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Adjuncts Are Exploited


Brennan and Magness (J Bus Ethics 152:53–71, 2018, 2019) argue that adjuncts are not exploited. We are sympathetic to some of their points. We agree, for example, that certain ways in which adjuncts are compared to sweatshop workers are offensive. For, as Brennan and Magness point out, there are many respects in which adjuncts are much better off than sweatshop workers. However, we show that the core insights of their paper are compatible with the view that adjuncts are exploited. Furthermore, their more general views about exploitation expressed in Cracks in the Ivory Tower actually lend support to the claim that adjuncts are exploited.

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  1. An anecdote: One of us has a spouse who has adjuncted at five institutions. At each institution, at least one person has told her that adjuncting would be “a way to get her foot in the door.” They have always said that, and it has worked out only once—one institution offered this person a full-time, non-permanent, non-tenure track position after 5 years’ worth of semester-to-semester adjunct contracts.

  2. Presumably, Brennan and Magness intend this discussion of the value of adjunct labor to reflect the contribution this labor makes to the school’s achievement of its institutional goals in a way that is relevant to the quantity of resources the institution would be justified in devoting to compensating the people who perform that labor. If adjunct labor makes a proportionally greater contribution to the institution’s achievement of its goals, the institution is justified in devoting a proportionally greater portion of its budget to compensating its adjuncts; if their contribution is proportionally less, it is justified in providing less compensation.

  3. Additionally, adjuncts generally have little or no control over various aspects of their work that tenured faculty take for granted: adjuncts are not likely to have much influence on which courses they teach, when those courses are scheduled to meet, or even whether they will be scheduled to teach any courses from semester to semester. Since, as contingent faculty, they lack voting rights in their departments or at any other organizational level, they have no say on what policies their departments, colleges, or universities will adopt.

  4. See Wertheimer ch 7 for a rich discussion of these issues.



  7. Of course, these perverse incentives are not the only relevant motivating factors. The behavior of individual faculty members and administrators, as well as academic departments and other administrative units is influenced by a variety of factors, including their values and goals for their departments, institutions, fields, academia as a whole, and society at large. But the perverse incentives identified by Brennan and Magness are real and powerful, and are what academic hiring units are responding to when they act so as to rely heavily on adjunct labor.

  8. To be clear. We think it is worth pointing these things out. And we think Brennan and Magness contribute to our understanding of adjunct work. And it is important to recognize, as Brennan and Magness emphasize, that adjuncts are not in the same plight as sweatshop workers. We just think this doesn’t mean that adjuncts are not exploited.


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The authors wish to thank Jason Brennan, Nathan Nobis, Phillip Magness, Caroline Klocksiem, and an anonymous referee for this journal for helpful helpful feedback and discussion of earlier drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Scott Hill.

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Hill, S., Klocksiem, J. Adjuncts Are Exploited. Philosophia (2021).

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