Do Universities Have a Fiduciary Duty to Fire Madjuncts?

My paper with Phil Magness on the costs of adjunct justice has caused quite a stir…with people who haven’t read it but who are inclined ex ante to deny the conclusions. Some of the comments on IHE yesterday were insightful, but many amounted to little more than gainsaying, or complaining that we hadn’t dealt with things we in fact dealt with on the first or second page of the paper. Some madjuncts are proudly declaring that they refuse to read the paper, though this doesn’t stop them from complaining it makes mistakes it doesn’t make. Perhaps the best line comes from Miranda Merklein, self-described “social arsonist, child of the tides, writer, warrior, adventurer, dedicated advocate of faculty & students”, who says it’s “funny how we try to reason and use data to defeat the wave of faculty organizing…” It’s clear she and her colleagues rise above reason and data.

Today, I’ll briefly argue that universities owe it to their students not to hire such people and to fire them if they can. The argument is simple:

1. Universities have a fiduciary duty to their students to hire competent instructors.
2. So far, most of the madjuncts’ criticisms of our paper have been so feeble or irrelevant that only people who A) lack basic reading comprehension skills, or B) lack basic reasoning skills, or C) are intellectually dishonest could have made them.
3. If someone exhibits A, B, or C, he is unlikely to be  competent instructor.
4. Therefore, universities have a fiduciary duty to their students not to hire these madjuncts.

For example, Joe Fruscione, a former English madjunct and current activist, complains that when we say that adjuncts presumably prefer being adjuncts over whatever their next best option is, we thereby assume that academia is a level playing field. But of course we don’t assume that. Early in the paper, we say lots of things to the contrary. But, also this point holds even if academia is, as many adjuncts argue, a “lottery” or if jobs are distributed via some other mechanism. The point is just that the very fact that adjuncts stay adjuncts, despite the lousy conditions is–if we assume they are not irrational, misinformed, or stupid–evidence that this is what they consider their best option.

Others complain that we didn’t take into consideration administrative bloat, even though we talk at length about administrative bloat on the second page of the paper. (We say that even if you can generate revenue by eliminating administrators, the problems we discuss still arise.) Others complain that we ignore that adjuncts are exploited. But of course even a cursory reading of the paper shows that what we actually say is that even if adjuncts are exploited, these uncomfortable trade-offs arise. Etc. This is a rather basic, non-technical, and easy-to-read paper.

You know the quality of discourse on a topic is low when people not only fail to consider or think about opportunity cost, but get angry if you suggest they should. “Adjuncts are slaves! Give us more money.” Okay, I’ve freed up $20 billion. Why give it to you rather than poor students who can’t afford college? “RIGHTWINGCONSPIRACY!” Gotcha.

What’s really going on here is that in general, activists make bad academics. The reason is that activists are generally true believers, but academics generally need to have high degree of dispassionate detachment and willingness to question their premises and their conclusions. See Bas’s paper here: https://www.academia.edu/7734633/In_Defense_of_the_Ivory_Tower_Why_Philosophers_Should_Stay_Out_of_Politics

There is a good chance Phil and I will write an entire book on the “business ethics” of the modern university. One of the things we’ll explore is how first-year composition classes appear to be ineffective, and are little more than a jobs program for low quality intellectuals.

  • Just a couple of quick edits: It’s Miranda Merklein and “Others complain that we didn’t take into [consideration] administrative bloat, …” I’m sure you’ve read Nolan’s rebuttal? http://gawker.com/is-it-really-too-expensive-to-pay-adjunct-professors-a-1765458115

    • Jason Brennan

      I read Nolan’s response, but “rebuttal” is a success term. A “rebuttal” would respond to the arguments in the paper with successful counterarguments; Nolan’s response misrepresents the paper and offers weak and irrelevant complaints.

      • Okay. I do look forward to your book; anything that drives the issue forward and sparks dialogue is progress. Thank you.

        • Irfan Khawaja

          “…anything that drives the issue forward and sparks dialogue is progress. Thank you.”

          Even if it calls for mass terminations of adjuncts? If that’s progress, I’d hate to see regress.

          • Yes, I stand by my comment that dialogue is progress and don’t buy into the mass termination theory. Nor do I believe that “first-year composition classes appear to be ineffective, and are little more than a jobs program for low quality intellectuals.” It’s a provocative assumption, though. The truth is higher ed needs reform, and any solution to raise standards and pay will necessarily hurt some, but not all.

            Bérubé and Ruth also see the hard truths of labor reform in their book (http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137506108). They’ve also taken criticism for their 3 necessary arguments, but higher ed is undermined when a high % of faculty members are contingent with itinerant issues. So let’s do something about that even though it’s unsettling.

            I think faculty should routinely and critically examine their ethical priorities, too; if they have skin in the game, argue for professional standards and pay equity commensurate with the profession. Faculty who don’t exercise democracy may not add much value to the profession or mission of higher ed, and they certainly aren’t educating students for freedom from a place of silence or fear. Even PT faculty who don’t want FTE should argue for professional pay equity on parity with their qualifications and experience (merit).

            Is there a place in higher ed for minimally compensated PT instructors who aren’t actively engaged in politics, policy, scholarship, pedagogy, and best practices? Perhaps, but I may question their value to the system and students. Teaching in particular should not have been reduced to a part-time, low-paying gig. Sadly, some of the most questionable schools, for-profit colleges and universities, operate chains where prescribed content and extreme monitoring diminish the role of faculty to delivery and assessment. I especially want FPCU faculty to rise up and reclaim the profession: get informed.

            This does not amount to adjunct shaming, it’s a real concern of mine that faculty fight for the profession, and those who are fighting are generally more engaged citizens, scholars, and instructors, in my experience. Of course it’s an uphill battle that’s intentionally divisive (not a broken system), but what is the alternative?

            The moral crisis is that students are suffering the consequences of bad business ethics in higher ed, and the profit over mission model is corrosive. So, yes, any dialogue that exposes the faults in the system, even if it argues for ideas I oppose or presents in ways I find disagreeable, isn’t reason to be offended: it’s reason to argue harder for the profession.

      • Irfan Khawaja

        What about Nolan’s suggestion to pay for adjunct raises by taking them out of the budget for intercollegiate sports at NCAA schools? You yourselves mention this issue in passing in the paper (p. 9, left column, discussing Ginsburg), but don’t deal with it in any sustained way. What part of the paper does it misrepresent? It actually seems consistent with the paper (though I’m not sure Nolan realizes this).

        Example: Take an NCAA school, and match each employee in the athletics program with an adjunct. (Feel free to put them in March Madness brackets if you like.) Then do a prioritization review that asks which employee makes the more fundamental contribution to the stated mission of the institution. Whoever wins the prioritization review gets the prize. If the coach loses, re-do the budget so that what he loses goes to the relevant matched adjunct. If the adjunct loses, things stay as they are (since the prizes are already located on the athletics side).

        If I’m on the prioritization review committee, then for most or many adjuncts, I’ll say that the adjunct wins. Suppose the prioritization committee votes my way. Some coaches get pay cuts. Some get fired. Opportunity costs. Painful trade offs. Etc. Isn’t that what your paper is all about? Unlike madjuncts, I read it, and not because Inside Higher Ed plugged it.

        Ever do a prioritization review, by the way? I have, with Robert Dickeson as the chief consultant.


        Naturally, Athletics wasn’t required to participate. That’s because athletics budgets are typically treated as a “given,” cordoned off from competition with academic budgets–a pattern you implicitly reproduce in your paper by writing as though the basic budgetary competition was one pitting adjunct salaries against FT salaries or adjunct salaries against tuition for the poor. Hardly the only budgetary options out there. (Incidentally, I agree with you that it’s the burden of the pro-adjunct movement to describe the budgetary options that will satisfy their policy demands. In that sense, I’m as unsympathetic to some of your critics as I am to you. I actually regard the paper as salutary if it gets the pro-adjunct side to start thinking about budgets in a real-world, rational way.)

        If the athletics program can show that they make a net monetary gain to the institution, it’s a different story. But let’s see the numbers and the rationale (across the board). At NCAA Division 2 schools, any claims of net gain strike me as a stretch if you factor all relevant costs, but I’m open to the possibility, IF I can see some numbers and some worked-out arguments. If not, a proximate form of victory for justice is simply to demand the numbers, get refused, and point out that I’ve been refused.

        At that point, nothing Bas Van Der Vossen says about “why philosophers should stay out” of academic politics is going to cut much ice. What’s he going to say–that Ivory Tower philosophers shouldn’t be activists about the budget…of the Ivory Tower? Or better yet, that activists don’t care about the truth, but that opacity-loving administrations and complacent academics do? (I’m not talking about my institution in particular, by the way. I’m talking about NCAA Div 2 schools generally, with many provisos and exceptions to be made on a case by case basis.)

        The bottom line is, institutional budgets are where the action is, and getting one’s hands on them (and reading them) is how real world activism works. “Activism” is not about what’s going on on Twitter, or making stupid memes about Jason Brennan. It’s about writing a memo and getting the relevant budget, then going to the next budgeting meeting and asking the right questions about why the budget is the way it is.

        Of course, if you’re the kind of faculty member who likes to go on Facebook and grouse about “having to go to pointless faculty meetings,” this might all seem irrelevant. But then, maybe you shouldn’t be telling activists that they’re a bunch of alethic bottom feeders uninterested in the truth. Faculty and administrative meetings are where the budgetary decisions are made and the budgetary priorities are set. It’s boring as shit to have to attend them, but showing up is the only way to track fiscal truth–the fiscal truth that matters to institution-level policy. You can’t make institutional level budgetary decisions at the institutional level by reading the DoE Digest of Education Statistics.

        Even if the athletics program can show that they make a net monetary gain to an institution, the administration of the institution has to be forced to reckon with the fact that the gain is often being made at the expense of the stated mission of the institution. (Again, this is an empirical claim, and we need to see the details, institution by institution. But there is enough obvious truth in it for me to state it that baldly.) If they don’t want to change the policy, force them to change the mission, a la John Oliver’s very cogent critique of the NCAA (near the end).


        What I’ve just described is the “modal situation” at a large number of small NCAA Division 2 schools. Things may be (will be) different elsewhere, but that’s why it makes no sense to aggregate the numbers as you do in your paper, generalizing across thousands of totally different sorts of schools, and treating all of higher education as a macroscopic pie which “we’re” to cut this way and that. When you look at institutional budgets, there’s slack there if you know where to look–and care enough about The Truth to look in the first place. (PS: At Division 1 schools, the reverse may well be the case–intercollegiate sports may be what subsidizes high adjunct salaries, even if it creates other problems.)

        For whatever it’s worth, I’m running a session on the ethics, politics, and economics of adjuncting at a conference I’m doing this April at my institution, and I intend to bring the thesis (and details) of your paper up with both of our presenters, Michelle Ciurria and Derek Bowman, both of them relatively sympathetic to the pro-adjunct case. I’ve read what they have to say, and don’t think it can easily be dismissed as merely dumb-ass madjunct rhetoric. Will be interesting to hear their responses.


        • Phil Magness

          If you want to defund college athletics, by all means do it. I’m with you. I suspect others are not and will object to that proposition, but you’ll find no argument against it from me.

          Now assuming you could get the proposal through, the question remains of then what? Nolan seems to assume that the sports money should be cleanly transferred to adjuncts. Yet this does not even address the question we raised on this very point, suggesting Nolan is not even aware of it since he does not seem to have read the paper.

          Why are adjuncts first in line out of all possible persons the sports money could benefit? Why not students with loan debt? Or scholarships for poor students? Why not relief for the taxpayers, if it is a public university?

          • Irfan Khawaja

            The adjuncts don’t have to be first in line. They just have to be in line. But the premise of your question presupposes that such questions can be asked and answered in the abstract of “the modal” institution. That’s to miss my point. They can’t. My claim is not one about what should be done with “the whole pie,” even the whole pie of NCAA money. It’s that we should be looking, in an active, decentralized way, to reprioritize budgets at the individual, institutional level. And intercollegiate athletics has to be on the chopping block in each case.

            What happens then is a matter of individualized institutional priorities and circumstances. There’s no one-size-fit-all answer, any more than there is any One Platonic Institution of Higher Education or one Platonic Form of the University Budget. And why would there be? Brennan is himself a pluralist intuitionist of the Robert Audi mold. What philosophical justification could he give for insisting that there can only be monistic answer to questions about how budgetary matters should go at wildly different institutions with different histories, different populations, different institutional missions, etc.? Even the distinction between NCAA Division 1 and Division 2 introduces complexity that defeats the application of generalizations from the one case to the other. For that matter, what justification can you give for a one-size-fits-all response? Unless you can give one, I regard the demand as illegitimate.

            Now, take a specific institution and look at the specifics of its loan default situation. What is going on there? What mechanics are involved? There’s going to be a lot of separating the wheat from the chaff required. Some people are just improvident with debt. Some people have had a rough ride. Make the distinction and offer some relief to the latter from the specified revenue stream. But as for the improvident, that’s their problem. They incurred the debt in an express and explicit way. They have to be liable for it.

            Obviously, the same principle applies to adjuncts. I’ve never said otherwise. What I don’t assume is that any long-term adjunct is prima facie improvident or deserves his unenviable fate. If you don’t want to be associated with the latter claim, feel free to disavow it, but my impression is that it has your imprimatur (both yours and Brennan’s).

            It’s worth noting that adjuncts don’t have outstanding debts TO us for which they’re demanding relief FROM us. In other words, they haven’t incurred a prior liability to us from which they’re demanding an out. Rather, they’ve been gainfully employed by us, and we’ve treated them like crap by consistently underpaying them (and dicking them around in other, non-monetary ways). That there are improvident and undeserving adjuncts, I don’t doubt. But that’s why I insist on a decentralized approach to making such decisions (and why I’m against unionization).

            Scholarships for poor students are nice, and should be somewhere in line. But the difference between “poor students” and adjuncts is that we have an ongoing, morally defective relationship with adjuncts. By contrast, we have no relationship yet with the poor students we haven’t yet admitted. Ceteris paribus, the former takes moral priority to the latter. We have an imperfect duty to do more for poor students (in cases where we aren’t doing much). We have a perfect duty to stop exploiting adjuncts (in cases where we are doing that). It’s an empirical question how much “we” do for poor students already, and how little “we” do for adjuncts, but I’ve worked at plenty of institutions where “we” did plenty for poor students, and essentially nothing for adjuncts. In cases of that sort, we should stop worrying so much about poor students, and worry more about the adjuncts we’re screwing over. Again, one has to look at particular institutions, or institutions that have something in common.

            As for the taxpayers, they don’t have dibs on private money. I’m content to leave it there. Consider my proposal applicable to private institutions.

            To discuss public institutions, we’d have to have a much broader conversation about political philosophy. Suffice it to say that in 50+ years of libertarian theorizing, no one yet has produced a fully defensible theory of property or of government (and not for lack of trying). Hence no one has produced a defensible account of what is morally wrong with redistribution. So I don’t see any reason to presume that when a public institution acquires a windfall, it is morally obliged to give the money back to the taxpayers–any more than if the Port Authority of NY/NJ acquired one, it would. Maybe the PA-NY/NJ ought to invest the windfall in a new tunnel. And maybe public universities ought to pay adjuncts better. But that’s a big issue entangled in big issues of public finance.

            I’ll just say this: as long as public institutions exist, they have to be adequately funded. Given that, not every windfall can be or need be ploughed back into private hands. Hence, not every windfall that a public university gets need to be given back to the taxpayers.

          • Phil Magness

            You stated that Nolan had accurately represented our argument in raising the sports team trade-off. I noted the aforementioned concerns to illustrate that he had not, and in fact did not even appear to be aware of our primary argument on the subject.

            Whether you have your own opinion on the same subject might be interesting for the adjuncting conversation or it might be a non-starter. I take no position on that save to note that it is irrelevant to the question of whether Nolan accurately addressed our position. He did not.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            I didn’t “state” that Nolan had accurately represented your argument. I specifically asked: “What part of the paper did he misrepresent?” That was a real question, not a rhetorical one. A question is not a statement.

            I then gave a page reference for a part of the paper that actually cohered with Nolan’s suggestion. Did Nolan address every relevant aspect of the challenge you pose in the paper? No, but I didn’t say that he did. That Nolan’s suggestion “seems consistent” with one claim on p. 9 of the paper does not mean, say, imply, or entail that he accurately represented the rest of the paper, an issue on which I said nothing.

            I also pointed out that Nolan himself didn’t seem to have read your paper carefully, since he didn’t see the apparent consistency between his own suggestion and what you say on p. 9. But that was beside my point, since my only point was that he had raised one legitimate issue that is mentioned but not discussed in a sustained way in your paper. Simply pointing out that NCAA money could be used for other purposes (and that the purposes need to be prioritized) doesn’t refute the claim that the NCAA money could be used to increase adjunct pay.

            For now, what I wrote is still up there, and anyone with two eyes and a brain can read it, compare your version of what I said with mine, and figure out whether you have a legitimate complaint. You don’t.

            Now that you’ve asked me a series of questions, and I’ve answered them at length (at least for a combox), all of a sudden you’ve decided that the whole conversation is “irrelevant” and not worth having. Well, “my own opinion” only became “relevant” because you asked me a bunch of questions soliciting that “irrelevant” opinion, and I went ahead and answered them. Granted, Nolan didn’t answer them, but I am not Nolan. I realize I’m belaboring self-evidencies here, but I also realize that doing so is par for the course for any discussion of anything at BHL. Perhaps I should realize in the future that, like Pontius Pilate, when you ask a pointed question, you don’t really want an answer. You just want, for dramatic purposes, to go through the motions of asking it. It’s kind of interesting that when I pose a question, you interpret it as rhetorical when it’s literal, and when you ask a question, I interpret it as literal when it’s rhetorical.

            But if you want to regard what I said as irrelevant, that’s fine. I’ve never regarded you as an interlocutor worth having, either. I’ll just say that your questions were entirely reasonable ones. I’ve answered them, or at least begun an answer to them. I’ll also say (what I’ve already said) that I found your paper reasonable, too, and find it dismaying that some people associated with madjuncts have responded to it as they have. I take no position here and now on whether you yourself are a reasonable person, or indeed, on what kind of person you are. As the lawyers say, res ipsa loquitur.

          • Phil Magness


            “What part of the paper does [Nolan’s article] misrepresent? It actually seems consistent with the paper”

            “I didn’t “state” that Nolan had accurately represented your argument.”

            So there you have it.

            Of course you’ll probably just equivocate about how you didn’t really attribute any descriptor that might reasonably convey that you believe Nolan accurately represented our argument after doing just that. And in doing so, you will also display a number of off-putting personal characteristics that largely explain my disinterest in engaging the further particulars of your extended and somewhat rambling discourse on aspects of adjuncting that are themselves often little more than tangential to the argument you claim to be engaging.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            Every time I interact with you, I’m reminded of why you’re dumber and more dishonest than I realized you were. The problem is, I then forget all about you, and likewise forget the lesson I learned the last time around.

          • Phil Magness

            Irfan –

            Jason stated “Nolan’s response misrepresents the paper and offers weak and irrelevant complaints.”

            You responded to that *specific* statement in a way that intimated your disagreement with the labeling of the Nolan piece as a misrepresentation. That much may be reasonably derived from a charitable straightforward reading of your statement: “What part of the paper does it misrepresent? It actually seems consistent with the paper.”

            Though you now express a different set of intentions, the fact that it took you 6 lengthy and dissembling paragraphs to do so is its own evidence of the defect in your original comment. If simply pointing out the barrier that such habits create to meaningful engagement with your comments on is sufficient to induce a response of spitting venom, I suppose there is nothing more to be said between us.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            So from accusing me of making a statement I didn’t make, you’ve now concluded that you can reasonably derive an intimation of the statement I didn’t make (but that you wish I did make). The actual statement may not be there, but the derivation of the intimation sure is. I hate to break this to you, Phil, but a derived intimation of a non-existent statement doesn’t help your “case.” Keep at it, though, because as your argument crumbles into ever smaller pieces, it may finally dawn on you that there was nothing to the argument in the first place.

            The evidence of my failure to engage meaningfully with you now turns out to consist in my having attempted to do so at objectionable length. That’s not exactly cogent, either, but cogency is something I gave up on a few days ago.

            The bottom line here is that you not only don’t know how to read or think, you don’t seem to know when to pack it in and shut the fuck up. You haven’t identified a single “defect” of anything I’ve said here, so don’t flatter yourself. As for the very last sentence you wrote, I’d suggest taking it to GMU’s Writing Center, where the adjunct on duty there can shoot it, cremate it, and have you re-write it. Yes, I understand what you’re trying so hard to say, but your prose is just so hilariously shitty, and sentence itself is so transparently stupid, that the best rebuttal is just to leave it on display and move on.

          • Phil Magness

            Irfan – You approach simple conversation in a style that seems to be almost intentionally dissembling…as in to the point that it becomes a chore to even converse with you. The sheer volume of text you routinely devote to tedious re-parsing of your words after somebody gives them a reasonable and straightforward reading at face value is its own evidence that they are either something far short of the beacons of clarity you imagine them to be, or you are attempting to revise the conversation after it happens.

            In any case, you’re simply not worth the time & energy required to pursue this any further. You obviously have a stick up your ass over adjuncting for reasons that I do not wish to know or inquire about. But it does make it impossible to even discuss the subject with you in a rational and civilized way, as your last post makes abundantly clear. It’s no longer worth my time to engage you further. MC>MB & all that. So I hope you find whatever peace you require to alleviate the bizarre rage that adjuncting discussions seem to provoke in you, and will simply leave it at that.

          • Miranda Merklein

            Slow clap. Someone wrote an interesting response on the Philosophy Smoker blog: http://philosophysmoker.blogspot.com/2016/03/on-brennan-and-magness-on-adjuncts.html?m=1

        • Jason Brennan


          Had Nolan read our paper, he would have seen that we talked about just this kind of thing up front, before we even got the various problems and trade-offs the adjunct justice movement faces. We say that even if the money could be taken from college athletics, the problems we bring up would still exist.

          Honestly, we didn’t expect that the adjuncts’ rights activists would respond in a reasonable way to anything we said. We realized a year ago that they are largely a group of anti-intellectual anti-scholars.

    • Sean II

      Biggest disappointment of my week: finding out there isn’t really a person named Miranda Merkin.

      • Or you could use your stellar researching and critical thinking skills to search her name and read about her work at Faculty Forward, genius.

  • Scott Jenks

    I get that the entitlement of the madjuncts is deeply annoying but I’d like to see you respond to comments like Will Wilkinson in the original post rather than these real life straw men. Why shouldn’t adjuncts bargain for a bigger share of the instructional pie rather than just take their ball and go to Geico? The tenure system has not been sent down from on high and there is no reason to think the allocation of faculty salaries are optimal or a reflection of perfect justice.

    My plan for adjunct justice, cost neutral for the same amount of instruction (I think all the math is correct but not sure):

    First take the 350,000 adjuncts that teach 1 class a semester. These are obviously experts teaching on the side, grad students, etc-they are not trying to make a living at it. Bump them up to $5,000 class (a 60% raise, nothing to sneeze at). Present salaries for adjuncts can pay these people plus have $800 million left over. This covers 700,000 classes.

    The remaining instruction will be filled with non-tenure full time faculty. You overestimate the the minimal faculty job, let’s say $40,000 base pay (considering they get summers off, quite lavish), $10,000 benefits, $10,000 office and research support for $60,000. The left over 800 million can hire 13,000 of these people (78,000 classes). If tenure track faculty make $152,500 then for each full professor you can hire 3.5 non-tenure full load equivalents. 1 of these replaces the tenured faculty load,leaving 1.5 for other instruction. At this ratio you pay for the remaining full time adjunct instruction by firing 11% of tenure professors.

    You keep much of the flexibility of the adjunct system. As you said the data on instruction quality is unclear, and adjunct instruction quality is likely not significantly worse than full faculty, especially considering you are hiring the best adjuncts and firing the worst faculty.

    Regarding scholarship, academic productivity is highly variable so firing the bottom 10% is not going hurt the output of quality scholarship. Probably the most savings can be achieved by firing low productivity research professors that have light course loads.

    Under this plan around 20% of adjuncts loose their job. But these are going to be mostly the 2 class/semester people who are teaching too much to do anything else but not enough to live on. These are also likely the people complaining the most and unhappy so we are doing them a favor. 80,000 full professors would lose their job but they can either take a 60% pay cut or find different work, they aren’t owed a job any more than anyone else.

    Reduce tuition by decimating admin costs and reducing wasteful infrastructure spending.

    “There is a good chance Phil and I will write an entire book on the “business ethics” of the modern university. ”

    Would be very interesting but would you be objective enough? You are deeply embedded in the system

    “One of the things we’ll explore is how first-year composition classes appear to be ineffective, and are little more than a jobs program for low quality intellectuals.”

    The purpose of introduction composition courses is for freshman to take them and flunk out students too illiterate to write a sentence or too lazy to show up for class. Failed intellectuals seem well suited for that task as long as you give them incentive to fail students and not grade inflate.

    • Jason Brennan

      I’m cool with them bargaining for more. But the point remains that their bargaining faces the problems we discuss in our paper: it will help some at the expense at the many, it will come at the expense of other concerns of social justice, and the more they get paid, the more it will lead to job gentrification and increased competition.

  • Miranda Merklein

    Does this mean I’m famous? 😉

  • I am a rank amateur in this area, so have no opinions of my own to offer. However I do follow a blog covering higher education issues in Canada (I know, the things I read…) and they had a pretty interesting series on “classroom economics“, including the math around the use of adjuncts. They came to the same conclusion: no silver bullet, just some tough trade-offs. Their math looks sound to me, but I’ll defer to others more expert in this area.

  • Miranda Merklein

    Also, the comma goes *inside* quotation marks (first para). Thanks, English comp!

  • If activists make bad academics, doesn’t that disqualify you, since you’re simply an activist of a different stripe?

    • Francis Bellamy

      If Austrian economics are assumed, and other heterodox economists are outlaws, then the defender of orthodoxy is an unimpeachable scientist

      • Jason Brennan

        I’m not an Austrian.

    • Phil Magness

      I’d argue that the absence of scholarly output from the adjunct activists (and in some cases their hostility to the very notion of peer review) is the disqualifying characteristic. Of course any of the persons posting angry screeds about this article on Twitter and Storify are perfectly free to respond to it in a scholarly venue, assuming they could get it through peer review. While peer review is admittedly an imperfect screen, it does filter out many of the feeble, irrelevant, and strawmanish arguments that have been offered as a response. And there we arrive at the rub of the matter…

    • Jason Brennan

      I’m not an activist.

  • Miranda Merklein

    Jason & Phil,

    Thanks for the shout-out on my tweets. I’ve been debating the matter and have decided to respond in earnest once, as I’m very busy working every day to make life better for students and faculty of all appointment types, despite whatever shortcomings I have had in the past, in academia, or in life in general. The reasons I will not purchase and read your paper are 1) I have chosen action over a “life of the mind” because I find it more effective in accomplishing my goals and 2) I have already picked your and your interlocutor’s minds in previous conversations about the subject via e-aliases, looked through your other writings, and finally determined that you were not pursuing any kind of unbiased research project or philosophy but were, in my judgement, operating from a strictly antiunion and supremacist bias, in which you specifically targeted precarious academic workers, especially highly-educated women, to “fisk” for the cruel purpose of attempting to demoralize them and “prove” your superiority. To say the least, I find that a bit odd and uninteresting from an intellectual standpoint. I also think that things which don’t help tend to hurt, and I have stared into too many abysses already. That said, if you ever feel like helping to rebuild the profession instead of tearing your colleagues down, I’ll be glad to help.

    • Jason Brennan

      Your university has a subscription to the journal. Or you could get it for free.

      But notice your bullshit move here. You don’t dispute our data–which is just Dept of Ed data anyways. You don’t dispute the trade-offs. You just dismiss it because you think we have bad motives.

      You are, in short, an anti-intellectual anti-scholar. It would be shameful for a university to hire you or someone like you.

      • Aristocles Tumwater

        Wow, I would have expected more from a humanities scholar. Shouldn’t you be carefully and with humility considering what your pre-analytical assumptions are? I suggest that you reconsider the bias of your discipline, method, and unacknowledged assumptions. Also, “anyways” is not a word used by any respectable scholar I’ve encountered. Obviously you need to let go of some anger and resentment before you will be able to clearly think through the complexities of this issue.

        • Jason Brennan

          As you are no doubt aware, none of our critics here have actually disputed our data or arguments. They have rather engaged in fallacious ad hominem attacks and criticized our character and motives, or dismissed our argument (without reading it) because they dislike the conclusion. They have actively and explicitly denigrated peer-review, the process of research in general, the idea of data, and scholarship in general, and instead believe that “activism” is a proper and better role for academics.

          Don’t presume anything I say here is said in anger. I have far too little respect for our interlocutors to be angry at anything they say.

          However, I am slightly upset that universities spend as much money as they do propping up pseudo-intellectuals in English departments when that money could instead go to financing scholarships for poor students, or, if not that, football teams and rock-climbing walls.

          • Aristocles Tumwater

            So why bother with the Madjuncts then? If you are as superior of an intellectual as you claim, why would you be invested in personally attacking them? I guess I’m confused as to the motivation on your part.

          • Phil Magness

            Our time has been invested in a peer reviewed study in a well regarded journal that sheds much-needed light on a neglected dimension of the adjunct problem. It is the first of many anticipated products of this research area, all of them similarly peer reviewed and placed in relevant scholarly outlets. If you think this is a waste of time and misdirection of motive, then your perspective would seem to strongly suggest that you share the madjuncts’ disdain for actual scholarship and bias towards frivolous activism. Ironically, those same positions both help to explain the difficulties of many madjuncts in obtaining a more stable form of employment.

          • Products — scholarship as product which means it must sell (out). Good call. I’m sure there is absolutely no bias in a market driven venture like the publicity packet that accompanied the latest screed.

          • Because one author is a self-hating adjunct working the bottom of the food chain at a Koch Funded James Madison University institute and the other likes to obsess about adjunct women working the trenches to change the conditions he supposedly addresses in his articles.

          • Jason Brennan

            Robbie, the somewhat ironic thing about this is that you personally made this paper happen. .

            But, really, here’s a re-cap of what happened. I wrote one or two short blog posts about the trade-offs in response to national walkout day. I got attacked viciously by a bunch of English MAs, and after writing a brief response or two, I let it go. Then you and your activities buddies picked it up a couple months later and started attacking me (as a person, not my arguments, of course) again, so I wrote a few more brief responses. Then, having done all that work, I did a bit of data-digging and some basic arithmetic, and, pop, there’s an article.

            In all likelihood, if the adjunct activists hadn’t gone for my neck here, this would have been nothing more than two blog posts.

            So, in short, it’s not my obsession with adjuncts that made this paper happen. Rather, it’s the adjunct activists’ own self-obsession and desire to stamp out any dissent that made it happen. I owe you all a beer!

      • Miranda Merklein

        Read your paper. Nice try.

        Obviously I disagree with your assessment of my abilities. Also, we are not in the same field. I worked in creative writing and have a trunk full of peer-review journals that don’t mean anything. (I am pre-predicting your argument of poor major choice here, so no need to share.)

        Regardless of whatever disagreements we may have, I just want to thank you both for making my job and the job of labor organizers across the country a hell of a lot easier. You make adjuncts so angry, authorization cards practically sign themselves!

        Onward –

  • j r

    Substance aside, I am a little confused about the strategy.

    One of the things we’ll explore is how first-year composition classes appear to be ineffective, and are little more than a jobs program for low quality intellectuals.

    Not sure what you expect a sentence like this to accomplish. You’ve somehow managed to get into a spat with adjunct activists and Gawker Media in which the activists look composed and Gawker looks reasonable. Those are not easy things to do.

    • Sapho Plebe

      Hitler walks into a bar and yells, “Anyone here who chose not to read Mein Kampk is rejecting the autobiography as a form of Excellence and is an anti-intellectual anti-scholar!”

      The End.

      • Jason Brennan

        This is the composed and reasonable. The Gawker activists look reasonable because they are attacking a straw man.

        • j r

          No. They look reasonable, because you are concern trolling.

          Why not just make the case that universities have no moral or ethical obligation to provide everyone who wants with a well-paid teaching position? That argument is on solid ground.

          Once you adopt the stance of trying to demonstrate your point on “social justice” grounds, all concerned immediately see this for the tactic that it is.

  • ac456

    I had a question about your paper/thoughts on this issue. Do you think raising the adjunct pay level substantially would force the TT/FT professor pay up as well? It was a thought that occurred to me due to my experiences in business. I was in management (non-academic) for about 10 years, and I found when you raised the “floor rate” for workers, the top-tier began to demand more as well.

    I know that the scope of your argument was limited, and you weren’t going to hit everything.

  • Fish Fast

    You, sir, are a professional troll. And you seem to be quite good at it, so at some level I suppose you’re owed respect, in the sense that the guy who mucks the horse stalls can still have a certain level of skill at his job, even if it is shoveling horse crap.

  • Chris Nagel

    I’m a little unclear about what the article contributes to discussion of the issue of just allocation of higher education financial resources. It seems to me the argument just describes a circle. Of course, assuming that there will be no increase in financial resources of institutions, better jobs for college faculty would require “tradeoffs” (or shifts in budgeting priorities), as would any other reallocation of resources. Of course, assuming that if increased financial resources are needed, and assuming that there would be no greater public funding, institutions would have to raise tuition. Of course, if you assume that everyone makes economic prudence their primary form of reasoning, you would conclude that “adjuncts” prefer to work as “adjuncts” to their other options.

    As I understand it, the social movement for contingent faculty is not merely a self-interest group, but is also intentionally aligned with precariously employed people outside academia. In this way, the justice issue raised by contingent faculty is a broader social justice issue, based on critique of wealth inequality, among others. In comparison, the article seems to lack that context.

    (By the way, I would imagine that the tone of comments you’ve received could have a little to do with the language you chose to use in your post.)

  • Aristocles Tumwater

    Found the source of their “bleeding heart” bromance: Koch, of course: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Institute_for_Humane_Studies Also, since J-Dog’s book is offered by the Cato Institute, I’m guessing the endowed prof position is related to the same ideology. Sad that Georgetown would even be associated, but not surprising.

    • Phil Magness

      Right on cue, the conspiracy theorists arrive…

      • Aristocles Tumwater

        Are you denying that you both are Koch-funded sock-puppets?!?

        • Phil Magness

          Have that you’ve stopped beating your spouse, children, and cats yet?!?

          But by all means, if you actually believe I’m owed money by the Koch Brothers ™ for writing this article and you are so convinced that they are personally bankrolling this research, would you mind contacting them and reminding them to send me a check that I was not expecting to receive? Since you know so well how your conspiracy theory operates, you also likely know better than I do about how its funds are dispersed, and sadly they seem to have forgotten me on this one.

          • Aristocles Tumwater

            Ahh, if that’s only how it worked. But consider your challenge accepted. 🙂

  • Rob Gressis

    Brennan writes:

    “1. Universities have a fiduciary duty to their students to hire competent instructors.
    “2. So far, most of the madjuncts’ criticisms of our paper have been so feeble or irrelevant that only people who A) lack basic reading comprehension skills, or B) lack basic reasoning skills, or C) are intellectually dishonest could have made them.
    “3. If someone exhibits A, B, or C, he is unlikely to be competent instructor.
    “4. Therefore, universities have a fiduciary duty to their students not to hire these madjuncts.”

    3 seems suspect to me. I think it depends on what you mean by “competent instructor”. I take it that “competent instructor” refers mainly to the teaching abilities of a person, given that in premise 1 you write, “[u]niversities have a fiduciary duty to their students to hire competent instructors.” Assuming I have that write, then I think someone who lacks A, B, or C isn’t particularly unlikely to be a competent instructor, because I suspect that a person’s reasoning abilities or intellectual honesty often fail in certain circumstances. My guess is that, just as some scientists lose their critical reasoning abilities when they talk about philosophy, some “madjuncts” lose their critical reasoning abilities when they talk about politics or economics. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad instructors when it comes to teaching within their specialization.

    Now, it could be many of these madjuncts do, indeed, specialize in political disciplines, or at least, teach in humanities or social science disciplines that are heavily politically inflected (presumably by a left-wing perspective). But in that case, I suspect that you would have reason to think that *most* professors who talk about politics and economics are incompetent instructors. But I don’t think you would say — I could be wrong — that universities have a fiduciary duty to their students to fire most of their instructors, as that would render them unable to teach a lot of their students.

    • Phil Magness

      I’d argue that competent instruction in English/Composition requires an instructor who possesses basic reading comprehension skills. Most of the madjuncts referred to here are also English/Composition instructors who have visibly displayed a lack of basic reading comprehension skills.

      • Rob Gressis

        Yeah, but I don’t think you can justifiably generalize from this one case to their general competence. Especially because, in this case, they may be very emotional.

        • Phil Magness

          How many recurrences would be necessary to justifiably generalize? At least in the case of a handful of madjuncts that Jason has specifically noted, the lack of basic reading comprehension ability is a long-running pattern that has exhibited itself over many months of off-and-on-again interaction.

          • Rob Gressis

            In my own experience, even very smart, tenured professors seem to display compartmentalized reasoning abilities, *especially* when it comes to religion, politics, or philosophy. Lawrence Krauss is, I assume, a very good physicist, but he’s a very bad philosopher, and no many how many times he is called out on his sophistry, the situation doesn’t seem to improve. I don’t think you can conclude from his philosophical ineptitude to his general ineptitude (especially if that is supposed to cover his aptitude with regard to physics); similarly, I don’t think you can conclude from madjuncts’ particular ineptitude when it comes to responding to your argument to their general ineptitude *as teachers*, even if they manifest their dim responses repeatedly over the course of months. I believe Eliezer Yudkowsy said that “politics is the mind-killer”, and on this one I think he’s got a point.

          • Taken to the next level of discussion, this behavior is nothing less than psychopathy. An extreme form of deflection and cognitive dissonance very commonly found among my libertarian colleagues in higher education.

          • Jason Brennan

            In your moral compass, fraud is nothing to be ashamed of, but pointing out that someone is a fraud is psychopathy. Got it.

          • Phil Magness

            Would you consider it a valid data point among many attesting to ineptitude or related forms of unsuitability for the classroom? For example, what if the madjunct (a) displays poor reading comprehension in the representation of basic arguments in an area where he/she claims specific expertise, (b) claims fake academic credentials from an unaccredited diploma mill, (c) denigrates the peer review process as unsuited to his/her style after demonstrably failing to even minimally produce research through it, and (d) regularly trails off into politicized subjects well outside his/her area of expertise while lecturing in the classroom?

            I’d argue that such characteristics attest to a larger pattern of incompetence or unsuitability for work in a scholarly institution, even if individually they might be somewhat excusable as particular shortcomings. I also gather that this is something along the lines of the point Jay was making in the original post – it’s not point failings with the madjuncts, but an ongoing pattern of closely related anti-scholarly behavior in response to scholarly arguments and publications.

          • Sapho Plebe

            Not one of the “Madjuncts” you have attacked here or previously has a degree from an unaccredited diploma mill. What are you talking about?

          • Phil Magness
          • Rob Gressis

            I would consider it a valid data point in combination with others. From what I know, though, only one of the madjuncts you’ve dealt with (viz., Baum) has a degree from an unaccredited university. Perhaps Baum satisfies (a)-(c), though I don’t know how you’d know that he satisfies (d). That said, even if no university should hire Baum, there is still the question of the other madjuncts you’ve dealt with. I suspect plenty of them satisfy (a), and I wouldn’t be surprised if a fair number satisfy both (a) and (c), but I would be surprised if a large number satisfied (a)-(d).

          • Still waiting for your reply, something more scholarly than desperately TMZ would be nice:


      • By denigrating the essential duties of a first year writing year, this glorified staff member at George Mason University displays a contempt for the basic needs of students that somehow has become more bilious than a year ago when Libertarian Bros emerged on the adjunct scene.

        Here’s the model I’ve followed since 1995: https://writing-speech.dartmouth.edu/philosophy-aims/writing-dartmouth

        Keep relying on ad hominem attack, Bros.
        It helps me display not just the abject speciousness of your claims but the poor logic used by a now tenured Georgetown professor who still (with a straight face) calls himself a philosopher.

        You call into question the “basic reading comprehension skills” of your opponent as precursor to making an argument about their worth as hired contractual employees of a contingent nature. What’s that logical fallacy called? You tell me.

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  • Kirsti

    As one of those “low quality intellectuals” who runs a composition program, I request that you and your co-author seek out actual data on first-year composition instead of relying on blog comments and Inside Higher Ed interviews. There is a lot of peer-reviewed scholarship that people in other disciplines tend to wholesale ignore because they start with the assumption you make here: that composition scholars are low quality, lack rigor, or somehow don’t count as academics. On of the books I would recommend you read is “Composition in the Age of Austerity.” It would be a basic introduction to the field, but it might serve you well. Over fifty years of scholarship in the field is available to you. Obviously by your standards, you’ll want to sort through all of that in order to make an educated claim about the relative efficacy of the curriculum. I’m happy to give you some pointers as I regularly educate new teachers of first-year composition on the history of the field, our methods and methodologies, and our labor practices. Of course all of this may be moot since you’re basing your assumption about comp folks on blog comments. If that’s your measure of intellectual rigor, you might be at risk for a few assumptions about you.