Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 148, Issue 1, pp 155–168 | Cite as

Estimating the Cost of Justice for Adjuncts: A Case Study in University Business Ethics

  • Jason BrennanEmail author
  • Phillip Magness


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.


Exploitation Budget constraints Opportunity costs Academic ethics Adjuncts’ rights Higher education 


  1. Ado, K. (2015). Hunger Strike Planned at SLU as Adjunct Professors Push for Higher Wages, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sep. 9.
  2. American Association of University Professors. (2006). Contingent Faculty Index, 2006, Table 2.
  3. Appiah, KA. (2015). What’s the Point of College? New York Times Magazine, Sep 8. URL:
  4. Arnold, D., & Bowie, N. (2003). Sweatshops and respect for persons. Business Ethics Quarterly, 13, 221–243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Baumol, W., & Bowen, W. (1966). Performing arts, the economic dilemma: A study of problems common to theater, opera, music, and dance. New York: Twentieth Century Fund.Google Scholar
  6. Bettinger, E, & Long, BT. (2005). Help or hinder? Adjunct professors and student outcomes. The Research and planning group for California Community Colleges.
  7. Cholo, AB. (2015). Are Adjunct Professors the New Fast Food Workers?, Pacific Standard, Feb. 26.
  8. Christensen, C. (2008). The employment of part-time faculty at community colleges. No: New Directions for Higher Education. 143.Google Scholar
  9. Coalition on the Academic Workforce. (2012). A Portrait of Part-time Faculty Members”.
  10. Colander, D., & Zhuo, D. (2015). Where do PhDs in english get jobs? An economist’s view of the english PhD market. Pedagogy, 15, 139–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Council on Graduate Schools. (2013). Graduate Enrollment and Degrees, 2002–2012, September 2013.
  12. Ehrenberg, R. G. (2005). What’s Happening to public higher education. Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  13. Figlio, DN., Schapiro, MO., & Soter, KB. 2013. “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” NBER Working Paper Series No.19406.Google Scholar
  14. Flaherty, C. (2015b). Modest Gains in Faculty Pay, Inside Higher Ed, April 13, 2015.
  15. Flaherty, C. (2015c). Fight for 15 K, Inside Higher Ed, April 16.
  16. Flaherty, C., & Mulhere, K. (2015). Day of Protest, Inside Higher Ed, Feb 26.
  17. Frank, R. H. (1984). Are Workers paid their marginal products? American Economic Review, 74, 549–571.Google Scholar
  18. Fruscione, J. When a college contracts adjunctivitis, it’s the students who lose., July 25, 2014.
  19. Fullerton, D., & Metcalf, G. E. (2014). Tax Incidence. In A. J. Auerbach & M. Feldstein (Eds.), The Handbook of Public Economics (pp. 1787–1872). Oxford: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  20. Ginsberg, B. (2013). The Fall of the Faculty. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Isen, A. (2015). Dying to Know: Are Workers Paid their Marginal Products?, working paper, Wharton School of Business.Google Scholar
  22. Kendzior, S. (2013). Academia’s Indentured Servants, Al Jazeera April 11.
  23. Krugman, P., & Wells, R. (2012). Microeconomics (3rd ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.Google Scholar
  24. Larson, R. C., Ghaffarzadegan, N., & Xue, Y. (2014). Too many PhDs or too few academic job openings: The basic reproductive R0 in academia. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 31, 745–750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Lewin, T. (2013). Gap Widens for Faculty at Colleges, Report, Finds, New York Times April 8.
  26. Mankiw, N. G. (2014). Principles of Economics (7th ed.). New York: Cengage Learning.Google Scholar
  27. New Faculty Majority. (2015). NFM’s 7 Goals.
  28. Ott, M., & Cisneros, J. (2015). Understanding the changing faculty workforce in higher education: A comparison of non-tenure track and tenure line experiences. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 23–90, 1–28.Google Scholar
  29. Peltzman, S. (1973). The effect of government subsidies-in-kind of private expenditures: The case of higher education. Journal of Political Economy, 83, 1–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Quart, A. (2015). The Professor Charity Case, Pacific Standard, March 19.
  31. Sacaro, M. (2014). Professors on Food Stamps: The Shocking True Story of Academia in 2014, Salon, Sep. 21.
  32. Sanchez, C. (2014). Part Time Professors Demand Higher Pay; Will Colleges Listen?, NPR, February 3.
  33. Schell, E. (2004). Gypsy Academics and Mother Teachers. New York: Heinemman.Google Scholar
  34. Scheutz, P. (2002). Instructional practices of part-time and full-time faculty. New Directions for Community Colleges, 2002, 39–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Turner, N. (2012). Who benefits from student aid? The economic incidence of tax-based federal student aid. Economics of Education Review, 31, 463–481.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Turner, L. (2014). The road to pell is paved with good intentions: The economic incidence of federal student grant aid, University of Maryland, Department of Economics, College Park, MD, working paper.Google Scholar
  37. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). Digest of Education Statistics, Table 310.5.
  38. Wachtel, H. K. (1998). Student evaluation of college teaching effectiveness: A brief review. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 23, 191–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Weiss, MD. (2015). Student Loan Debt: America’s Next Big Crisis, USA Today, August 23.
  40. Winston, G. C. (1999). Subsidies, hierarchy and peers: The awkward economics of higher education. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 13, 13–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Zwolinski, M. (2007). Sweatshops, choice, and exploitation. Business Ethics Quarterly, 17, 689–727.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.McDonough School of BusinessGeorgetown UniversityWashington DCUSA
  2. 2.George Mason UniversityArlingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations