Economics, Exploitation

Inside Higher Ed on Our Adjunct Paper

Inside Higher Ed has a nice write up of my paper with Phil Magness on the cost of providing justice for adjuncts.

They also solicited some responses from activists, which, alas, provide further evidence that adjuncts’ rights activists are not intellectually serious people.

For instance:

Joe Fruscione, a former adjunct professor of English and co-founder of Precaricorps, a nonprofit that offers temporary financial assistance to struggling adjuncts, said Brennan and Magness seemed “almost willfully ignorant that many adjuncts are exploited,” with their repeated declarations of having “no stance” on that issue. Over all, he said, their argument seems to imply — falsely — that if “all adjuncts can’t get a raise, none should.”

What we actually say is that we don’t take a stance on whether they are exploited or not. We’re just saying that here’s what it would cost to stop exploiting them, if they are indeed exploited. And of course we don’t say that none should get a raise. We just say that realistically, universities could deliver “minimally good jobs” to at most about 1/3rd of adjuncts only at the cost of firing the other 2/3rds. We say to readers that we’re not here to tell you what the right trade-off is, but rather that there is a trade-off.

Another bit:

Carol Nieters, executive director of SIEU Local 284, which represents adjuncts at Hamline University in Minnesota, defended the $15,000 per-course pay and benefits figure, saying it’s “really about equality, justice and an indicator of whether a campus is investing in instruction and a stable learning environment.”

Overall, she said, the report “pits students against underpaid adjuncts as a way to avoid the real crisis in higher education where faculty are marginalized and students are saddled with outrageous amounts of debt. When one in four families of part-time faculty are enrolled in one or more public assistance programs, we need a dramatic change.”

One of the things we point out is that money for adjuncts has to come from somewhere. Further, money spent helping adjuncts is money that could have been used to lower the price of tuition or to provide scholarships or debt relief for poor and low-income students. Again, we don’t take a stance on what should be done, but rather simply invoke that there are opportunity costs to helping adjuncts. Any money spent helping an adjunct is not money spent on some other cause in social justice.

Another bit:

Fruscione also took issue with the assertion that adjuncts actively choose to work in higher education over other, presumably worse choices. Such as argument would be fine if higher education were truly meritocratic, he said, “but it’s not.” To say adjuncts prefer low-paying jobs “is again problematic, because academia isn’t a level playing field. Whether they see it or not, adjuncts are exploited.”

Of course, we don’t actually argue that academia is meritocratic. Our point is rather simple: Regardless of how tenure-track jobs are allocated (whether it’s merit or not), one thing we can reasonably assume is that adjuncts prefer working as adjuncts, despite how much that sucks, over their other options, whatever those might be. (In order to deny that assumption, you have to think most adjuncts are stupid and irrational, and thus take what they think is an inferior option over what they think is a superior option.) Thus, to fire an adjunct is to requires that adjunct to take what she herself considers a lesser option. In that sense, to fire an adjunct harms her. We also say that the fewer options adjuncts have, the worse this is.

I was talking to an editor at the Wall Street Journal about this yesterday, and he said that most of the faculty he’s talked to say the money should come from firing administrators and re-allocating funds to instruction and students. I’m cool with that! But good luck making that happen.

I got an email from Mr. Robert Baum, one of the activists in the adjuncts’ rights movements. Mr. Baum calls himself Dr. Baum, but he has a fake degree from a fake university, so that is of course fraud. Here’s what Baum said:

You and precious (and your pecious article) now have the broadest audience possible at Inside Higher Education. Your “ideas” will now be publicized across multiple sectors your. I believe you are using this horribly written and Freshman Comp researched article to “disrupt” the flow of conversations, especially as you take a “campus watch” approach and offer suggestions for how campuses can deal with the coming insurrection.

Over the course of the next weeks myself and about ten others will challenge your:

1) idea of “peer review”

2) false premises

3) red herrings

4) illogic

5) lack of research

6) utter lack of care and mercy (see Georgetown’s Jesuit principles and Pope Francis’ jubilee decree)

7) worst possible libertarian argument by self-proclaimed libertarian

I’ve hereby outlined the seven points of critique I will personally widely publish.

When the time is right.

Have a WONDERFUL spring.



Dr. Robert Craig Baum

Professor | Producer | Writer | Composer

Notice what Baum did not threaten to do: He didn’t threaten to try to publish a peer-reviewed article in a similarly ranked or better ranked journal criticizing our argument. Again, this shows the utter lack of intellectual seriousness among these activists. Unfortunately, many of them just don’t care about scholarship.

Regard Mr. Baum’s degree, here’s wikipedia:

The EGS lacks academic accreditation from an accrediting agency that is recognized by the U.S. Council for Higher Education Accreditation.[12] As a result, degrees from the EGS are not currently recognized by many state education authorities in the United States. The State of Texas currently includes the university on its published list of institutions that issue “fraudulent or substandard degrees” and notes that it is illegal to use an EGS degree to “obtain employment” within the state.[12]The State of Maine includes the EGS on its list of “Non-Accredited Colleges and Degree Mills.”[13] The State of Michigan Civil Service Commission states that degrees from the EGS “will not be accepted…to satisfy educational requirements indicated on job specifications.”[14]

So, there’s a good argument to the effect that universities owe it to their students not to hire Mr. Baum.

  • Jameson Graber

    “Regardless of how tenure-track jobs are allocated (whether it’s merit or not), one thing we can reasonably assume is that adjuncts prefer working as adjuncts, despite how much that sucks, over their other options, whatever those might be. (In order to deny that assumption, you have to think most adjuncts are stupid and irrational, and thus take what they think is an inferior option over what they think is a superior option.)”

    Why both stupid and irrational? Why not just irrational? Plenty of smart people believe or do irrational things because of biases either taught to them or naturally built into their pschye. Think of a gambling addict at a casino.

    Or, for that matter, a commenter on a blog. I *know* I’m wasting my time doing this, but there’s some irrational impulse that just keeps bringing me back…

    Somebody save me from myself!

    • Jason Brennan

      You are correct. It really should say “stupid, irrational, and/or misinformed”.

    • Rob Gressis

      Yeah, I was also going to criticize this point. First, I presume there’s an almost irresistible sunk cost fallacy going on: “I’ve spent six years getting a Ph.D., and I’m not going to turn my back on all that”. Second, I think a lot of adjuncts have been hypnotized into thinking that academic work is the best kind of work there is, and that consequently, even when their experience as adjuncts is horrible, they figure that it’s better than the alternative, which is, say, working for Geico (as Jason likes to suggest). I think, in fact, that there’s at least two very bad things about academic work, even for tenured professors, to wit: (1) you have a lot of academically unmotivated or incapable students;* (2) there’s not very good evidence that knowledge-transfer happens in your class (and, even if it does, there’s even less evidence that the knowledge-transfer lasts for very long). Now, if you’re an adjunct, you have to add to that (3) you don’t get paid very much; (4) you often have to drive a lot; (5) many of your colleagues look down on you; and (6) you sometimes have little control over your course content, or you often get stuck teaching scut courses. (1)-(6) together seem to me to amount to a pretty bad job, one I’m shocked so many people want.

      *–I presume (1) is not true of nearly as many students at universities like Georgetown as it is at my university (California State University, Northridge), but I’ve never taught there, so i don’t know.

      • ac456

        I think adjunct work might not be bad if you know how to leverage it. If you learn how to make money on the side, you can pay your bills and have money to play with while working toward a more stable academic career. Now, I should preface this: I’m not an academic. I have a BA in Political Science from a crap school. (That was probably rude to say about the school, but it’s certainly not prestigious). However, I am well acquainted with having too much month left at the end of the money. The remedy to this is what was mentioned earlier-A side gig. Most of the people doing adjunct have skills they can sell to others without quitting academia entirely. One of my friends wrote erotic fiction during her adjunct days, with a pen name of course. She got to a point where she was making 3K a month pretty steadily off that. Is it dignified? Depends on who you ask, but it’s money. It also meant she didn’t have to teach at three different schools and stress herself to death.

        Hm, knowing what you have of worth, and how to sell it, is a skill in of itself. I may be asking too much of your average adjunct in that respect. Sorry for my low-class writing. I’m a freelance web developer, so I don’t get a lot of time to perfect my writing anymore.

        And on that note: Why does the CSS keep breaking around here? Did the child theme get messed up?

        Edit: And now the CSS works. I’m a MEAN stack developer. WordPress is just a hot mess for me.

      • Jameson Graber

        “Second, I think a lot of adjuncts have been hypnotized into thinking that academic work is the best kind of work there is”

        I wish I knew who is hypnotizing them. It seems to me everyone these days, including faculty, complains about how hard it is to find a stable academic job. And if it’s faculty you admire, most of them (like me, to be frank) care at least slightly more about the research than about the teaching. So I’m not sure how you could even get the impression that a teaching job at a university is great work. I can’t help but believe the sunk cost fallacy and other personal psychological factors play a greater role than anything done by others to these poor adjuncts.

        • embala

          Speaking from the inside, academia at the grad level is basically a cult/abusive relationship. Pretty much from the moment you start your PhD it gets drilled into your head that being a professor is your only option, because 1) no one else would want you and 2) even if someone else did want you, taking them up on it would make you a corporate sellout and a failure. This is especially true in the humanities, where you will constantly hear from all sides that you don’t have any useful skills, and no one but academia will ever love you. I am 100% aware that adjuncting is a crap deal and I leave and not go back if I can’t get a full-time teaching job at the end of this, and even knowing that, I still feel pangs of guilt just for thinking that way.

          It’s better to just not get involved in the first place. But…hindsight.

          • Jameson Graber

            “academia at the grad level is basically a cult/abusive relationship”
            Some people say it’s like a drug gang:

            But seriously, I guess my experience in grad school was slightly different, since I studied mathematics and not humanities. Jobs in the private sector are not so unheard of for math PHDs. Still, I get what you’re saying. Academia does not often work to build self-confidence and good life decision-making.

  • Matthew DeCarlo

    My two years earning shit wages as a 29-hour-a-week adjunct just helped me score an actual Assistant Professor gig once I got my PhD. I came on the job market having taught 8 classes on the bachelor and maters level. Also, it was highly preferable (to me) versus doing someone else’s scut work as a research assistant. Or, you know, getting a real job.

  • David Jacobs

    I am thinking of assigning a module in a performance management/staffing course on the adjunct debate. Does anyone have a piece to recommend from the other side, a sound institutionalist argument connecting to the larger trend toward precarity?

    • Sean II

      Best argument for the other side is: those adjuncts became adjuncts because they slipped down a path heavily greased with incentives telling them “society wants you to get this PhD; wants it so bad in fact, that it’ll subsidize the program and your participation in it”. This makes the path seem safe and attractive. But really the path exists to benefit tenure track professors, by allowing them to sell many more PhDs than the market will actually bear. Which guarantees many degree holders end up as bag holders and losers in the game. But a measure of sympathy is due, because most of those eventual losers started down the greased path when they were 22ish and thus quite vulnerable to the constant encouragement of a consensus that included almost every adult they know, especially the professors they admired, whose opinions were backed up by very material encouragement from the whole complex of U.S. public policy on education.

      You don’t have to be a left-wing nutcaker to feel kinda bad for those kids, when they end up teaching 101 courses to 300-person auditoriums while the tenured prof who pimped them into the game is off taking sabbatical in Japan.

      • Jason Brennan

        There’s something to this, Sean, but five minutes due diligence on Google would have revealed to them that their job prospects are horrible.

        • Sean II

          The problem with that argument is it works equally well for any subsidized speculative bubble. What went wrong in the housing crisis? Everyone forgot to do their five minutes of Googling? Why do too many people go to law school? Again, lack of Googling. Why are madmen leaving their money in the SP500 right now, despite its totally unhinged valuation? They’re following the market instead of Googling like they should.

          What you’re missing is that the Google information weighs less than the price information. Which is, by the way, a completely standard argument that economically literate people make all the time. Given a price on one side and a piece of information on the other, people will follow the price. Given a statement of one hand, and an incentive on the other, people will follow the incentive. It’s one of the most reliably predictable things we know about human behavior.

          Due diligence, of the kind you’re describing, can reveal the fact that there are more PhD holders than tenure track jobs. But what does that fact weigh against all the other incentives in the game?

          The rest of the system is saying, by deed and usually also by word: “Oh, but not you! It’s true in the general case that many PhD holders fail to match, but not you! You can find a way. And even if you do fail in academia, the rest of the job market is eager to acquire your skills.”

          If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The housing bubble worked much the same way: for though anyone could tell there was something crazy happening with home prices generally, each individual actor was being bombarded with signals saying “Oh but not you. You should buy this! Look how cheap the money is. Think you sweet the payoff can be. The guy buying your old house, sure…he’s a sucker. But the house you’re buying, it’s a sweet deal. Has to be right, or else why would everyone from the President to the pundit on TV to the loan officer at the bank being pushing you to do it?”

          See what I’m saying, Jason. Education is more subsidized than housing ever was. It’s also more socially sacred. To think five minutes of Gooling can overcome all that is just uneconomic.

      • Jameson Graber

        You don’t have to be a left-wing nutcracker to feel bad for people who make bad decisions, but you do have to be in order to believe they have a right to now demand that others give them more money to do what they have chosen to do.

        • Sean II

          Sure, there is definitely a declining sympathy curve here.

          I feel really bad for the 29 year old recently minted English PhD who’s only just begun to discover how little the job market cares about her massively oversold credential.

          But if at 39 the same person hasn’t come up with a better idea than begging bigger crumbs from the same academia that screwed her in the first place, then yeah..I’m all aboard for giving her a bit of tough love and Geico.

  • King Goat

    I’ve read the Higher Ed article (and comments) but not the paper itself. From the excerpts and summary of it there (and here) though it seems like good work doing something important-reminding ‘idealists’ pushing for ‘fairness’ that there are offsetting costs to their recommendations that should be taken into account. Its always interesting how many people, especially in academe, don’t seem to (want to?) grasp this important point.

    I’m curious, you say in the paper you do mention the possibility of trying to offset better compensation for adjuncts with offsetting cuts in administration or football teams. Do you discuss the possibility of offsetting the cuts by taking from TT ‘research focused’ faculty? After all, the chief argument of the other side seems to be a ‘fairness/exploitation’ argument that, to the extent it makes sense, seems likely grounded in the idea that the adjuncts are serving a function as important if not more to a university (which usually does sell itself as a kind of ‘school’ rather than a research institute) but being compensated far less than TT faculty who teach comparatively little. This idea, reorienting higher ed away from research and towards more teaching seems to be popular with many a politician on the stump as well (which of course may not bode well for it), so there’s another reason for that angle to be discussed I should think.

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