Saturday, April 2, 2016

What do the distinctions and numbers mean in the adjunct piece?

Since the Brennan/Magness adjunct piece keeps getting press, I have one or two more things to say about it.

I grant that the piece has done a good job distinguishing between part-time adjuncts and full-time adjuncts, professional adjuncts and adjuncts who are professionals, and adjuncts who teach at 2 or 4 year, public or private, for-profit or non-profit universities. It also has done a good job of telling us how the 70% contingent/adjunct figure tossed around so casually might actually break down. (As I mention here, I think the piece also implicitly makes a good case for a Solomonic/intersectional approach to adjunct justice.)

Unfortunately, all those teased-apart distinctions then get lumped back together by Brennan and Magness in favor of the implausible assumption that in order to improve the working conditions of adjuncts we must treat all those distinct classes of adjuncts the exact same. This seems an assumption of their calculation of the costs of adjunct justice and also an assumption of the point they make in the section on teaching quality. (FWIW, it seems to me the "adjunct justice" movement focuses on full- or near-full-time professional adjuncts with little to no job security.)

Further, it's a bit eye-popping to see what "adjunct justice" will cost: $15 - 49 billion!

Unfortunately, I don't think that dollar range tells us very much. It seems to me that the calculations elide over all the distinctions that Brennan and Magness want us to make with regard to adjuncts, and also the universities that employ them, since it appears their method is to just take the raw number of total adjuncts and do some multiplication according to various salary proposals (yeah; it's probably slightly more complicated than that, but compare their numbers used with this table).

Further, they then compare the $15 - 49 billion dollar range that elides over all the distinctions mentioned above to the total dollar amount all American universities, excluding for-profits (I don't think they excluded the adjuncts at for-profits in their calculations, though), spend on faculty salary, wages, etc: $100 billion. (Note: It's hard to know where this number comes from. Their citation doesn't actually send you to the proper table in the US Dept. of Education's statistics detailing university budgets; their citation sends you to a table about total number of faculty, rather than this table or, what appears their actual source, this page.)

Now, this doesn't really tell us the actual costs to actual universities until we know the actual distribution of adjuncts (paying attention to distinctions between adjuncts) across the 4,724 Title IV universities, and until we know about those universities' actual budgets, endowments, etc. Who's actually going to feel the crunch and how much will they feel that crunch?

This isn't to say there will be no crunch, just that it'd be interesting to see a more informative breakdown that takes into account the distinctions drawn between types of adjuncts and types of universities.

Finally, Brennan has said that he's interested in this topic because a lot of university professors seem committed to social justice, but sometimes they end up only supporting justice movements that would just so happen to benefit them, e.g., the adjunct justice movement. As I point out in this comment, the appeal to social justice to ask why we wouldn't prefer poor students over adjuncts presumes a Singerian conception of what social justice consists in (doing the most good possible and doing so impartially) that is by no means obvious or shared among people interested in justice. Perhaps, as I mention in my first post, the relevant perspective is workplace/employer-employee justice, rather than the Singerian conception implicitly endorsed by Brennan and Magness (the perspective I emphasize would be more in line with the university-as-business-selling-education-to-customers framing they adopt at the beginning of their paper).

Relatedly, as I also mention in this and this comment, they appeal to the choice/circumstance distinction as a possible reason to prefer helping students over adjuncts. But, aside from it's obvious rhetorical force, it's not clear (1) that this argument amounts to much without looking at actual student demographics, and (related) (2) that the point about the choice/circumstance distinction might apply equally well to students, who also choose their universities from among a range of options.

-- Jaded, PhD

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, great post. So they have given us the cost for turning the for-profit schools (where, I assume the adjuncts mostly work and might just have MA degrees) into tenure-granting schools; while at the same they decry the 70% adjuncts number because it refers to these "not real" for-profit schools?

Anonymous said...

Given the sky-rocketing salaries and other compensation packages for executive administrators, can we really say there's such a thing as "not-for-profit" universities anymore?

P2 said...

"Finally, Brennan has said that he's interested in this topic because a lot of university professors seem committed to social justice, but sometimes they end up only supporting justice movements that would just so happen to benefit them, e.g., the adjunct justice movement."

I find this an interesting perception on Brennan's part. Perhaps it's true! But my experience has been much the opposite. In my experience, university professors, by and large, are moved by social justice concerns in the abstract, and in distant places, but not so much when they themselves are implicated, or when the concerns involve their own communities, or are in their own backyards. Perhaps I'm wrong. But I suspect the mischaracterization is Brennan's.

Jen Baker said...

Thank you, Jaded. This is a much better resource on University budgets. It refers to earnings and real-world accounting tricks and decision-making. https://profession.commons.mla.org/2015/12/16/the-humanities-as-service-departments-facing-the-budget-logic/

Derek Bowman said...

P2: My experience generally matches yours.

The idea that it should be a scandal that university professors would be particularly interested in the justice of university communities is very strange. What's a scandal is the extent to which we ignore the concerns of justice in our own back yard.

Anonymous said...

"Brennan has said that he's interested in this topic because a lot of university professors seem committed to social justice, but sometimes they end up only supporting justice movements that would just so happen to benefit them... the appeal to social justice to ask why we wouldn't prefer poor students over adjuncts presumes a Singerian conception of what social justice consists in (doing the most good possible and doing so impartially) that is by no means obvious or shared among people interested in justice."

Brennan is just putting a new twist on the No True Scotsman Fallacy: the No True Advocate of Social Justice Fallacy.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and very convenient to do it without citing any literature. Philosophy is so easy! Just a twitter war!

It not honest for them to say that their "targets" are university professors. What they are arguing not only preserves the pay out to university professors for research (a great cost to universities) but their animus and unholy fixation is towards adjuncts. It was adjuncts they said need to be fired for "reading comprehension" if they don't agree with their paper). They pay tenured faculty (well, themselves) ridiculous and non-budget-based compliments to justify the differences in pay.

Who is responding in print?

Anonymous said...

Can the response include the cost to tuition-paying students of research like this Journal of Business Ethics 'study'?

Students and parents sure don't know what they are paying for, and the money could go to what they want to fund if they get asked: higher salaries for adjuncts.