Part-Time Professors Illustrate the Problem of Output-Driven Reforms


Lynn Arditi’s Providence Journal article on the plight of part-time professors gives a good indication of what happens when you attempt to address economic issues at the output end.

If the colleges and universities are getting away with something they shouldn’t be, it’s at least partly because the system is generating too many people willing to do the work part time and at that salary.  The problem is exacerbated by the fact that public subsidies and loans for tuition, along with the marketing message that a degree is a magic door to more money, brings in clientele who have no clear mission for their education and a low proclivity to assert their own interests while in the program.

At the end of the day, colleges and universities have to provide courses in order to fulfill their primary mission, which buys them tremendous advantage in public esteem.  If they couldn’t find enough teachers, they’d either have to increase the pay or require full-time faculty to do more work.  (I’m isolating the employment aspect, here.  No doubt, colleges and universities would attempt to fill the gap in other ways, too, such as pushing loopholes that have graduate students teach the classes for free or adjusting the mixes of their classroom offerings using technology or teaching strategies.)

One of the reasons, I’d propose, is that the system — with government subsidies, tenure, and labor union leverage — inflates the value of full professorship.  It’s already rewarding, highly respectable work to which many people incline naturally, and with the opportunity for such perks as relatively light workloads that allow for enjoyable intellectual pursuits.  Add in unusual job security and relatively high pay, and the profession is sure to draw more candidates than it has positions available, a job-scarcity that the cost of each employee makes worse.  Meanwhile, the cost of full-time professors gives both the college and the faculty incentive to limit their numbers.

So, when you get the mix of interests pushed by the organization, by the professors, and now by unionized part-timers, the system becomes rigid and built with the primary purpose of providing jobs rather than providing an education.  Those bricks fall on people like Kenneth Jolicoeur, who, according to the article, was making a decent living by working all year at two universities, with an additional part-time job at the University of Rhode Island.

Enter the part-timer union (not to mention the Obama administration, with ObamaCare and other job-killing regulations), and Jolicoeur’s course-load was restricted and his administrative job ended.  Meanwhile, the entire higher-education system is so swamped with these sorts of perverse incentives that many suggest the bubble is reaching its limits.

Unfortunately, our society has long since fallen into the habit of trying to force the world to fit our desires, so we rarely address underlying problems until we are forced to do so by painful reality.