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“Adjunct professors” are the McDonald’s workers of academia: poorly paid and highly disposable. Is raising their pay to (barely) middle class levels really too expensive? It’s all a matter of priorities.

Inside Higher Ed today covers a controversial new paper by academic researchers that examines the costs of actually paying adjuncts a decent wage. (Current standard pay is roughly $2,700 per course, meaning that even teaching several courses per semester can leave an adjunct professor on welfare.) Here is their rough breakdown of the costs of raising adjunct pay to $50K per year:

According to the authors’ rough calculations, institutions across academe currently employ 752,669 adjuncts to teach 1,578,336 courses annually, costing about $4.3 billion. Per-course pay in that estimate is $2,700 — a commonly cited national average.

To illustrate their point, Brennan and Magness put together a “minimally good job” package, including a $50,000 salary (teaching six courses per year), plus benefits and office space, that would cost a university $72,000 annually. To replace these 752,669 adjuncts with 263,056 minimally good jobs would cost universities $18.9 billion, they say — nearly $15 billion more each year.

One reason this paper is not universally beloved is that it strongly insinuates that paying adjuncts a living wage would simply be too expensive—which is perhaps a valid argument from a raw, cutthroat capitalist perspective, but the study’s author attempts to make the argument from a social justice perspective, which seems rather drenched in irony. Of a proposal to increase adjunct pay even moderately, author Jason Brennan of Georgetown University told Inside Higher Ed, “That money could be spent helping adjuncts, but it could also be spent doing other valuable things, perhaps things that are more pressing from a social justice-oriented point of view.”


This is a truly bizarre and twisted version of utilitarian ethics. In universities, we have a large class of workers who—everyone agrees—are paid an abysmally low wage, one not in line with either the work they’ve done to get there, with the dignity that colleges imagine that they possess, or with minimal standards of a middle class lifestyle. Yet Brennan argues that paying them more might be bad because that money could be used to do something “more pressing from a social-justice oriented point of view.” This is undoubtedly true; the money could be spent on health care services for destitute people in Africa, for example. But if you are going to make a utilitarian appeal to putting money to better use, you don’t come first for the money from the lowest-paid people; you come first for the money from the people who have the most money. So yes, Brennan’s argument about adjunct pay will be valid, as soon as the pay of university presidents and football coaches have been reduced to the same level as that of adjunct professors.

And speaking of coaches, here is a way to get the money to pay adjunct professors a living wage: take the money the school spends on sports and use it to pay a living wage to professors. That’s millions of dollars at an average NCAA school—and almost none of those schools are making a profit on sports. So hey, cut the fucking football programs (or, in the case of Georgetown, the basketball program, where the head coach is paid $2.8 million) and pay your professors a decent wage. You are a school, after all. Sports are nice—but couldn’t that money be used on things that are more pressing from a social-justice oriented point of view, like not having your teachers on public assistance?