Phil Magness and I now have a paper with that title forthcoming in The Journal of Business Ethics. It’s not as prestigious as a Storify piece, but for some reason publishing in JBE helps our universities’ Forbes rankings and Storify does not.
American universities rely upon a large workforce of adjunct faculty—contract workers who receive low pay, no benefits, and no job security. Many news sources, magazines, and activists claim that adjuncts are exploited and should receive better pay and treatment. This paper never affirms nor denies that adjuncts are exploited. Instead, we show that any attempt to provide a significantly better deal faces unpleasant constraints and trade-offs. “Adjunct justice” would cost universities somewhere between an additional $15-50 billion per year. At most, universities can provide justice for a minority of adjuncts at the expense of the majority, as well as at the expense of poor students. Universities may indeed be exploiting adjuncts, but they cannot rectify this mistake without significant moral costs.
In the paper, we use Department of Education data and other sources to estimate just what the costs and opportunity costs of implementing various proposals for adjunct justice would be. Based on DoE data and data from the Coalition for the Academic Workforce, we estimate there are about 1.5 million classes taught by adjuncts each year. We can then calculate what it would cost to have those courses taught by higher paid full-time workers. We define a “minimally good job” as a long-term, non-tenure-track job, with a 3-3 load, no research expectations, voting rights, a small research budget, and $50K+ benefits remuneration. We also look at other more generous and thus more costly proposals.
These are actually low estimates, because we make heroic assumptions about substituting individual full-time workers for adjuncts working in multiple disciplines. In the paper, we note that universities spend about $100
million billion [correction] a year on faculty salaries (based on DoE data), so these proposals (which are quite modest) represent 15-50% budget increases to start.
That money has to come from somewhere. Money spent on “adjunct justice” is not money spent on other things.
Thus, there are hidden trade-offs. For instance:
1. Instead of spending money helping adjuncts, universities could reduce tuition or provide scholarships for poor undergraduates. There’s a pretty strong case that this is a priority over helping adjuncts from the standpoint of social justice. Even if you think adjuncts are wrongly exploited, it’s not obvious that in the face of budget constraints we should help them first.
2. We discuss how these proposals will likely lead to reduced teaching quality in certain fields, because many experienced professionals who teach on the side will end up losing their jobs in favor of the “professional adjuncts”. We don’t know what the overall effect on teaching quality will be.
3. Implementing any of the proposals we’ve seen increases the pay and prestige of these jobs. But as pay rises, it is likely that higher skilled or better qualified people will end up receiving those jobs. We might call this the problem of “job gentrification”. Higher quality applicants will compete for those jobs. Many current adjuncts have marginal qualifications and will end up losing their jobs altogether. If we care about helping the current batch of adjuncts, it does not follow a priori that raising adjunct pay (or replacing adjunct positions with better positions) will actually help them. It will help the people who get these better jobs, but many of them will be different people from the people who currently work as adjuncts.
4. Finally, it’s not plausible that universities can give all current adjuncts full-time minimally good jobs. At most, universities could give a minority of current adjuncts minimally good jobs, but then have to fire the rest. Based on DoE and other data, we determine that to substitute minimally good jobs to cover all the classes currently taught by adjuncts, universities would have to fire 2/3rds of all current adjuncts.
If we assume that current adjuncts are rational people, then we should presume that they prefer working as adjuncts (with all the downsides) to their other options, whatever those options may be.
Adjuncts might have unjust or unfair working conditions, but, nevertheless, they choose these working conditions over their other available alternatives. They prefer being adjuncts, with all the attendant awfulness, over being unemployed, getting training elsewhere, teaching high school, working in private industry, or whatnot. This means eliminating their current adjunct positions will deliver them a less preferred option, and in that sense harm them.
Just how severe the harm is depends on what adjuncts’ other options are. The fewer the options, or the worse the other options, the greater the harm done by eliminating their positions. Thus, suppose all current adjuncts have only two options: they can be unemployed or work as adjuncts for low pay. In that case, firing them would be devastating. If, however, most could quit and work in high paying professional jobs (e.g., at GEICO), firing them would not be so bad.
In the end, we see this paper as taking the first step toward serious work on questions of exploitation in academic employment. So far, most of the newspaper and magazine articles covering the issue write as if the only obstacles to “adjunct justice” are budgetary cuts, faculty indifference, and administrative greed. The issue is far more complex, and the obstacles more challenging.