A couple of things stood out to me as I read the IHE article and the paper itself. One was how weird it is that people are still making these arguments. For a second I thought I was reading an article by the union-busters from In Dubious Battle instead of a serious piece of academic scholarship.
I mean, it is obvious that it would cost a lot of money to convert each adjunct position to a non-exploitative job with fair compensation. That's obvious. That's the whole point of relying on adjunct- and other non-tenure-track instructors. And it's just as obvious that budgetary constraints play an important role in this. The funds that would be used to give your adjuncts a hefty raise would have to be acquired or re-allocated. But as real as this budgetary situation is, at a certain level it is contingent. It is not the necessary state of things. It is a contingent fact that is the product of decisions made by human beings, and there are things that human beings could do that would largely reverse it.
For one, states could restore public funding for higher education to pre-recession levels (though I realize this by itself would not be sufficient). Or, institutions of higher learning could divert money from unprofitable athletic programs to their academic counterparts (though this wouldn't be sufficient, either). Or, we could fire some mid-level administrators and get faculty more involved with this administrative work. Of course, this is just a very sketchy, hand-wavy, incomplete, and inadequate set of suggestions. Finding the money to institute what Brennan and Magness call "adjunct justice" is a hard problem, and there's no single thing that would work. But this is all totally obvious. It's totally obvious that instituting adjunct justice will be expensive. It's totally obvious that it is not clear where the money would come from. It's totally obvious that doing so in an environment in which resources are limited will require hard decisions and unpleasant trade-offs. It's totally obvious that instituting adjunct justice is a costly, difficult, and complicated task. That's why it's so disappointing to see Brennan and Magness limiting themselves to stating these totally obvious things.
Their contribution to this discussion would have been much more interesting and worthwhile if they had gone beyond the obvious point that the promotion of adjunct justice represents a series of difficult and expensive problems, and had instead done the hard work of proposing and working out the details of potential solutions to these admittedly and obviously difficult problems. Or done at least a little of it. Or gestured toward vague suggestions. Or anything.
Here's the kind of thing I mean. They write:
To pay for such a massive increase in wages and benefits, colleges must either raise additional revenue or reallocate their revenue from elsewhere. We take no position as to whether this might entail raising tuition fees, requesting additional public support, fundraising from private sources, cutting other university functions, or some combination. We only note that each of these options has many obstacles as well as a number of potential downsides for the parties they involve. (p. 8)This is just, like, a total cop-out. Of course you would need more money to pay adjuncts more money. Of course that money would have to have a source. What's the point even mentioning it if you're not going to make a suggestion about what that source could be, how we might access it, or even take a stand on whether we should?
(One might wonder whether their reluctance/refusal to take a stand on the issues of whether there is anything wrong with the way adjuncts are being treated, and whether anything should be done about it, and if so what, is a craven attempt to conceal the fact that they don't think there is anything wrong with it and don't think anything should be done. After all, one might suspect that if they did think there was something wrong with it they'd be willing to say so, and they might also be interested in trying to figure out what to do.)
Additionally, Brennan and Magness devote space to blaming adjuncts for their own exploitation:
Adjuncts might have unjust or unfair working conditions, but, nevertheless, they choose these working conditions over their other available alternatives. They prefer being adjuncts, with all the attendant awfulness, over being unemployed, getting training elsewhere, teaching high school, working in private industry, or whatnot. (p. 9)Here Brennan and Magness point out that adjuncts have chosen to work in these unfavorable conditions, which means, as rational agents, they must prefer doing so to the alternatives that are available to them.
Beleaguered adjuncts have greater responsibility for their own condition than poor students who cannot afford college or who must take on massive debt to attend college. If an adjunct has a master's degree or a PhD, the adjunct is probably quite intelligent and thus most likely could have chosen to invest his or her skills in a more lucrative field with better chances of success. ...In contrast, poor students have done nothing imprudent... (p. 9)Here Brennan and Magness use the language of responsibility and imprudence to characterize adjuncts' relationship with their situation.
Brennan also has a snarky (public) FB status about this issue:
Brennan and Magness: "We're assuming adjuncts are rational. If so, then adjuncting is their best option, and taking away that option harms them by delivering them a less preferred option."
Adjuncts: "Don't say it's our best option! That's mean to us."
Brennan and Magness: "You realize that the only way to deny that conclusion is to hold that adjuncts are stupid, irrational, or misinformed, right?" (March 18 at 3:45pm)Brennan and Magness seem not to understand exploitation. One of the most interesting things about exploitation is that it can be rational for a person to voluntarily agree to the exploitative arrangement. That's why it's exploitation instead of just really bad negotiating or whatever. The fact that the adjunct agreed to serve as an adjunct is compatible with the facts that the arrangement is exploitative and that she is being exploited and that the exploitation is morally wrong.
Here's one way to get a person to voluntarily agree to an unfairly exploitative employment arrangement. Get an application from a job candidate who has a strong desire to be employed in a certain industry, but who has a very weak negotiating position. Maybe that's because non-exploitative entry-level jobs are scarce, and competition even for the exploitative jobs is intense. Then, exploit this weak negotiating position in order to force the person to accept employment on very unfavorable terms. Maybe whisper sweet nothings like, "this is how you get your foot in the door," and "if something opens up, you'll be first in line," and "if you publish, you'll be able to get something better," and "persistence pays off," and "this is just how it is now, and if we were forced to pay people like you a fair wage then we might have to fire you, which would destroy your career, which you have worked very hard for."
If she didn't have any better offers, I think it would make perfect sense for that candidate to take that job in that situation--even if the job was exploitative and even if she knew it. But that doesn't mean that she's to blame for her own exploitation, or that she has done anything imprudent or wrong. Indeed, the fact that, given the background situation, taking the job was the rational and prudent thing to do is exactly what her employer has exploited in order to get her to accept the exploitative job.
I find this whole thing very disappointing. I think this is an extremely important topic, and I agree that it is important to be clear about what the costs of adjunct justice would be, and how difficult it will be to find sources of funding to pay them. These are hard problems and it will be hard to solve them. But it would be nice successful, influential scholars like Brennan and Magness would use their position of success and influence to help do this hard work, and help end this system of exploitation.
Instead, they choose to publish this kind of disingenuously counter-productive horseshit, in which they feign neutrality while they highlight a bunch of obstacles that stand in the way of treating adjuncts fairly, make no proposals as to how these obstacles might be overcome, highlight only downsides of those proposals they do mention, suggest that adjuncts can find justice only at the expense of economically disadvantaged students (pp. 8 - 9), and refuse to affirm or even acknowledge that the way adjuncts are treated is wrong. The net effect of this is the suggestion that the obstacles are insurmountable, which in turn suggests that the problem is insurmountable, but, they suggest, it doesn't really matter because the adjuncts are responsible for their own predicament and their predicament might not even be wrong or bad.
I just don't get this. Why would someone want to spend his time this way?