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The Costs and Benefits of Adjunct Justice: A Critique of Brennan and Magness

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In their controversial 2016 paper in this journal, Brennan and Magness argue that fair pay for part-time, adjunct faculty would be unaffordable for most colleges and universities and would harm students as well as many adjunct faculty members. In this critique, I show that their cost estimates fail to take account of the potential benefits of fair pay for adjunct faculty and are based on implausible assumptions. I propose that pay per course for new adjunct faculty members should be tied to pay per course for new full-time non-tenure track instructors or to pay per course for new assistant professors. That framework for adjunct faculty justice yields an aggregate cost range of $18.5–$27.9 billion, one-third to one-half lower than the range computed by Brennan and Magness. Its opportunity cost would not be borne by students since students and faculty are complements, not substitutes, in the educational process. Instead it could be financed by reducing spending on non-educational purposes. Current adjunct faculty members would be protected from job displacement in this justice framework. The real obstacle to achieving justice for adjunct faculty is the priorities of university administrators, not budget constraints or opportunity costs.

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  1. Calculated from Tables 303.70 and 315.10 of the 2015 Digest of Education Statistics (NCES 2015). The contrast between full-time and part-time faculty employment understates the contrast between tenure track and non-tenure track employment since an increasing fraction of full-time faculty employment is off the tenure track (Schuster and Finkelstein 2006:ch7).

  2. For example, the fraction of undergraduate student credit hours taught by non-tenure track faculty members and graduate assistants at my university rose from 49% in 2001–02 to 63% in 2013–14 (Colorado State University Office of Institutional Research). Unfortunately, data like these are difficult to find beyond individual colleges and universities.

  3. Terminal degrees include the PhD (held by 30.4% of part-time faculty members), MFA and MLS (10.1%), and MBA, JD and MD (6.6%). (CAW 2012:Table 9).

  4. It could be argued that adjunct faculty justice requires long-term changes in the tenure system such that faculty members without the terminal degree could qualify for tenure protections or that tenure could be granted for teaching-intensive positions as well as research-intensive positions. See Sect. 6 for a discussion of the distinction between short-term and long-term measures to achieve adjunct faculty justice.

  5. It is difficult to find figures on teaching loads, and the standard varies widely among different types of colleges and universities. See Harris (2015) for a claim consistent with my experience that full-time teaching with no other responsibilities amounts to four courses per semester. B&M assume that full-time instructors whose only responsibility is teaching typically teach three courses per semester, another assumption that exaggerates their cost estimates.

  6. B&M cite the CAW survey (CAW 2012:Table 19) showing that per course pay for adjunct faculty was $2700 in 2010. The 2015 equivalent pay of $2923 assumes that adjunct faculty pay per course has risen by 1.6% per year, consistent with the salary increase of all full-time faculty members from 2010–11 to 2014–15 (NCES 2015:Table 316.10).

  7. Part-time faculty pay shows almost no returns to experience (CAW 2012:Table 21).

  8. This framework also implies that full-time non-tenure track faculty members should receive pay adjustments in order to be treated equivalently to their tenure track colleagues. The cost of achieving fair pay for full-time non-tenure track faculty members is not included in this paper in order to maintain comparability to B&M.

  9. Total higher education expenditures were $517.1 billion in the 2013–14 academic year. (NCES 2015:Tables 334.10, 334.30, 334.50). They rose by 3% per year from 2010 to 2013 (ibid), so if that trend continues, total higher education would have risen to $548.6 billion by 2015–16. Instructional spending would have risen from $142.6 to $151.3 billion.

  10. Even more oddly, B&M do not include the tenure system on their list of special features of the academic job market. Their list includes the non-profit nature of most colleges and universities; the oversupply of PhDs in some fields relative to the number of positions available; the subsidization of higher education by state and federal governments; and “Baumol’s cost disease,” meaning that some faculty members have to be paid more than their marginal products because colleges and universities have to compete with private industry to hire them.

  11. This figure is derived from public four-year college and university tuition and fee revenue in 2013–14 of $61.2 billion, adjusted forward by 8.8% per year, the revenue trend between 2007–08 and 2013-14 (USDOE 2015:Table 333.10).

  12. Public colleges and universities bear one-quarter of the aggregate cost of fair pay for adjunct faculty because they employ about one-quarter of all part-time faculty members (USDOE 2015:Table 315.40).

  13. For example, this is the mission statement for Colorado State University: “Inspired by its land-grant heritage, Colorado State University is committed to excellence, setting the standard for public research universities in teaching, research, service and extension for the benefit of the citizens of Colorado, the US and the world.” (CSU 2016). Yet CSU significantly limits its ability to achieve these ambitious goals by transferring $20 million per year out of academics into athletics, mostly to subsidize football (USA Today, NCAA Finances 2014–15). CSU’s non-tenure track faculty members might well ask why the university has so much money for football and so little for them.


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Correspondence to Steven Shulman.

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Shulman, S. The Costs and Benefits of Adjunct Justice: A Critique of Brennan and Magness. J Bus Ethics 155, 163–171 (2019).

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