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.
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Indeed, we could no find peer-reviewed articles on this topic beyond arguments to the effect that for-profit education was inherently wrong.
Zwolinski (2007) makes a similar point about sweatshop workers. Sweatshop workers may have no good options, but when they choose to work in exploitative sweatshops over their other (bad) alternatives, this is evidence that exploitative sweatshop work is their best option. If so, simply removing the exploitative sweatshops fails to help them, unless they are given an even better option.
In a competitive market, neither buyers nor sellers can exercise control over a price. Professors advising job candidates sometimes casually say, “The job market in academia is highly competitive, so to get a tenure-track job, one needs to stand out or be lucky.” But this comment uses a different definition of “competitive.”
For a lengthier discussion of the unusual economics of higher education, see Winston (1999). In strongly cautioning against the application of standard economic principles to higher education, Winston notes a number of commonalities between universities and other non-profit enterprises that are still subject to budgetary trade-offs and, in particular, a non-distribution constraint upon their revenue intake.
For instance, some universities have a two-tier permanent faculty system. Tenure-track faculty (assistant, associate, and full professors) teach fewer courses, have high research expectations, and receive higher pay. Non-tenure-track permanent faculty (lecturers, senior lecturers, teaching professors, professors of the practice, etc.) have no research expectations, teach more courses, and receive less pay than tenure-track faculty. Still, these teaching faculty often sign long-term (e.g., five-year) contracts with every expectation of renewal and enjoy full benefits.
Arnold and Bowie (2003) argue for a similar position. In their view, multi-national corporations do not owe employment to potential workers and are not under a standing duty to maximize welfare. However, if an employer decides to hire a worker, then that employer must provide a living wage.
The most recent Department of Education table reflecting highest degree attained dates to 2003 but reveals similar percentages as the more recent Coalition on the Academic Workforce survey. See U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics 2014, Table 315.50.
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Brennan, J., Magness, P. Estimating the Cost of Justice for Adjuncts: A Case Study in University Business Ethics. J Bus Ethics 148, 155–168 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-016-3013-1
- Budget constraints
- Opportunity costs
- Academic ethics
- Adjuncts’ rights
- Higher education