Further debating Adjunct Justice

Economist Steven Shulman recently authored a rebuttal of sorts to the first of two articles that Jason Brennan and I wrote on the subject of adjunct justice. If nothing else he deserves credit for doing so in a submission to a scholarly journal, where this conversation needs to take place. Most adjunct “activists” have thus far avoided submitting their arguments to scholarly outlets where they would be subjected to peer review and a higher standard of sourcing. A few of them have even attacked me for “publishing privilege” and insinuated that I only publish in academic journals to keep my work “behind a paywall.” These claims are specious but also common. Shulman is not an activist, and understands the value of conducting research in professional outlets. So even as we disagree on this specific topic, I welcome his efforts to elevate the conversation over adjuncting into a scholarly venue.

That noted, Shulman’s core criticisms of our work contain multiple misinterpretations and erroneous lines of reasoning. I still encourage others to read the piece in full, but I wanted to take this opportunity to respond to a couple of his claims. The first concerns his attempt to calculate an alternative estimate of the cost of “adjunct justice” in response to the figures we presented in our original article. He asserts that he reaches a set of figures “one-third to one-half below B[rennan] & M[agness]’s range.” I’ll quote the relevant passage for his calculations:

“The average entry-level salary for assistant professors in is $70,655 (CHE:ibid). If a fulltime faculty member whose only responsibility is teaching (i.e., no research or administration) is required to teach eight courses per academic year, she or he would be paid $8832 per course. Including benefits brings per course compensation for new assistant professors to $11,776. If adjunct faculty pay per course is $2923, fair pay for new adjunct faculty members would require an additional $8853 per course. In this frame of reference, the aggregate cost of adjunct justice would amount to $27.9 billion per year, qualified by the same over-estimate and under-estimate biases noted above.”

There are two substantial errors in this approach. The first is that Shulman is using the wrong figure as a starting point. The job he describes and uses as the basis for his calculation is not actually reflective of the typical entry-level assistant professor appointment in the United States. It is much closer to the rank of “instructor” or “lecturer” – typically an entry-level full-time faculty appointment that carries heavy teaching loads and operates on a renewable contract basis, as opposed to tenure track. As we argued in our second article on the issue of adjunct exploitation, a full time entry level instructor/lecturer position is much closer to the job qualifications of the average current adjunct professor than an assistant professorship (and even this requires the generous assumption that adjuncts possess the proper terminal degrees that are usually required for these roles. Most do not). The most recent data on instructor/lecturer level appointments places the average salary in the $50-56 thousand range, or well below Shulman’s assistant professor salary starting point. As a result he is severely overstating the pay differential between his hypothetical adjunct and the faculty rank they would most likely qualify for if converted to full time positions. He is essentially comparing  apples to oranges.

The second issue with Shulman’s comparison is his assessment of faculty duties. He incorrectly assumes that the full time faculty conversion entails only teaching obligations. In reality, almost all full time faculty are contractually obligated to meet expectations of research output and contribute to a variety of tasks known as university service (serving on committees, advising students, department obligations etc.) This is certainly true of almost all assistant professor appointments, where such tasks are an integral component of a professor’s application for tenure. But it is also the norm for instructors/lecturers, even if they are hired for teaching-heavy positions with only modest research expectations. So how much of their workload do full-time faculty spend on teaching versus research and service? The numbers vary somewhat by rank and type of institution, but this question has in fact been exhaustively investigated over the years with surveys and case studies. The general range is between 40 and 65% on teaching, with the remainder divided between research and service. A tenured professor at an R1 university will likely be closer to the 40% range, or perhaps even less if they are productive “star” researchers who can negotiate a reduction in teaching obligations. An entry level professor at a liberal arts college will likely have a heavier 3-3 to 4-4 teaching load, and thus be expected to commit more time to classroom instruction. In either case though, it’s reasonable to expect that faculty at even the lowest entry-level academic ranks will be spending at least a third of their time on activities other than teaching. This further complicates Shulman’s calculations as it further reduces the actual per-course compensation that faculty receive for the teaching portions of their contracts. Based on the calculations that Jason and I did, a true apples-to-apples comparison would yield only modest compensation differences between a PhD-holding adjunct and an entry level full time lecturer. In one of the scenarios we considered, the per-classroom-hour difference between the two was only about $4.

These two corrections reveal that the pay differential between adjuncts and the closest comparable full-time position is actually pretty modest, when compared on hours actually spent on teaching-related activities. It would be a mistake though to conclude that this difference makes “adjunct justice” affordable though. While a $4/hour pay hike would undoubtedly be welcome by most adjuncts, it is also far short of what practically any of the adjunct activist organizations purport to be a “just” wage. For an adjunct who strings together a 4-4 teaching load, it would probably amount to an extra $4-5 thousand dollars a year on a $26,000 base salary. That figure is less than half of even the most conservative salary demands of adjunct activists like the SEIU and New Faculty Majority, let alone their stated goal of $15,000 per course (Shulman also incorrectly states that we based our original estimates off of “implausible” adjunct salary goals – we actually took them directly from the published statements of multiple adjunct labor activists and organizations). So in effect, Shulman ends up both overstating the classroom-related pay differential of comparably ranked adjunct and full time faculty, and understating the “justice” demands of the adjunct activists by conflating their stated goals with his own erroneous calculation.

Another way to put it is this: after adjusting for qualifications and the actual portion of a full time faculty member’s job that goes into teaching, the teaching compensation-based salary difference between a 4-4 PhD holding adjunct and a full time instructor/lecturer – the closest equivalent rank – is probably about $4-5K per year. Shulman wants around twice that at almost $9K more per year. And the adjunct activists want well in excess of Shulman’s figure, with a variety of proposals demanding anywhere from $20K to as high as $90K more per year.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out another argument in this passage:

“According to B&M, adjunct faculty justice would harm many adjunct faculty members as well as students because the conversion of part-time positions into a smaller number of full-time positions would cost many adjunct faculty members their jobs and deprive students of their expertise. This argument is similar to the conservative claim that workplace reforms like the minimum wage harm the very people they are meant to help. The fact that the evidence of these harms has proved thin (Brown, 1999) has not made the argument any less potent for anti-reformers like B&M. They insist that “it is not plausible that universities can help all adjuncts or give them all a better deal. Instead, because of budget constraints, they can at best help some and hurt others.” But that conclusion rests more on their implausible assumptions than on the budget constraints faced by higher education.”

Let’s break down the argument here:

  1. Brennan & Magness’ argument about the trade-offs entailed in adjunct justice sounds somewhat similar to the “conservative” argument against the minimum wage.
  2. Here’s a single decades-old citation that purports to show the “conservative” argument against the minimum wage is wrong.
  3. Brennan & Magness’ trade-offs argument is therefore wrong too. Also, Brennan & Magness are “anti-reformers.”

That’s a classic non-sequitur, and an amusing one for an economist to make as well.

The conversation over the use of adjuncts in higher ed is ongoing, and I look forward to future examination of it in suitable scholarly venues. To that end, Shulman’s argument – even with the aforementioned faults – is at least a conversation starter. Its empirical argument still falls far short of its conclusions. But perhaps it will inspire other adjunct activists to take their case to scholarly venues for an actual discussion, instead of shrieking on Storify and making unsubstantiated empirical claims to journalists who uncritically accept their accuracy.