Adjunct professors are better teachers than their tenured counterparts. So says a new study from researchers at Northwestern University. The findings have inspired both controversy and helpful analysis, but, hoopla aside, the results are hardly surprising. While adjunct and tenured professors work side-by-side, they are subject to different incentives. One set recognizes educators, the other rewards researchers. The results of the study reflect this difference, while also lending weight to the familiar grievance of adjuncts that they receive neither the respect nor the remuneration they deserve.

The debate over how to ensure high-quality teaching at universities is not new, nor is the use of incentives a recent addition to the discussion. That idea was first popularized in the18th century by Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations and the architect of modern economic thought. His vision of human nature favored neither the brutish realism of Thomas Hobbes nor the wide-eyed optimism of Francis Hutcheson. We were neither devils nor angels, according to Smith. Instead, our psyche was a kind of morality play filled with characters of varying stripes, and the art of institutional organization turned on eliciting the right performance through the prudent use of incentives.

Smith’s views on such matters were shaped by his own experience as an ambitious young scholar. At fourteen, he began his studies at the University of Glasgow in his native Scotland, where he remained for three happy years until he received a traveling fellowship to Oxford. It was a generous award, and the extra money came in handy, for the tuition fee at Oxford was nearly ten times what it had been at Glasgow. The difference was “most extravagant,” Smith said, and inversely proportional to the academic experience. “It will be his own fault if anyone should endanger his health at Oxford by excessive Study,” he wrote a cousin, “for our only business here being to go to prayers twice a day, and to lecture twice a week.”

Smith left Oxford without taking a degree and eventually returned to Glasgow to begin his career as a professor. This was a time of great ferment for higher education in Scotland. With modest tuition fees making education available to students from middle-class backgrounds, the college population tripled between 1720 and 1840. At the same time, universities such as Glasgow were coming to grips with the implications of academic specialization. When Smith matriculated in 1737, only a decade had passed since the university had replaced its system of regents, who were responsible for guiding students through their entire courses of study, with academic chairs responsible for discrete subjects.

As a student at Glasgow, Smith had been impressed by the devotion to teaching displayed by his professors, and his experience as a lecturer and administrator affirmed his belief that Scotland boasted “the best seminaries of learning that are to be found anywhere in Europe.” When he wrote The Wealth of Nations, he devoted an unusually large amount of space to accounting for the superiority of the Scottish system—and the inferiority of the English. The critique was unusually biting for the normally restrained writer, leading one friend to say the relevant chapters had “the air of being occasional pamphlets,” more penny-sheet polemic than patient analysis.

Smith’s argument was straightforward. The institutional failure of universities such as Oxford guaranteed “large salaries” to professors, rendering them “altogether independent of the diligence and success in their professions.” Smith believed this practice perverted the incentives for good teaching. If a professor is paid regardless of whether he discharges his duty as a teacher, he will tend “to neglect it altogether” or, if he is subject to some higher power, to “perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner as that authority will permit.” Oxford was the embodiment of such a system. There, Smith said, the “greater part” of the faculty had given up “even the pretence of teaching.”

In contrast, at Scottish universities the salaries were fairly small, and professors depended on course subscriptions for the majority of their income. At Glasgow, students paid tuition to gain access to the university, but they also paid honoraria to their particular professors. The fees were small, but taken together, they provided a substantial part of a professor’s income, giving him a strong incentive to become a superior teacher. Smith saw in this system the institutional secret to Scotland’s success, and he encouraged its export to universities across Europe.

Smith’s advice went largely unheeded, and for beleaguered adjuncts who might still look to him for inspiration, the entrenchment of the salary system in higher education is only the most obvious barrier to implementing his vision. Another is the rise of the modern research university, which fundamentally changed what it means to be a professor in a way that Smith didn’t anticipate.

Whenever Smith uses the term “professor,” he has in mind what remains the popular definition. To the average person, being a professor is basically akin to being a high school teacher: one merely instructs students at a higher level. The reality is that tenure-track professors wear two hats, teacher and researcher. In Smith’s day, a commitment to the latter made one a “man of letters,” not a professor. These roles were complementary, but much like a quarterback and an offensive line coach, they constituted entirely different professions. A professor at Glasgow was not paid to research; he was paid to teach. And when Smith secured the financial stability to dedicate his life to scholarship, he promptly resigned his professorship.

Today one of the primary reasons for hiring adjuncts is to lighten the teaching load of tenure-track professors. The arrangement is certainly beneficial to them, for they live by the demands of “publish or perish,” and if the Northwestern study is to be believed, it is also beneficial to students, who would otherwise be subject to instruction by individuals who would much rather be in the lab or the library.

In this respect the institutional problem that accounts for lackluster teaching in higher education today is slightly different from the one that Smith was exposed to at Oxford. The problem is not that tenure-track professors can afford to be lazy. Rather, they can’t afford to be teachers. Their livelihoods—indeed, their lives—are tied to their research. Being mediocre teachers will never bar their advancement, but should they fail to be superior researchers, they will have to look for other lines of work.

The reality of such demands raises the larger question of whether the modern university would be better off reviving the distinction between the professor and the man of letters by establishing two classes of full-time faculty: one dedicated to teaching and one to research. As Edward Kazarian observed in his response to the Northwestern study, “There is nothing about teaching-intensive faculty that is incompatible with their being eligible for tenure—especially if one fully intends to build long-term relationships with them and keep them around.” However, this would involve opening up the tenure track to dedicated teachers, a group whose contributions to the academic community are currently regarded as less remarkable and therefore more easily replaced than the work of an exceptional scholar. Making outstanding teaching one path to full professorship would transform higher education, but I suspect the change wouldn’t be entirely welcome among those who already enjoy the distinction.

Yet change can come from without. We too live in a time of great ferment in higher education, and Smith, were he living today, would likely be fascinated by the potential of massive open online courses (MOOCs) to change the incentive structure at American universities. Such courses already draw thousands of online students, and once universities figure out a way to monetize them, they may encourage better teaching. That, at least, would be Smith’s prediction. The parallel to his experience at Glasgow isn’t exact, for the fees online students pay won’t enrich professors directly. But they will enrich universities, giving them a strong institutional incentive to reward instructors who command a large and devoted following—the hallmarks, for Smith, of an outstanding teacher.

Not everyone can lead a MOOC, but if those who do command greater respect and authority in the hierarchy of higher education, it stands to reason that they will favor policies that recognize what they bring to a university: exceptional teaching. The profit motive is not the only incentive that shapes an institution—tenure-track professors are far more motivated by academic excellence than by wealth accumulation—but Smith knew as well as anyone that money can be a powerful instructor. When it talks, we have a tendency to listen. Soon enough, it may have good news for teaching.