Thursday, May 05, 2011

Ask the Administrator: A Market-Clearing Wage?

Every so often I get a question that’s almost a guest post. In this one, a new correspondent opens a can of worms...

We have quite a few adjuncts that teach for us at the limit imposed by our accrediting body. Because we can only offer them a limited course load they find work at multiple institutions, a fact with which we are all well acquainted. I recently lost one of my best adjuncts completely to a higher paying institution (4-year) when it dawned on me, why don't we establish a new strain of adjuncts. Much like 4-year institutions have Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Asst Professors, Associate Professors, etc. each with varying institutional responsibilities and pay there anything stopping us from creating a "Adjunct Lecture Position?" A position that would allow an adjunct to teach 4 or 5 classes a semester, but be paid $20-24,000 rather than $38,000 (Approx starting salary at our institution for full-time faculty members)?

Obviously there would be decreased institutional responsibilities for these new faculty members, no obligation to support a student club, no committee work, 30-hour work week, 9 month contract, remove the no-competition clause from contracts, etc. This would create a new brand of adjuncts, and would solve at least a couple major issues...

1) consistency among the adjunct ranks - as adjuncts move through the rotating door I feel like I am forever explaining Student Learning Objectives, or dealing with an adjunct who did not follow institutional policy.

2) provide more consistent employment for the adjunct - freeway flying may result in 5 classes a semester, but at $1800 a pop, and factoring in the cost of fuel to travel, a career adjunct can't expect to make much more than $20,000 anyway. At least this model will help save the faculty member some travel costs and keep them close to home.

3) Evening and weekend Adjuncts - Finding evening and weekend adjuncts is admittedly easier than finding a physics adjunct for a 10:00am MWF course. But as many instructor of record changes as I go through as I am building a schedule, it is a wonder that anyone can keep them straight. This new position could allow me to better utilize these faculty across evening and weekends by making that part of the job description and an expectation of employment (since full-time faculty seem to think that evening and weekend classes are for adjuncts anyway).

4) Keeping good Adjuncts - If we look at how much adjuncts make per hour, it really isn't bad...that is if we just look at the amount of time they are paid and divide by the actual time in class. But when you factor in all the extra parts of being an instructor then that per-hour rate plummets. By providing a structured setting that has a consistent salary, I can retain, and even reward good instruction by providing stability and financial security (although minimal) and hopefully keep more of my good folks around. I hear from new adjunct on a routine basis, "Do I get insurance with this position?" Perhaps this would provide a way for that to happen.

Admittedly there are some huge issues to this, which is probably why I am not getting institutional endorsement on this idea, if this system were implemented then we would begin to hire what should be normal full-time faculty positions as "Adjunct Lecture Positions" with the opportunity to grow into a full salary. This would be very problematic. Also, if this model took off, then there would be less people around to do the day-to-day non-instructional work, but more people around. Office space is limited, and we really need everyone to pitch in at my campus if we are going to make it. Establishing a new class of instructors who have no significant impact on the administrative aspects of the campus, but are here all day anyway may cause some grumbling. Also, state and federal laws prohibit us from working ourselves to the bone for little or no money (at least in theory), and I would think that there may be some issues in those areas...

To be honest, some of my adjuncts are better professors than their full-time counter parts, and it hurts a little bit to see them go...

But I am really interested in your opinion, and the opinion of your wise and worldly readers.

This one depends almost entirely on what you compare it to. I remember reading a piece many years ago in which an economist proposed a “market-clearing wage” as a way to solve both the Ph.D. glut and the cost spiral of higher ed. In essence, bring full-time salaries down to the point where supply and demand meet. In the evergreen fields, that wage would probably be alarmingly low.

From the perspective of someone already in, or who expects to get in, that would be horrible. From the perspective of a freeway flyer, it probably sounds like an improvement.

I can attest that if this option were available, the institutional appeal of it -- and therefore, the incentive to prefer it to traditional full-time positions -- would be strong. That’s probably the single strongest argument against it. The moral hazard for bad institutional behavior would be so compelling as to be nearly a foregone conclusion.

Which is a shame, since it would both improve the lives of many adjuncts, and come closer to real equality than the current system.

Though regular readers know I’m no fan of tenure, I do support full-time employment. Part of the reason for that is precisely the “extras” that need to get done, but that will only get done reliably by people who are paid to do more than just teach. Advising students, working on curricula, assessing outcomes, doing articulation agreements...these things take time, and they matter.

It may be the case that over time, the division of labor will become more stark as the economic argument for craft production becomes impossible to sustain. Whether we can make the cultural adjustment to what Richard Florida calls the Great Reset, or whether the adjustment will be done to us, still isn’t clear. But I’d want to make the move more thoughtfully than this.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Would it make sense to move to a market-clearing approach, or should we defend the current structure at the cost of leaving adjuncts in the cold?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.