Adjunct Moneyball

I watched Moneyball recently. It’s about how the Oakland A’s changed the way Major League Baseball teams spend money on players. A scene early in the movie shows a bunch of scouts sitting around a table with the team’s general manager, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt). Beane has just learned that his three star players were bought by richer teams and that the A’s won’t give him money to buy big talent.

In the scene, the scouts are talking about potential players, commenting on things like throwing styles and athletic build and heart. Beane stops them, saying they talk too much about useless things. They don’t understand the problem, he says, which is that, in the league, “There are rich teams and there are poor teams, then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.” According to the movie, baseball had become about money and it was unfair for teams that didn’t have money. So teams, like the A’s, started looking at statistics of undervalued players and they figured out how to mine wins from the players’ strengths.

As I watched this, I began to think of adjuncts. There is a whole segment of the profession out there that is often undervalued — adjuncts. They usually have a lot to offer, but schools aren’t willing to spend the “big bucks” on them by giving them full-time jobs. Part of the reason is because adjuncts are already devoting themselves to teaching, and they are doing it for pennies. But part of the reason is also because many schools still have age-old ideas about what a professor should be.

Statistically, an adjunct may be a good bet — solid evaluations, innovative in the classroom, getting students to learn what departments want them to learn, etc. But institutions seem to undervalue them for a variety of biased reasons — too young, too old, no terminal degree, too noncompliant, not enough publications. One of the characters in Moneyball says that baseball teams spend a lot of money buying players when they should be spending that money buying wins. In Moneyball, the new system looked for players that could get on base; all the other stuff didn’t matter. When hiring full-time faculty members, instead of buying degrees, publications, and a long teaching history, it seems many colleges should look for faculty members who can teach in line with their respective department’s goals. Should anything else really matter? By not hiring from the adjunct pool, many institutions are missing out on some “wins.”

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