The Adjunct pay issue, solved

by Daniel on April 27, 2004

Mylast couple of goes at a solution to the Adjunct Problem were, to be honest, more in the nature of an extended buildup to a slightly mean joke than a real attempt at social policy. But post-Invisible Adjunct, I remembered that shortly after posting the joke solution, a real solution occurred to me, which has been festering at the back of my mind for a while.

The issue is simple; management is measurement. You manage what you measure, and if you can’t measure something, you ignore it. You can’t measure what adjuncts do, so they have no value. This is not a view I hold, btw, it’s just a simple capsule description of “the facts on the ground”[1], in terms of the current state of the art of managerial thinking in the education industry.

But is it really so impossible? Let’s think about the university as a business. Again, please be aware that if you have used the word “guild” or “scholarship” in your conversation recently, or if you regard “the academy” as primarily an abstract noun, then you may find the rest of this post to be somewhat on the reductionist and brutal side. Please try to remember that there are no normative implications; this is merely an exercise in positive business economics, of the sort that John Kay practises.

A university exists in order to maximise the size of its endowment fund. From semester to semester, the change in the endowment fund is equal to:

  1. Investment performance on the opening balance minus
  2. Fixed operating costs plus
  3. Tuition fees minus
  4. Salaries of the staff employed at the beginning of the term, including prorata salaries of adjuncts plus
  5. Donations from alumni and foundations minus
  6. Capital investment in new facilities, staff and projects, net of sales of assets and savings from closure of projects plus
  7. Transfer payments from the government

I’ve grouped terms together and ordered them to reflect what I understand to be the managerial economics of a university business; in other words the interest on the endowment pays for the running costs of the physical property, plant and equipment, tuition fees pay for the variable costs and donations pay for investments in further capacity which ought to produce tuition fees and donations in future time periods. If the numbers don’t add up, the government funds the deficit (and if there isn’t a deficit, you invest in more capacity until there is). Also note that this model assumes a sizeable endowment fund and an active alumni donor base; casual empiricism of the Invisible Adjunct discussion boards suggests to me that nobody really cares about institutions that aren’t swanky enough to have both these things.

So you can see here that the Crisis of the Adjuncts is that they only really appear in this process in line 4, as a variable cost of commoditised labour. In order to run undergraduate courses (and thus pull in fees on line 3), you have to have adjuncts, but given supply conditions in the PhD labour market, you don’t need any particular adjunct. Adjuncts are a homogeneous production factor, whose cost needs to be minimised. It also helps that in general the consumers who generate revenue in line 3 are a) in general, too young and stupid to know the difference between good and bad product and b) mainly spending someone else’s money, so they hardly ever complain. We should all be so lucky as to have such customers.

Contrast with tenured faculty. They are very definitely not homogenous, fungible or commoditised. Tenured faculty pull in donations in line 5 and government transfer payments in line 6, and in general they are not interchangeable for this function. If you’re going to knock on the door of the Hugh Jampton Foundation trying to get cash for a graduate program in Modern Disreputable Literature, then you need to have a big name professor in place to lend an air of credibility to the whole enterprise. The bigger the name of your professor, the more and more lavish special research programmes (and grants) his reputation will support.

This is why the tenure track faculty (still) have such a sweet deal relative to the adjunct proleteriat. They are all either actually or potentially in a position where there is a clear and measurable chain of causation between them and the revenue line. Hence, they’re valuable “talent”.

This is the line of thinking that leads me to my solution. In actual fact, my guess is that there is a fair old pool of the revenue coming in line 5 which is attributable to the people who actually taught the undergraduates of yesteryear. If alumni or their parents have warm fuzzy feelings about the university which lead them to open the old chequebook, then it seems quite likely to me that the reason they are prepared to do this has something to do with the educational experience that they or their offspring had there, which in turn probably comes back to the work of an adjunct. All one needs to do is to make this connection between activity and revenue measurable.

Hence, the solution. All one needs to do is to create a (probably web-based) organisation which channels donations from alumni to universities, but which allows the donors to specify the name of the individual faculty member who is responsible for their having donated. If the smaller alumni donations, which curently come in as an undifferentiated lump to the university franchise, could be pooled and attributed to individual staff members, then management would have a better idea of the value to them of a) good adjuncts rather than bad ones and b) particular adjuncts. It would also mean that universities would be less keen on adjunct turnover, if it meant that they weren’t able to take donations from loving former students of faculty who they’d previously sacked.

All in all, I believe that my ill-thought-through back of the envelope scheme is a simple technological solution to all aspects of a large social problem. I suggest that somebody else puts it into oepration without delay.

[1] A recently coined and highly useful phrase meaning, AFAICT “an utterly unacceptable situation about which I intend to do nothing”.



Keith's Dumb Friend 04.27.04 at 8:59 pm

Hey Daniel,

Pretty good analysis.

Along these lines, I have argued that teaching evaluations to be used in the tenure process should be collected from students who were five years out of college, rather than at the end of semester.

Why? There are far too many cheap hustles that can be and are used by faculty in pursuit of tenure – it really becomes a race to the bottom in terms of real teaching quality, and rather a crap-fest of mediocrity in the classroom.


harry 04.27.04 at 9:14 pm

bq. There are far too many cheap hustles that can be and are used by faculty in pursuit of tenure

Could you elaborate? This is NOT a hostile question, and I don’t disagree, I’m just curious (not, I hasten to add, because I want to adopt any of them).


Keith's Dumb Friend 04.27.04 at 9:33 pm

Hi Harry,

Sure, I can recall a few ;-).

I guess my all-time favorite (no doubt a classic) is a friend of mine (he was in history, I, economics) at a pretty good liberal arts college. He would always give his students very, very high grades on all materials up to the (fairly heavily-weighted) final. Given that the student evaluations were administered before the final, he bought himself a lot of goodwill from students that figured themselves for an “A”. Then, after he got the student evaluations done (pure gold mostly), he would really drop the hammer on the final, and get his distribution. So, he looked good to the Provost since the students appeared to really love him, and he came in at the University average grade-wise.

Just so you know, he discussed this strategy with me (and other junior types) explicitly on more than several occasions, without a lot of shame. (Not that I’m making a judgement or anything.)

By the way this story has a happy ending: he got early tenure, and a bump to associate, after four years.


Ruth 04.27.04 at 9:43 pm

I’d venture to guess that he’s thinking of at least some of the following:
1) giving easy As, to encourage students to think highly of you;
2) being entertaining, rather than educational (not that these two are mutually exclusive, but one can focus on the former at the expense of the latter);
3) as a variant of (1), not pushing students to think hard; accepting what they say in class as they say it, without being critical;
4) generally being nice, even if such niceness detracts from actual teaching.

I fairly regularly bring one of my dogs with me to final exams, because of research that’s shown that the presence of animals lowers blood pressure in stressful situations. I’ve had a colleague suggest that I should do the same thing on days when I’m handing out evaluaton forms…


Keith's Dumb Friend 04.27.04 at 10:14 pm

Hi Ruth,

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. And to extend (3) a bit, make the students think they are really, really smart, which makes people feel good about that person (works on me pretty well at least).

By the way, I also had a colleague who would bring a plastic jack-o-lantern filled with candy for the students on evaluation day. I also proctored exams (I was untenured at the time)for this individual periodically – exam questions included – True or False: Fall is my favorite season of the year, and, True or False: There are a twelve doughnuts in a dozen, and wouldn’t one taste good now?



Xavier 04.27.04 at 10:18 pm

Universities aren’t suffering from a lack of adjuncts so I don’t see how they can be considered underpaid. Your suggestion might still be a good one, but I disagree with the premise. It’s an excellent solution to the problem of universities not being able to discriminate between good and bad adjuncts.


bull 04.27.04 at 10:56 pm

I believe that xavier hit the nail on the head with respect to adjuncts’ pay levels. There appear to me to be great hordes of people eager to be adjuncts, and with good reason: looks good on a resume, makes you feel like an intellectual and not just any old money-grubbing joe, and the process of marshalling your thoughts to teach others is a great learning process. Given the supply, why should universities pay more than they need to pay? And if there aren’t enough good adjuncts, pay more. However, on the second point, it does not seem likely to me that (1) there would be a strong correlation between an adjunct’s talent and donations in the name of the adjunct or (2) even if there were a strong correlation that there would be sufficient donations earmarked for particular adjuncts to provide a reliable measurement.


Matt Weiner 04.27.04 at 11:51 pm

I think Daniel’s solution wouldn’t actually help any individual adjuncts–by the time their students are rich enough to give big donations, the adjuncts will have either left academia, got jobs elsewhere, or collapsed and died of TB.
Something or other is reminding me of this quote from Atrios:
This Economist article discusses firms’ pricing strategies.
How stupid can The Economist be? Everyone knows that prices are set by the market. Invidual firms have no ability to impact prices.

I can’t think what.


harry 04.28.04 at 12:46 am

Wow. Am I naive or what? I give low grades throughout the semester, on the grounds that on any given piece of work they could have done a much better job, then add a bit after the final (so I have a distribution somewhere close to the average) on the grounds that they shouldn’t be penalised for having taken a class with a mean grader like me. How stupid. I tell them to criticise the class on the evaluations because I want to know how I could teach the class better (though I also tell them that I ignore any comment that is accompanied by comment on my attire or accent, and that they won’t benefit directly from anything they say).
Still, I have tenure, so I feel no pressure to change my behaviour.
The candy and doughnut comments are damning.


Matt Weiner 04.28.04 at 1:02 am

I tend to try to grade hard on the first assignments, in order to light a fire under the students, and then grade easier on the next ones (hopefully they will actually have improved, too!). I’d hope that by the time evaluations roll around people feel all nice and toasty from the recent good grades–also, people who get a good grade followed by a bad grade will be really mad.
Also, the way funding schemes work, shouldn’t the department be ecstatic if I get students to withdraw? They still have to pay for the course, I think–so the department gets its headcount–and then they have to take it again. As a visitor I don’t sit in on department meetings, so I may have this wrong.


Keith's Dumb Friend 04.28.04 at 3:35 am

Harry – I think you do it exactly right; tenure can be a useful vehicle for imbuing the process with rigor and content.

Matt – (You too.) I think departments don’t like students withdrawing on a regular basis, since it tends to reduce the number of majors, and hence diminishes the resources the institution will expend on the department, and all that implies.

Daniel – “A university exists in order to maximise the size of its endowment fund.”

“If alumni or their parents have warm fuzzy feelings about the university which lead them to open the old chequebook, then it seems quite likely to me that the reason they are prepared to do this has something to do with the educational experience that they or their offspring had there, which in turn probably comes back to the work of an adjunct. All one needs to do is to make this connection between activity and revenue measurable.”

Perhaps I’m simply missing the point, but some fairly respectable research (e.g., Cunningham and Ficano, JHR, 2001, (I might be wrong on the year)) shows that the best way to maximize the endowment is to attract high-quality students, where quality is measured by SAT scores. In fact, C&F suggest (and I’m shorthanding here)that endowment size is largely explained by SAT scores. I think the argument they make is that these (high SAT) people tend to be financially more successful down the road, and they tend to credit their institutions for some of that success. Regression analysis does not appear to contradict their hypothesis (to the contrary, the lagged SAT profile (about 20 years I believe) has a huge statistical impact on donative flows 20 years hence). I’m sure that I am not doing justice to their argument, but it goes something like that. My guess is that these (high-quality) schools do not hire many adjuncts; they pitch themselves as having elite faculty, and that’s why you pay the big dollars (or whatever) for them. It’s possible that adjuncts may simply be a signal of “low-quality” and/or financial distress.


asg 04.28.04 at 5:15 am

This is fascinating. At the University of Maryland at College Park, where I studied computer science, the first two years of the curriculum are taught by adjuncts (well, “lecturers”). They are all people who could be making three times their teaching salaries in the private sector (and in fact most of them do, during the summer).

I dropped out of that program a little over two years ago, because it was so freaking hard (in one of the classes I took second semester, fully two-thirds of the students were taking it for the second time, having failed the first). But I learned a lot and I still keep in touch with a couple of the lecturers from my courses. They were great. Some of them weren’t real happy with the administration, but I think that was because they were being asked to teach larger and larger classes with no additional classroom or TA resources.

I wonder if it’s generally true that adjuncts/lecturers in the sciences are somehow better off than the ones in the humanities.


Shai 04.28.04 at 5:29 am

“I tend to try to grade hard on the first assignments, in order to light a fire under the students, and then grade easier on the next ones”

i think consistency is important. how does your scheme fit in with grading regulations, these (or yours) for example.


multitimbral 04.28.04 at 5:47 am

Matt W., that Atrios quote just bumped my opinion of him up a notch. I’m not surprised you remembered it, and am glad you were able to find it.


Ian 04.28.04 at 10:47 am

I’m not and never have been an academic and the issue of tenure has always confused me. Is it in practice any different from the difference between fixed term contracts and permanent employment for civilians?


harry 04.28.04 at 1:48 pm

I think Matt’s and my practices are both consistent with the Utah requirements, anyway. Those refer to the final grade, not the intermediate grades, which can be used for pedagogical purposes (as Matt and I do), since they are only shared between teacher and student, and have no signalling function to anyone else.
(Note, in Matt’s practice the subsequent good graes are the result of having the earlier tough grades, which had the pedagogical function of making the buggers work harder).


Rv. Agnos 04.28.04 at 3:34 pm

Why is the problem not solved completely by cutting pay until the surplus of adjuncts leave?

Or contrariwise, if the problem is solved by identifying the best adjuncts, will this result in more tenured professors? I would assume not. So whom are these adjuncts replacing when they get tenure?


pw 04.28.04 at 5:02 pm

Given the typical lag between graduation and substantial donations, compared to the typical tenure (ahem) of adjunct faculty, this solution doesn’t really constitute a usable market mechanism. But by transforming adjuncts in general into a profit rather than a cost center, it might change the way universities look at them.

On the other hand, for the past 20 years or more universities have been running a similar profit-center aproach with respect to adjuncts whose job is not primarily teaching, aka research associates, aka “soft-money scum”. (Research associates have to bring in at least enough grant money to fund their own salaries, although some institutions offer a year or two of grace if funds fall short.) The results have been mixed. One possibly interesting effect is that soft-money scum occasionally go crazy and kill a bunch of their colleagues, thereby increasing turnover on both tenure and non-tenure-track positions in a way that could not be achieved otherwise.


Bill Carone 04.28.04 at 6:58 pm


“Wow. Am I naive or what? … I have tenure, so I feel no pressure to change my behaviour.”

It might be naive if you didn’t have tenure or were an adjunct; do you disagree?

I’ve found that I can easily get high evaluations by doing particular things the students want, as others have said above.

For example, making sure that every homework problem is exactly the same as a class example with the numbers changed, and that every exam question is exactly the same as a homework question with the numbers changed. This is how I started teaching (as a TA), and many students think this is the only right way to teach a class.

I no longer think this is a good way to teach. I think homework and exams should, in part, force students to think _from_ familiar situations _to_ unfamiliar situations, using the philosophy, methods, and concepts of the course. Most students don’t like this as much, even though I can show that they have learned more and better. As a result I receive poorer evaluations as I become a better teacher.


Matt Weiner 04.28.04 at 7:06 pm

I should say (or maybe it would be wiser not to) that what I describe is how I intend to grade. No guarantees that it actually has any effect on what I do when I’m reading through a big stack of papers, and I’d have to run some sort of complicated regression to determine whether people’s work actually does improve.
Shai–If I actually tried to give C’s for standard performance I’d be lynched, and quite right too I think. As Harry says, I think this applies mostly to the final grade.
asg–it sounds like those adjuncts are what adjuncts ought to be–people who are making lots of money by practicing what they do and are teaching courses to keep their hand in, pick up a few extra dollars, for love of the process, whatever. That tends not to happen in the humanities, my guess is, because it’s hard to find a philosopher or historian who’s in private practice.

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