Universities treat adjuncts like they do because they can

There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts: Students are paying higher tuition than ever. Why can’t more of that revenue go to the people teaching them?” is well-summarized by its headline, but there is a very good “excuse” why universities treat adjuncts how they do: because they can. When people stop signing up for grad school and/or to be adjuncts, universities will have to offer better pay and/or conditions. Until that happens, universities won’t.

Markets are clearing.

“There Is No Excuse” keeps popping up in my inbox or in discussion sites, and commenters typically decry administrators (which is fine with me, although I’m not sure they’re the fundamental driver of cost) and promote unions. On unions in universities I don’t have strong opinions; there may be some benefits to the people who get into the union on the ground floor, but raising the pay of some adjuncts will result in shortages of any work for others.

If the market-clearing price is $3,000 per class, and universities have to pay $5,000, there’ll be a large pool of people who can’t get those higher wages because there aren’t a sufficient number of jobs out there for them. So one can trade plentiful but somewhat poorly remunerative jobs for a smaller number of somewhat more remunerative jobs for those who grab them. Supply of adjuncts also seems to change rapidly depending on economic conditions, with the supply contracting when the economy is strong and rapidly expanding when the economy is weak; I’d be curious about empirical work on the elasticities.

If unions become pervasive, universities will also be somewhat less reluctant to hire anyone, because those people who are hired won’t leave—which is already a problem with the tenure system. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a series of court cases eliminated mandatory retirement policies. Those rulings, combined with lengthening life expectancy, mean that tenured faculty could stay on indefinitely—blocking the path forward for younger academics. Which leads to the explosion of adjuncts presently being decried in the media. Unions (usually) prevent their members from being fired, and, if lay-offs do happen, they happen on a “first-in, first-out” basis. So the youngest and freshest workers will be axed first.

Still, I find the rhetoric of faculty who argue that the job of grad students is to be students hilarious; at the University of Arizona, grad students in English taught the same number of classes for the same number of hours as full-time faculty. Grad students, like medical residents, are workers, regardless of what else they’re called.

It’s also worth contemplating alternatives to academia, which has lots of barriers to entry, formal credentials, and unspoken rules. Marginal product of labor for academics is hard to measure. by contrast, technology employment works well in part because there are close to zero barriers to entry. Someone who wants to learn to code can type “Learn to code” in Google and start. Unions will make the existing barriers to academia higher, and will leave it less like the healthier parts of the economy.

Academics are not exempt from the law of supply and demand, and it turns out that tenured academics are savvy marketers, singing a song of the life of the mind to the unwary who throw themselves onto the shore of a barren island. Supposedly smart people seem to be doing a lot of not-so-smart things.

I personally like teaching as an adjunct because the jobs are plentiful, the hours are flexible, and the work is quite different from what I usually do. On a dollars-per-hour basis the pay is much worse than grant writing, but the work itself is sometimes gratifying, and one gets the usual and much-discussed pleasures of teaching (the joy of young minds, etc.). The online conversation around adjuncts is dominated by people who teach at five different schools and have neither time nor money. Like any job it is not perfect. I do it for the same reason everyone, everywhere, works any job: it beats the alternatives.

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