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Exploring University Business Ethics: Estimating the Cost of Justice for Adjuncts

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The plight of the non-tenured adjunct professor has been well-documented, though the economic impact on colleges and universities should demands in the adjuncts’ rights movement be met has not faced as much scrutiny.

A new study published in The Journal of Business Ethics examines a range of proposals about how to achieve “justice for adjuncts,” including the Service Employees International Union’s call for adjuncts to receive $15,000 per class instead of the average $2,700 per course, and found that these proposals could cost universities between $15 – $50 billion a year in additional salary and benefits, and would most likely require universities to fire two-thirds of current adjunct professors.

The study, “Estimating the Cost of Justice for Adjuncts: A Case Study in University Business Ethics,” is authored by Jason Brennan, Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor and associate professor of ethics at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, with co-author Phillip Magness of George Mason University. This research is the only peer-reviewed paper published on the issue of the ethics and economics of adjuncts, as well as the only paper that explores the costs associated with the adjuncts’ rights movement, while attempting to measure the opportunity costs and trade-offs in doing so.

“While most news stories have focused on selective anecdotes and moral melodrama, our research takes a hard look at the financial and economic implications of the adjuncts’ rights movement,” Brennan said.

Colleges and universities throughout the United States have experienced sit-ins, protests, and unionization among adjunct professors. As these institutions grapple with whether or not to meet adjuncts’ demands, Brennan and his co-author wanted to be the first to provide research that clearly shows the financial repercussions should those demands be met, finding that helping the few will be at the expense of many. 

Brennan says because universities face budget cuts and adjunct professors are significantly less expensive than tenure-track faculty, any attempt to improve the pay and conditions of adjunct faculty will encounter unpleasant trade-offs. Realistically, universities can afford to provide “good jobs” to the minority of current adjuncts, but would have to fire the majority in the process.

“We found if universities decide to increase adjunct pay significantly, ‘job gentrification’ would occur, as they would attract more and better candidates to such positions, many of whom will outcompete current adjuncts for their jobs,” Brennan said. “Students will be impacted as well if adjunct professor salaries are raised because of budget constraints in higher education institutions. The ‘good jobs’ will be given to a select number of adjuncts, while eliminating the remaining current adjunct positions, resulting in a reduced faculty, less classes offered, and an increase in class sizes.”

The study also found this adjunct purge would likely mean there would be fewer working professionals moonlighting as part-time employees at colleges and universities. Students would likely lose access to the wisdom gained by real-world experience and the range of classes offered.  

Brennan says to pay for adjunct justice, universities either need to reallocate money in their current budgets or increase their budgets. To do so, this would require cutting other programs, firing other employees, or raising revenue from elsewhere or by raising tuition. The research states the argument cannot simply be that adjuncts should get more money, but instead that adjuncts would get the money rather than someone or something else. The research makes the point that if universities decide to reallocate funds to help adjuncts, they thereby forego an opportunity to ease the financial burden of their students, during a time when the United States is facing a student debt crisis.

“This is a trade-off that must be considered,” said Brennan. “Universities should have a greater responsibility to their students who cannot afford college or who have to undertake massive debt to attend rather than to their adjuncts making demands that could negatively impact these students.”

Brennan says adjuncts, many of whom hold a master’s degree or a Ph.D. and hold other jobs, made a choice to also work in higher education, despite other available alternatives, likely in more lucrative fields, and they should have educated themselves on the working conditions and the difficulties of landing a tenure-track academic job before accepting their positions.

“We see this paper as taking the first step toward serious work on questions of exploitation in academic employment,” Brennan said. “The issue is far more complex than the news coverage we have been seeing on budgetary cuts, faculty indifference, and administrative greed.”The plight of the non-tenured adjunct professor has been well-documented, though the economic impact on colleges and universities should demands in the adjuncts’ rights movement be met has not faced as much scrutiny.

A new study published in The Journal of Business Ethics examines a range of proposals about how to achieve “justice for adjuncts,” including the Service Employees International Union’s call for adjuncts to receive $15,000 per class instead of the average $2,700 per course, and found that these proposals could cost universities between $15 – $50 billion a year in additional salary and benefits, and would most likely require universities to fire two-thirds of current adjunct professors.

The study, “Estimating the Cost of Justice for Adjuncts: A Case Study in University Business Ethics,” is authored by Jason Brennan, Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor and associate professor of ethics at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, with co-author Phillip Magness of George Mason University. This research is the only peer-reviewed paper published on the issue of the ethics and economics of adjuncts, as well as the only paper that explores the costs associated with the adjuncts’ rights movement, while attempting to measure the opportunity costs and trade-offs in doing so.

“While most news stories have focused on selective anecdotes and moral melodrama, our research takes a hard look at the financial and economic implications of the adjuncts’ rights movement,” Brennan said.

Colleges and universities throughout the United States have experienced sit-ins, protests, and unionization among adjunct professors. As these institutions grapple with whether or not to meet adjuncts’ demands, Brennan and his co-author wanted to be the first to provide research that clearly shows the financial repercussions should those demands be met, finding that helping the few will be at the expense of many. 

Brennan says because universities face budget cuts and adjunct professors are significantly less expensive than tenure-track faculty, any attempt to improve the pay and conditions of adjunct faculty will encounter unpleasant trade-offs. Realistically, universities can afford to provide “good jobs” to the minority of current adjuncts, but would have to fire the majority in the process.

“We found if universities decide to increase adjunct pay significantly, ‘job gentrification’ would occur, as they would attract more and better candidates to such positions, many of whom will outcompete current adjuncts for their jobs,” Brennan said. “Students will be impacted as well if adjunct professor salaries are raised because of budget constraints in higher education institutions. The ‘good jobs’ will be given to a select number of adjuncts, while eliminating the remaining current adjunct positions, resulting in a reduced faculty, less classes offered, and an increase in class sizes.”

The study also found this adjunct purge would likely mean there would be fewer working professionals moonlighting as part-time employees at colleges and universities. Students would likely lose access to the wisdom gained by real-world experience and the range of classes offered.  

Brennan says to pay for adjunct justice, universities either need to reallocate money in their current budgets or increase their budgets. To do so, this would require cutting other programs, firing other employees, or raising revenue from elsewhere or by raising tuition. The research states the argument cannot simply be that adjuncts should get more money, but instead that adjuncts would get the money rather than someone or something else. The research makes the point that if universities decide to reallocate funds to help adjuncts, they thereby forego an opportunity to ease the financial burden of their students, during a time when the United States is facing a student debt crisis.

“This is a trade-off that must be considered,” said Brennan. “Universities should have a greater responsibility to their students who cannot afford college or who have to undertake massive debt to attend rather than to their adjuncts making demands that could negatively impact these students.”

Brennan says adjuncts, many of whom hold a master’s degree or a Ph.D. and hold other jobs, made a choice to also work in higher education, despite other available alternatives, likely in more lucrative fields, and they should have educated themselves on the working conditions and the difficulties of landing a tenure-track academic job before accepting their positions.

“We see this paper as taking the first step toward serious work on questions of exploitation in academic employment,” Brennan said. “The issue is far more complex than the news coverage we have been seeing on budgetary cuts, faculty indifference, and administrative greed.”