthermore, serious efforts at turning bad adjunct jobs into good ones would inevitably have unintended consequences.

One such consequence is what Brennan and Magness call “job gentrification.” What they mean is that as the job of adjunct teaching becomes more attractive, people who wouldn’t have previously looked for work in the academic market will be drawn in. The new competitors may be less in need of the income, but might possess stronger credentials (between 70 and 80 percent of adjuncts currently don’t have a terminal degree) and would therefore be more attractive candidates. Therefore, even more people currently in adjunct positions would become unemployed.

Second, many adjuncts bring specific expertise to the classroom and allow schools to offer a more diversified curriculum than otherwise.

“Historically,” the authors write, “adjuncting emerged as a means to bring highly qualified experts into the classroom on a part-time basis, thereby augmenting the academic experience of the students.” Much of that teaching prowess would be lost if the justice for adjuncts movement succeeds.

Despite their argument that “justice for adjuncts” is not realizable, Brennan and Magness don’t say that the status quo is good. “Common adjunct complaints such as the lack of offices, computers, and other classroom support likely diminish the educational experience of students,” they observe. 

The paper does not propose a solution to the adjunct problem, but it is clear that (like so many of our other problems) throwing money at it will not work.

If we are looking for a solution, the place to start is with the ongoing folly of subsidization of graduate students with easy loans, payments on which can be deferred as long as the borrower remains a student. If we stopped luring bachelor’s degree holders into further degrees with such loans (not to mention the prospect of having a large portion of the debt forgiven), they would more carefully consider the pros and cons of going after the degrees that often lead only to adjunct positions.

There was no “adjunct problem” before the federal government began subsidizing the output of postgraduate degrees, and the only way of truly solving it now is to stop the subsidies.