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“Justice for Adjuncts:” What One Dean Can Do

Faculty Development Leadership and Management

“Justice for Adjuncts:” What One Dean Can Do

It is not often that a paper in an academic journal makes headline news, but recently, one in the Journal of Business Ethics has done just that. In their article, “Estimating the Cost of Justice for Adjuncts: A Case Study in University Business Ethics,” Jason Brennan of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and Phillip Magness of George Mason University calculate the cost to American universities of paying their adjunct faculty members a just wage. The article has set off firestorms of debate.

In brief, the article looks at the 76 percent of faculty members in the United States who are “contingent, non-tenure-track faculty.” These faculty member are paid an average of $2,700 a course (or about $900 per credit hour for a three credit course) and typically receive no benefits, starting with no health insurance, but potentially extending to other academic benefits, such as tuition remission, time off for research, administrative support for course preparation and research/writing, and office space. The often-cited scenario of adjunct professors driving from campus to campus, holding office hours out of the trunks of their cars, and falling on free pizza buffets with the zeal of graduate students may be dramatic, but it is not necessarily inaccurate.

Brennan and Magness conduct several calculations and determine that, depending on what definition one uses to determine a “just wage,” paying adjunct professors at this level would cost higher education somewhere between $15 billion and $50 billion extra per year. In a climate of increased scrutiny of the cost of higher education, this sort of proposal is unlikely to gain much traction, even if a university president or member of the board of trustees were brave enough to suggest it.

As a dean or department chair, it is unlikely that you have the power to give your adjunct professors raises that go much above that $2,700 per course rate, if your institution is even paying that well. However, there are things you can do to help your adjuncts have a better working experience while the debate over pay rages.

Understand the opt-in
Adjunct faculty are usually teaching because, at some level, they want to. As the authors point out, “even if adjuncts have few or no good alternative options, these adjuncts nevertheless choose to work as adjuncts over their other, possibly quite bad, options.” However, this is true of every profession, and the commonly-held idea that a passion for teaching should somehow make up for a lack of pay is a fallacy.

Yes, your adjuncts may have opted for teaching in lieu of other activities that could have brought more pay or less stress. An adjunct could well have opted for more hours at a different professional job or a part-time job on a production line if he or she wished to make more money; waiting tables arguably would be less stressful overall (at least an annoying customer is only in your section for the span of a meal, not a semester!). However, these adjuncts want to teach; they want to use their training, study, and experience in a way that makes them feel intellectually challenged and allows them to help others learn. Acknowledge that your adjuncts want to be at your institution instead of treating them as if their teaching represents the best choice out of a slate of bad options; no one likes to feel that his or her employer thinks he or she is trapped with no recourse.

Celebrate the breadth of experience
The study states that “many adjunct courses are taught by moonlighting working professionals” such as attorneys, business leaders, professional writers, and the like. Most deans understand this. However, this argument is often used as an excuse for the relatively low pay for adjuncts. “They have a full-time income to live on,” goes the justification.

Instead of dismissing adjuncts’ professional experience as a safety net that saves the university some cash, celebrate the breadth of experience your adjunct instructors bring. Mentioning in department meetings, recruitment events, and promotional literature that your department has working professionals who bring their experience into the classroom goes a long way toward communicating that you appreciate their value. Allowing an adjunct to teach a specialty seminar on his or her particular area of expertise in addition to a host of 101 surveys may well earn you loyalty for the long term in addition to benefiting your students.

Find ways to replicate the full-time faculty experience
As the study points out, full-time faculty members often receive perks that include “private offices, computers, laboratories, conference travel support, and large research budgets.” These perks are usually not available to adjuncts, who, the study continues, “have to meet with students in the library or other public spaces on campus.”

Addressing these issues is well within the purview of a dean or department chair, and many of the solutions are budget-friendly. For example, requiring adjuncts to seek out alternative meeting spaces for conferences with students is insulting to the adjuncts, compromises student privacy, and is a poor representation of the professionalism of your department or college. Find some office space that can be dedicated to the adjunct teaching staff and respect it in the same way you would any other faculty office. Most adjunct professors will not be opposed to sharing office space for their part-time job, but they will appreciate a room with a door for privacy during student conferences. A few lockers or deep lockable file drawers will also allow each adjunct some space to store materials instead of schlepping them from car to classroom every day.

Additionally, even if the adjunct budget will not support increases in pay, it would be a tremendous morale boost to provide administrative support to adjuncts equal to that which full-time faculty receive, such as assistance with ordering supplies, making copies, and conveying phone messages; a student worker or two could help with these tasks so as not to overburden faculty secretaries who are already committed to other work. It would also be meaningful to make available a small fund to support research, writing, conference attendance, and ongoing training; this money could be parceled out on a prorated schedule based on hours taught.

Schedule early
One of the things departments like most about adjuncts is their flexibility. If demand for a course surges in the last days before the semester begins, it is easy to add another section taught by an adjunct; conversely, if enrollment lags, the adjunct will be the first to be eliminated. Most adjuncts understand this as part of the job and sometimes hope fervently for that eleventh hour section of an intro course to come their way.

However, adjuncts are often putting together their personal budgets a semester at a time, and the number of projects and classes they accept depends on the commitments they have already made. The earlier you commit to the adjunct’s teaching schedule, the more seamlessly they can add in other projects and commitments and the less they need to worry about paying the bills—and, of course, the higher priority they will give your institution. Of course, schedules change and course sections disappear; that is the reality of academe. However, deans who schedule adjuncts at the same time as they do full-time faculty demonstrate a level of respect that their adjuncts will reciprocate.

Be part of the conversation
Ultimately, the study draws attention to one of the saddest truths of the current climate in academe: money is available either to pay adjuncts more fairly or to support poor students with scholarships, but there cannot be both. For institutions with an intellectual heritage that stretches back millennia, the idea that we can either support students or professors is depressing at the very least.

Solving this conundrum would be beyond the power of any individual dean, even if an answer were readily available. However, it is incumbent on all academic leaders to think about ways in which the institution can support the intellectual involvement and growth of both students and faculty. The student–teacher relationship is at the heart of higher education and has been since the first lecturer sat under a tree with an apprentice. This relationship must be protected.

Does this mean any given institution must give up conference-championship sports teams, lifestyle residence halls, health and fitness centers, gourmet and specialty meal options, or expensive campuses, centers, and programs? Maybe. Maybe not. However, it does mean that we all need to think about how we will support both the students who need our assistance and the faculty members who want to teach them. Look around your campus: chances are that more than half of the faculty members you see are adjuncts, and they need your support.

Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti, MS, is managing editor of Academic Leader and chair of the 2016 Leadership in Higher Education Conference. She owns the writing, speaking, and consulting firm Hilltop Communications.


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