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Causal density, trade-offs and unsatisfactory outcomes

Here is an interesting juxtaposition of articles.  The first, Death of an Adjunct by Daniel Kovalik, came out in September 2013 and chronicled the tribulations and death of an 83 year old adjunct professor at Duquesne University, Margaret Mary Vojtko.  It seems to tell an appalling tale of neglect and the exploitation of a vulnerable old woman by a heartless educational bureaucracy.

But then there is Death of a Professor by L.V. Anderson, covering exactly the same ground and arriving at an entirely different, and much more nuanced, conclusion.

Kovalik is a lawyer for the union seeking to organize adjunct professors and clearly his article is an exercise in rhetoric to advance his cause.  Given that his article was republished fairly broadly, it was clearly a reasonably effective exercise in rhetoric.  Kovalik is basically arguing that had there been a union representing the interests of Vojtko, she would not have died in circumstances of near poverty.

I think what the juxtaposition of the two articles does is profile 1) the importance of providing the full dossier of evidence and 2) the importance of problem definition.

Anderson does not significantly contradict anything in Kosalik’s rendition of events.  All she does is provide a more complete context.  In doing so, she pretty much demolishes his argument.  With the more complete picture she provides, it is clear that Vojtko’s penurious circumstances were the result of a range of decisions on her part (causal density), most of which could not be addressed through the existence of a union.  This is not to deny the tragedy of this story but rather to point out the obvious – things are not always the way they seem and few human issues have simple answers.

In fact, the latter point is illustrated by a follow-up article written by Anderson, Why Adjunct Professors Don’t Just Find Other Jobs.  She answers her own question in three parts.  First, they still hope to find a track to a tenured position.  Given the terrible working conditions of the adjunct professor, this is a testament to the value of the tenured position.   Second, there are scheduling challenges to finding jobs outside of academia (I didn’t say that Anderson’s reasons were good reasons).  Third, they really, really like teaching rather than anything else they might do.

So if your concern is the financial well-being of adjunct professors, then Anderson’s second article means that there is little that can be done.  Adjunct professors will do just about anything in the hopes of getting on a tenure track, they aren’t all that interested in non-academic jobs and they prefer teaching, even at low rates of pay, to just about any alternative.  And there are a lot of them.  Given limited tenured positions and increasing supply of individuals freely seeking those positions, there is little that can be done to change the economic circumstances of adjunct professors.  Excessive supply and limited demand inherently means that compensation will be low.  You can either increase demand (increase the number of tenured positions) or reduce the supply of adjunct professors – neither action being particularly feasible in a free market environment where people are free to make their own choices.

What are the decision-making lessons from these related articles.  I would argue there are three.  1) Work hard to get the complete picture.  The emotionally satisfying story is often not the complete story.  2)  Problem definition is critical.  3) Causal density means that there are many human problems, tragedies even, which do not have acceptable solutions.

As an exercise, what systemic actions could have been taken, consistent with free citizens and the law, that could have precluded the actual outcome?

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