Are adjunct professors owed sympathy?

Adjunct faculty are professors who do not have tenure and are not in line to get it. They can be full- or part-time. There is a powerful social-justice movement to sympathize with their plight and improve their lives by making more adjunct positions full-time.

According to the U.S. Department of Education from 2013-2015, universities hired roughly equal numbers of adjunct and tenure-track faculty. Tenure-track faculty, however, get paid more and have greater job security. At Fredonia, for example, professors, associate professors, and assistant professors (assistants are tenure-track but not tenured) average $90,000, $68,000, and $59,000 respectively ($71,000 average for all tenure-track faculty). Full-time adjuncts average a mere $45,000 and part-time adjuncts earn $3,000-$4,000 a class. Many adjunct professors receive full medical insurance, so their total compensation package is higher.

At research universities, the difference is larger. For example, at SUNY Buffalo, the three tenure-track ranks average $139,000, $95,000, and $83,000 respectively ($103,000 average for all tenure-track faculty). Full-time adjuncts average $64,000.

Georgetown philosophy professor Jason Brennan caused a furor when he argued that in most cases, adjunct faculty are not owed sympathy. He gives two arguments for his conclusion. First, he argues, adjunct faculty are talented. They have lucrative alternatives to being an adjunct professor and, thus, are nothing like minimum wage workers. For example, they could go back to school and become accountants, lawyers, physicians, or teachers. Alternatively, they could go into the business world.

Second, Brennan argues that in most cases adjunct faculty know (and knew) that there is a glut of professors and, thus, the chance of landing a tenure-track job is not great. Sticking with being a professor after one fails to get a tenure-track job is a poor bet. Brennan draws an analogy between the average adjunct faculty and a formerly rich person who understands gambling statistics, but still bets the house in Vegas. People who pass up on good alternatives and do so knowing the odds, Brenan reasons, don’t deserve our sympathy.

On a side note, if people getting a Ph.D. didn’t know about the bleak market, they should have known about it. For example, the Fredonia State philosophy department received roughly 175 applications the last time it hired a tenure-track faculty, including many excellent candidates from top schools. This is not uncommon.

Brennan further argues that if the social justice program were implemented and more adjunct positions were converted into full-time positions with reasonable features, most current adjunct faculty would lose their jobs. A reasonable position might include a salary of at least $50,000, full benefits, a teaching load of three classes a semester, and no research requirement. This is because there would be less need for part-time adjuncts. On one estimate by George Mason historian Phil Magness and Brennan, two-thirds of current adjuncts would lose their jobs.

Also, younger and better candidates for the tenure-track positions would likely get the lion’s share of these newly created positions squeezing out many adjuncts. This would be made worse if the higher pay were to induce higher quality candidates to enter the field or stay in it. This is similar to how gentrification changes a neighborhood’s composition. Brennan concludes that the plan to create full-time jobs with reasonable features would end up harming adjuncts because the harm from job loss would outweigh the benefit to those lucky enough to get the new positions.

One objection is that the system is unfair because current tenure-track faculty were not better than adjunct faculty, merely luckier. A related objection is that the former are not lucky, but instead favored because they come from fancier schools and benefitted from the privilege such schools bestow on their students. Even if one of these things is correct, becoming a professor is still a bad bet. The role of luck and class is hardly new and one can make himself less vulnerable to them if he chooses a field, such as accounting, medicine, or teaching that is less flooded. Also, the proposed remedy (more full-time jobs) would likely worsen the lives of current adjuncts for the reason mentioned above.

Magness and Brennan estimate the cost of more full-time jobs at $15 billion to $50 billion. Consider, for example, the Service Employee’s International Union’s call for adjuncts to be paid $15,000 per class (including benefits). It is not clear, they argue, that as a matter of justice the money is better spent on adjuncts rather than reducing tuition or providing scholarships to poor students. This is especially true if, as I suspect, many adjunct faculty do not come from the worse conditions than poor students.

A second objection is that adjunct faculty really love their field and should be able to make a dignified living doing what they love, especially given that they do it well. However, merely because someone loves what he does and does it well does not result in anyone else having a duty to pay him to do it, let alone pay him a respectable wage. Plenty of actors love acting and are damn good at it. Yet, there simply are not enough customer dollars for many to make a living as an actor. Rather, actors often supplement their acting with other jobs (for example, waiter, taxi driver, and bartender) while trying to catch a break. This is neither unfair nor unjust. The same is true for adjuncts.

A third objection is that the schools have had such an explosion in administration and staff that there is plenty of money to pay adjuncts more if only the schools didn’t have armies of associate directors, directors, associate deans, deans, vice presidents, associate provosts, provosts, and various staffers who suck up much of a university’s payroll (consider diversity officers, legislative liaisons, and the like). This objection might be an argument for cutting out layers of fat from the university, but it is hard to see why the money saved should go to adjuncts rather than to reducing skyrocketing costs of a university education or the spigot of money from taxpayers to universities.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. Send comments to