Friday, December 08, 2006


Pulling Up the Drawbridge

As my regular readers know, my college and state are facing some fiscal issues. (In the same sense in which, say, Homer Simpson has some decorum issues.) Any number of proposals are floating around for cutting costs, some with merit, some ambiguous, and some plainly stupid.

I'm seeing a consistent pattern emerge: the proposals that get the most support, almost uniformly, are those that call for cutting benefits for future employees. That's the one cut on which everyone at the table can agree.

Presumably, that's because future employees, by definition, aren't at the table.

'Grandfathering' is a popular maneuver because it postpones issues until they're somebody else's problem. It allows current employees to congratulate themselves on their tough-minded fiscal discipline without actually giving up anything themselves. It's almost irresistible, given the realities of tenure and unions, but that doesn't make it right.

It's doubly frustrating when you account for a few basic external realities:

- Housing costs much more, in real terms, than it did a generation ago, even with the slight declines of the last year or so.
- New Ph.D.'s generally are carrying much more debt, in real terms, than they ever have.
- The early-career years are often the raising-young-children years, with all of the attendant expenses those bring in terms of clothes, bedrooms, restricted choice of neighborhood, daycare, etc.
- New hires come in with higher qualifications, in every respect, than the previous generation, whose salaries and benefits they will never match.

Popular discussions of higher ed are so narrowly focused on the extremely elite institutions and superstar salaries that they completely miss the (fairly basic, very common) objective realities at the vast majority of colleges in America. Yes, Cornel West is extraordinarily well-paid. But a new professor here in the humanities would start somewhere in the 40's. A three-bedroom house in a non-slum neighborhood in this county goes for about $400-500k. Cornel West has nothing to do with it.

I don't recall ever having a real debate over these changes. They just happened. Now, those who got tenure back when it wasn't very hard are pulling up the drawbridge behind them. Even the lucky folk who land tenure-track jobs struggle to get by, and that's not even discussing adjuncts.

Were it up to me, I'd propose a much flatter salary structure. Instead of newbies starting in the 40's and folks in their seventies making six figures, I'd set the bottom higher and the top lower. (I'm thinking instead of stretching from 40 to 110k, the range should look something like 60 to 90.) Not perfectly flat – that would be incredibly demoralizing, I know – but it's hard to argue that the very senior professor is two-and-a-half-times as productive as the new kid, who is teaching just as much, has higher credentials, and is picking up the committee assignments that tenured folk can dodge. But good luck getting the ones at the top of the scale to agree to that. And without mandatory retirement, they can go on until they drop.

(Even worse: here, as at many places, the unionized folk – which includes faculty – get 'longevity bonuses,' which are rewards for breathing. We pay for these by giving smaller raises to the entry-level people, who need the money much more. Utterly maddening.)

Although the fight for tenure-track positions is structured as winner-take-all, the 'all' is looking smaller and smaller. There's something fundamentally wrong with that. You'd think, given how hard people fight for these positions, that they'd pay better.

The institutional logic behind my argument – which may seem counterintuitive for someone in my position to make, since raising starting salaries would impose an immediate hit on the budget – has to do with recruitment. Most of the recent full-time hires my college has made over the last few years, which is admittedly a distressingly small sample size, have been people who already lived in the area in homes they bought before the boom. We've lost some absolutely wonderful young candidates on the basis of the mismatch of salaries to housing costs. For now, we're okay, since there is a backlog of good people in the area looking for these jobs. But over the long run, we need to recruit from more than just adjacent counties. Instead, not only are we granting longevity bonuses to people whose mortgages have long been paid off, but we're talking about cutting benefits to new hires, so as not to cause discomfort to those on top.

I care about this year's budget, but I care more about long-term sustainability. This isn't sustainable.

Somebody coined a 'law' to the effect that trends that aren't sustainable aren't sustained. I hope that turns out to be true.

Much as I sympathize with the mismatch between starting pay and housing costs, those two numbers are likely permanently out of sync. The price of housing is being bid up by two-income couples; those with only a single employer need to make other arrangements. When you are hiring people one at a time, that's a problem. BTW, it's just a big a problem in the private sector.

Your observations are astute, as always.
I don't think there is any expectation that someone on a 40K salary with a family will have a single income household. Even with two 40K salaries, a family with four people living in my area would qualify for low-income housing.

In my area, Ph.D prepared folks have a fairly strong industry they can choose to go into and salaries there are about 20K higher than what the University offers. Campuswide, half of our recruitments fail - no one accepts the position. Housing costs are the number one problem because our salaries are so much lower than the industry standard.

The last six people we hired were subsidized by wealthy parents (who helped them buy their house/condo) or by spouses who made a large salary. Of the eight women in my department only one (besides me) has had any kids - and she had hers 30 years ago when houses in this area cost 50K.

That said, older faculty react with horror to the idea of salary compression - as though somehow they would be diminished if the new faculty were paid more. They have no idea what it's like to face a 4K mortgage payment each month.
I'm reminded of a discussion [] awhile back of academy-as-multi-level-marketing-scheme. In a classical MLM scheme, participants purchase "distributorships" in an enterprise, which confer on them the right to sell other "distributorships". To stay on the tenuous side of legality, the MLM theoretically sells a product like cosmetics, but the real interest among participants is in the cascading commissions that arise from selling "distributorships" at successively lower levels in the scheme. In such a system, any actual product sold is a distant secondary consideration, and the key transactions all involve the "right" to sell the product and its "distributorships". In this respect, all important transactions are intramural to the organization, which both produces and consumes its key good. The same institutions both manufacture and consume the PhD 'product'. An MLM quickly collapses because, due to the need to sell distributorships at successively lower levels to increasing numbers of participants, the number of new distributorships needed for each level to realize its investment will increase exponentially, and the market quickly becomes saturated. The early investors at the top of the pyramid then promptly leave town with the proceeds of the "distributorships" purchased by the later investors - i.e. pulling up the drawbridge. From a market perspective, tenure is simply a means to protect certain participants from market consequences. If we look at the graduate studies scheme as an MLM-like organization, tenure exists to protect the early investors from the consequences of the market saturation that results from the excessive sale of "distributorships" or Ph.Ds. Professors can benefit financially via high graduate enrollment (in other words, processing of new distributors), yet not have to fear losing their jobs or having their pay cut due to the increasing number of Ph.D.s they place on the market, because tenure protects them from that competitive force.
I like the notion of academia as a M-L-M scheme! Of course as an adjunct it hits a bit close to home. But I just taught my last class, one final to give and grade and a research paper to grade and I'm done!!

For good.

The school where I adjunct has relied on cheap adjuncts for decades to do all their heavy lifting -- teach 90% of the classes in their "Award winning core-curriculum" and "capstone program". Its unbelievable the mileage the institution gets out of these programs but they are taught by either truely eldery adjuncts (65-75 years old) or newly minted Ph.Ds with qualifications and publications far beyond that of the regular faculty. And some people have been adjuncting for decades too! (Comes from being in a warm, desirable area that used to be very cheap, hence the elderly adjuncts; now, its a high-tech hub, resulting in lots of families with one high-tech spouse with income and benefits and one spouse who adjuncts and takes care of the kids. The full-timers here are underpaid as well but they can't make the connection that the over-reliance on adjuncts keeps down their salary too. The "award-winning" PR department is promoting this school to the hilt and they are building enrollment but its all on a shaky foundation of faculty. I'd be more optimistic that the house of cards will fall some day but students and parents don't seem to register the adjunct issue and there is a big Tier I research university/Ph.D. factory in town that will probably let the situation continue forever.
I've been wondering about how the following related housing issue will affect housing prices in the future. In very expensive areas, as Dean Dad and Ivory mentioned, there are lots of people (perhaps even a majority?) who couldn't possibly afford their house if they had to buy it today. What will happen as these people move away or die? There don't seem to be enough wealthy people to buy these house at current prices. Will this cause prices to fall, at least if salaries don't rise substantially? Then again, perhaps what happens is that the current owners children inherit the house, thus making them rich enough to afford to keep living in that (or similarly expensive) area.

We're in uncharted territory --- at the national level, this is the only time in 50 years that we've had substantially faster than inflation housing appreciation --- so I suppose the houseless among us (myself included), can always dream of the prices simply imploding at some point in the not too distant future...
Your ending quote (paraphrase) is from economist Herb Stein, a very big name in the field. Most people are more familiar with his son Ben, economist, lawyer, professor, Nixon lackey, actor and game show host.

I've heard the quote in many different guises, but what it always boils down to is "Anything that can't go on forever won't."

If your school makes offers for new faculty which are below the national average, you will simply get lower-quality faculty than you would otherwise. That's a reasonable decision to make, as long as it's being made explicitly.

As for who "needs" the money, these are well-educated people, most with reasonably portable skills. I'd worry less about fairness and more about keeping the institution out of codified decline.

You are right, however, that the people making the decisions, as usual in your case, appear to be the ones who bear none of the brunt of them -- neither institutional decline nor lower salaries will affect those who are sitting at the table. One can get around these problems with an ethic of professionalism or esprit. But absent that, it seems like you need some kind of countervailing force at these meetings; what I see is an institution which is in the process of dismantling its core value in order to protect the interests of a few of its members. You're going to (rightfully) have problems with the legislature Real Soon Now if you don't fix this.

Is there any way to get the folks who are funding you into these meetings? Legislative aides, something? Someone has to represent the folks who are paying for all of this, since the usual market mechanism for correcting for idiocy (firm failure) is tremendously disruptive in your case.
I meant to make this comment on an earlier post, but I've been a bit pressed for time (I am, believe it or not, in Antarctica right now.) It's also relevant here.

Let me play Devil's advocate for a sec. Dean Dad has said in the past that it's important that low-income individuals in his county be able to access reasonably priced education. If most of the younger faculty and adjuncts are being subsidized by a high-earning spouse or parents, can we argue that this is a form of charity given by the wealthier families of the region? If so, why is this a bad thing for the community as a whole, as opposed to just being bad for the folks who would like to make a living as teachers?

(Of course, this doesn't get the older fac off the hoook, who are making handsome salaries doing the same thing others nearly give away.)
Antarctica! Golly!

Other than the obvious "some of us are trying to make a living here," I'd respond that informal charity arrangements like that are scattered, often based on (false?) hope, and generally not sustainable.

I'd also worry about any job category that gets relegated to "hobby" level.

Still, it's good to hear from you again, Dicty.
One approach is to give $$ raises rather than % raises. We replaced a "step" compensation scheme that was killing two groups (new hires and capped-out seniors) who only got a raise if the base was raised. We now have a mix that emphasizes a $$ raise (so persons at entry level get a much larger % increase than those at the top) with smaller step increases.

Take a look at what would happen to your starting salaries if you took the pool of raise money and split it equally among all faculty.
Other than the obvious "some of us are trying to make a living here," I'd respond that informal charity arrangements like that are scattered, often based on (false?) hope, and generally not sustainable.

No argument from me on the "often based on false hope" part. I think it should actually be compulsory for accredited grad schools to post statistics on the job outcomes of their graduates.

I also agree that the current situation is not, long-term, sustainable. However, other forces are also at play, which will transform academia as surely as they already have the newspaper industry and television. I don't think the traditional model will ever fully apply again.

I'd also worry about any job category that gets relegated to "hobby" level.

It certainly will change the job, that's true. I suspect that the traditional job of delivering knowledge to young adults is in the process of being commodified.

In 20 years, college instruction may look like the food industry: mostly big commercial producers (American Literature 101 on a DVD), some local folks who do it for love (volunteer tutors), and boutique producers who can demand higher prices for artisanal product (the faculty at Harvard). And as any farmer will tell you, being a small producer of a commodity crop will break you every time.

I notice that a large number of us younger academic types have other irons in the fire. One of our research divers on this trip is also a database expert. The other one sells his underwater photographs commercially. This sort of behavior used to be frowned upon, but now even the older fac seem to accept it, so I think there's a realization that the system is slowly shifting under the strain.

(And it's nice to be back, too!)
Dean Dad, you are right on the proverbial money. I live in a similarly high- priced area, and ten years ago, when I was divorcing my first husband, could not have afforded to live in te same community in which I taught had I not bought my home years ago. These days, it's hard for a single person to manage to rent much less own a home in the county. And the building trend has been to squeeze out the lower-income housing and replace it with middle and higher income homes.

So, on the hiring committee, we are aware of the financial problems that come with accepting a job here. And yeah, it bothers me. A community college, in my opinion, should serve the community and employ the community, or at least, be affordable for incoming faculty.
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