Monday, June 23, 2008
So...Struck a Nerve?
A disturbing number of commenters went right to 'intention,' implying variously that I was finally showing my nefarious true colors, my 'roots' in a proprietary college (!), or some other variation on the Dark Side. Others detected a note of satire, with multiple references to Swift.
Those were all disheartening, if for different reasons. First and most basically, I, personally, am not the point. The proposal makes sense, or doesn't, independently of me. Anybody who knows me knows that the frustrations I periodically reference on the blog are rooted in my caring about higher education and what it could, and ought to, be. They're the frustrations of someone who hasn't sold out. I'm frustrated that we've developed a system in which lifetime job security for some is paid for by sub-exploitation wages for others. That may offend some people, but it's true, and I noticed that none of the attackers actually refuted that point. (A few dropped the predictable snide comments about administrative salaries, which simply shows a complete ignorance of scale. But it doesn't refute the actual point.)
If I were only in it for the money, I'd find another line of work. If you're looking to get rich, don't work at a community college. You heard it here first.
My personal story aside, the whole point of a 'what if' post is precisely that. I frequently get requests to flesh out a Grand Unified Theory of what I think higher ed should look like. I don't have one. That's not for lack of trying – it's just that it's flippin' hard. So I'm coming at it piecemeal. What if we determined everything based on tradition? Okay, we know what that looks like. What if the organizing principle were internal interest-group politics? See my last four years of posts to get a sense of that. What if it were the market? Friday's post was an attempt to sketch that out. It could easily be something else, too, and I'd be more than happy to entertain possibilities.
But the 'burn the heretic' tone that I encountered on Friday wasn't exactly encouraging. If internal reform is blocked by such indignant huffing and puffing – which, admittedly, is likely – then the obvious consequence will be other institutions coming along and eating our lunch. (See “Phoenix, University of”) We can cast aside the old catechisms and actually try to come to grips with what's going on, or we can just get angry at anyone who connects the dots. I'm trying to connect the dots in various ways to see what makes sense.
(As far as the satire/Swift line of reading, I'll just say that I like to think that my satirical pieces are clearer than that.)
I want to protect academic freedom, properly understood. I want people who go into higher ed to be able to make adult livings, with dignity, and reasonable – not lifetime – security. I want students to have challenging professors who are up-to-date in their fields and who are rewarded for teaching well. I want the public to have legitimate confidence that its spending on higher ed is wise, and that more would be wise, too. I want administrators to be thoughtful about what they're doing, and to have a firm grasp on the fundamental truth that It's Not About Them.
What I see instead is a class of adjuncts exploited at Wal-Mart levels to make possible endless internal interest-group politicking; academic decisions made based on whose local ox is gored, rather than the good of the students; tenure used as a cruel sort of bait to keep replenishing the ranks of the adjuncts; ridiculous funding models creating all manner of perverse incentives; and declining public confidence coinciding with the rapid ascent of new institutions based on very different values.
In that context, airing out some different theories strikes me as worthwhile. If we just trot out the tired old war-horses, we'll keep losing ground. And if we can't tell allies from enemies, we've already lost.
The thing is that is not why many I have meet in the natural sciences have become professors. They did it primarily because of the research they can do in an academic setting. Graduate students bring new questions and excitement that adds to such a research environment. They are rewarded first and foremost for their research. It is the process of doing research itself that is the teaching.
The selection against them resting on their laurels with tenure is on the grant level. Much of their salary is determined by the grants they bring in. In order for them to do what they love, research as well requires grant dollars. Tenure provides the security during times like these when budgets get tight. And what of those that do long term research projects that do not pay off in a x year time period of a renewable contract?
The US has great science programs because of the system we have. If anything it is overly-competitive. Making it more competitive with renewable contracts would be a detriment to science.
There isn't one higher education in the US. There are many different higher educations. What may work at a community college, may not be best for research U which in turn is different than the SLAC which is different than the state regional university.
I apologize for the tone of the comment, because it was unnecessarily harsh, but not for the substance. And indeed, there was substance to my and many other comments in that thread - not just huffing and puffing and people who want to keep the status quo. You had graduate students, professors from many kinds of institutions and at many points in their careers, people from across disciplines disagreeing with you. Now, sure, they (and I) may all be mystified and under the spell of academia, but maybe - just maybe - they (and I) had legitimate cause to disagree. If that's the case, maybe it's worth listening and really responding to those whose nerves were struck?
I just want to close by saying that it sucks when people feel personally attacked in their own comments, and I sincerely hope that I didn't contribute to that, though I fear I did, and I do apologize if that's the case. Also, I'm not at all trying to pick a fight in leaving this comment, and I fully get it if you don't want to respond to it and to just let this whole thing die. But perhaps if you did respond to the substance to some of the comments and not to the tone it would allow for a real conversation to happen?
The sin isn't in the question, it is in the knee-jerk reactions. ;-)
So, for example, at my own SLAC, I know administrators are very concerned about the Future Big Demographic Changes in our state, which predict a huge drop-off in people applying to college... and soon. They've presented the data to faculty at various meetings, and asked us to think about how to counter these changes.
The problem is, since faculty rarely think about these sorts of questions (usually because we have 18 million other things to do in a given day), the response is either crickets, OR (I was astonished to see) actual *anger* at the thought that *we* might have to do something. The attitudes amongst most people I talked to about it ranged from "sounds like a crisis; sure glad *I* don't have to do anything about it" to "How dare they suggest we need to change anything, when what we've been doing has worked for 150 years."
I suppose I'm saying that I am not surprised you hit a nerve, given your subject matter and the fact that most faculty members (due to institutional pressures, not any particular deficiency of their part) rarely need to think about long-term structural planning in the same way admin types need to.
I think fundamentally many of the people who get huffy know that the current situation is untenable, and so get wildly defensive whenever this is pointed out. I guess years of being an administrator have probably inured you somewhat to their self-righteous bitchiness, but just so you know, your writings are read by more than those who have made outrage at your blog a daily hobby.
There are problems with higher ed, and they are problems that can't be solved with outrage and more tradition. In many fields -- certainly all the evergreen disciplines, including physical science types -- we graduate far more people with research degrees than there are research jobs for. Which would be ok, except that we lure the students into these degrees with the promise of these lifetime security jobs. This is a problem, and one which we have a moral duty to fix; and years of trying to increase number of research jobs side of the equation hasn't worked.
Market-based approaches are one way we know of sending signals to people to inform their choices; they may or may not be the best way to go here, but at least we know they work. It's not like there's a zillion other options.
Anyway, I agree that the exploitation of adjuncts is a huge problem; I remember once listening to my dissertation director congratulate herself on being able to offer an adjunct a salary of $25000 pa, and then bemoan her inability to match what another institution had offered to an academic star - who was already making $108,000 (in 1996). My jaw dropped at the unintended irony. And sure - we all know tenured deadwood. And I don't know what to say about the bad blood between administrators and faculty - I suspect that that topic requires its own exposition. But (and this is back to Dr. Crazy's point), if you are going to attempt to persuade us to attend your revolution, you should present a better argument. But perhaps this just reflects the nature of blog communiques, which, I suspect, are incapable of really offering substantive arguments for changing the way things are.
I didn't agree with everything, you said, and I thought some of the ideas put forward had not been fully thought through, BUT...
...I thought you made it perfectly clear that you weren't putting forward a definite proposal, just thinking out loud and inviting others to join in, or, as you phrased it: "It's worth contemplating – not advocating, just contemplating – at some length"
Keep up the good work.
John (teaching in England, but still finding your blog valuable)
"For example, at least one post questioned your basic assumption (which still on display today): that there is a causal relation between the existence of tenure and the increasing "adjunctification" of higher ed. - i.e., that professor X's tenure and correspondingly "high" salary is made possible by adjuncts a-e's economic exploitation. But I don't see this, at least right now, and I wish you would provide an argument and support for this."
I think that would be helpful if you COULD do this, DD. I don't think it's necessary for all of us to see, but apparently it's necessary for a lion's share.
I'm having trouble, as the budgets tighten further and further, understanding why the concept of a "causal relation" of the disparity in TT salaries and adjunct salaries is necessary to explain at all. It's there, and it's egregious, and it's absolutely necessary to make the economics of programs at my institution work at all. I suppose most of it comes from a fundamental distrust of administration - and there are places where administrators do a very effective job of lining their pockets. All I can say (and I know, it's rich for Anonymous Coward to say this) is trust that the question of whether administrative salaries are out of line doesn't impact the basic economics. (Health insurance costs, on the other hand, do. I would much rather see the anger in this whole post cycle directed towards Washington for aiding and abetting a fundamental breakdown in American health care access.)
Moreover, I'm not convinced that the lowering of salary isn't happening anyway. I've taught both in the public CC and in a private, Christian SLAC. More than half the years I've been teaching full-time, my salary has been frozen. My take-home pay has only risen $4K/year over the seven years I've been teaching. I've watched students who have graduated since I've started teaching have salaries blow past my own, at a rate that has frankly shocked me. Especially among my friends in the social sciences, I'm hearing that story repeated.
I still know assistant professors who got started around when I did in the CC/SLAC world whose salaries still hover around $30K/year, which blows my mind. I'm stuck in this strange place where I'm amazed how well I'm doing compared to some of my peers, and still needing my wife to work full-time to make ends meet for the family. I didn't get in this business for the salary, but I thought I'd at least do well enough so my wife wouldn't have to work. (Unfortunately, I live in the wrong part of the country for that.)
Okay, so maybe there's one other reason for all the angst, and that's the collective dismay among a lot of us young punks that salaries are as low as they are, and we're horrified at the suggestion that they may stay low for the long haul. I'm not so sure we shouldn't get used to the idea, though.
Isn't that what is at the heart of the argument that we shouldn't give in to market forces?
BTW, if adjuncts actually were "exploited at Wal-Mart levels" they would have health care, among other benefits.
Sometimes it seems that when administrators get frustrated, they see faculty as "the enemy." Your post sounded a bit like that to me.
Does anyone know why business school faculty are the third highest paid faculty in academia? (Behind Doctors and Lawyers?) Because PhDs in accounting, and finance, and supply chain, and marketing, are very much in demand.
Of course, faculty salaries aren't on par, in part because of the quality of life we all enjoy on 9 month contracts, and partly because of lucrative side-consulting gigs.
The market forces are both external, and internal to academia (since universities must compete for faculty on both fronts.)
The point is, "free market" forces are already shaping the salaries of faculty.
What are the objections to allowing market forces to shape the salaries across the board?
1. We are worth more than society knows. (really?)
2. We sacrificed--and now you must pay.
3. Righteous indignation ("How dare you think this? I won't even DISCUSS it")
One final point: commenters have mentioned many strawmen (strawpeople?) faculty positions... nursing, broadcasting, comp/rhet, lit, history. Interestingly, no one really has any REAL sense of what the demands are, and what market clearing prices would be.
Has anyone done any serious looking at this?
Isn't that how it goes?
So many of us, inside higher ed and out, have seen "the market" (as phrase, as ideology) lobbed around in ways that have hurt people. We've seen it used as a wedge, for exclusion, as a selection of numbers used to stifle debate.
The phrase hit some of our nerves before you ever typed it.
Stir that in with the "huffing and puffing", and...
Still, I'm glad you brought your ideas to the table. If the dust ever settles, maybe something good (and different!) will come out of it.
A point way too many commenters seemed to have missed.
DD was throwing out an idea folks, not claiming that he found the answer to academia's problems. Some of you are still getting huffy, even now, which is not the best way to have the earnest discussion DD was clearly aiming for. I don't know about DD, but I certainly would not want to debate with you guys when you are still coming in with a condescending and demanding tone.
I suspect a better model to look to would be the movie industry. It's a business that people really, really want to get into just for its own sake (unlike manufacturing or software), and it has a product which is not immediately tangible or quantifiable (unlike medicine). There simply is no market clearing level for actors.
Therefore I would predict a result something like the movie industry - that is, an intensification of what already goes on. Adjunct salaries would go from terribly low down to zero. People would be expected to volunteer to get their foot in the door. Most faculty salaries would go down to current adjunct levels, while the salaries of a few superstars would skyrocket.
(I'm thinking here of an R1 or SLAC where a big name brings in prestige and students; maybe CCs would fare better. Also, disciplines where faculty bring in grant money would work differently.)
Of course, the difference between actors, and faculty positions, should be the barriers to entry.
Almost anyone can go to LA to "be an actor." The requirements to getting a faculty position are much higher--PhD, publications, etc.
This is now getting QUITE interesting.
Hey, econ professors--has any work been done on this area (including barriers to entry, production/supply/demand for lib arts/classics profs, etc?)
Your solution is to redistribute the money. Full-time faculty would take a pay cut--let's say somewhere around 33%--to increase adjunct salaries.
We can talk about that--but only if your thought experiment includes administrators taking a 33% pay cut, too.
How about it?
I think the number of slots in graduate school, and the funding per student, should be set by appropriate boards.
(Perhaps applying the socialized healthcare model to education?)
Control the ingress, and match the output with what the market actually wants. There are probably many ways one could evaluate that, none of which would be perfect.
The result would be that it would incredibly difficult to get into graduate school, but if you were one of the good and the lucky, you could probably (not definitely) get a job in the "field" ("field" here should be much larger than academia).
Previous posters have argued that one should be able to enroll in grad school just because one wants the advanced study. I definitely do not agree, but there could be room for ad hoc (for tuition fees) terminal degree slots. The ad hoc students might compete for jobs in the "field" but without the honors attached with "winning" a regular slot, I'm not sure they would compete well.
Full disclaimer: I'm dean of three academic departments, hold twelve permanent positions in SLAC finance departments, enjoy firing adjuncts, have never been a graduate student, and am opposed to tenure. (Was that Swiftian? I've never read him.)
Now *that* was "Swiftian!"
Anyone care to guess why the "second tier" of "best and brightest" around the world come to the USA for graduate education (the first tier attend local universities in their home countries)?
Same reason why wealthy Canadians come to the USA for health care (and yes, it certainly is "all about access!").
I think the most stunning revelation so far is the premise that the relationship between high TT salaries and adjunct hiring has to be justified . . . yikes!
Yes, lets do go to the "European Model of Higher Education."
I always argued that way too many Americans were going to college anyhow . . .
Granted yours was an offhand attempt to throw an idea against the wall and see what sticks, but it lacked context and numbers. Getting peeved when people respond in kind is rather disingenuous.
Further, I have asked you, DD, several times for a pseudonymous overview of your budget structure (like % from tuition, ratio of costs for f-t and adjunct, etc) , which is crucial here, but all we get are crickets.
The proposal itself is also vague. I assumed it would eliminate TAs completely, using only f-t and p-t people where the latter could include grad students. (Others assumed differently.) Would there be fewer people going to grad school in the "problem fields" if they got the higher pay and benefits that are proposed for p-t instructors, or would there be more of them?
Finally, I don't see our favorite administrator admitting that a contract is not dictated by the faculty, it is negotiated. The system you inherited, for the few years you have been at any single institution, was created by your predecessors and is recreated by you each year the contract comes up for approval. The current system at your college was NOT a unilateral creation by the faculty, yet you repeatedly pretend that it is. If you want to change it, you need to stay in one place for a few years and work on it.
I got a PhD because I wanted to. I knew it would never make me rich. I taught adjunct for one year before I got a TT job. Lucky? Yes. But I watch people teach adjunct year after year. Some of the tone in the comments and posts implies that we need to liberate them. Do adjunct salaries suck? Yes. Do they not know that when they take the job? As a former adjunct, I understood the low wages, and I did my time for experience. If I hadn't earned a FT/TT position, I would have stopped teaching adjunct and done something more lucrative. If adjuncts quit accepting the pitiful wages, salaries would have to go up or sections/classes would be cut.
I teach at a CC, and my salary is not ridiculously high. So I don't buy that it's TT faculty vs. adjuncts. I think the state (meaning: legislature, citizens, etc.) doesn't want to pay what education actually costs. I think that is where the correction needs to come in. Yes, education should be affordable. But that doesn't mean one shouldn't have to sacrifice for it. (I'm speaking as someone who went to all state schools, worked pt as an undergrad, was on food stamps, paid my own tuition, etc. I never had a car or a computer or an ipod etc etc etc.)
My main comment is that adjuncts are not ignorant workers who need us (smarter, more enlightened)souls to liberate them. I am sympathetic, to a point. At some point, you have to stop working for an unlivable wage. Obviously wages should be higher. But if adjuncts refused to teach for such low wages, that would be a start.
A calloused and jaded Mighty Favog
I will just reiterate my comment that any attempt to set this up as a "free market" is doomed to fail because it is not a free market - we live, all of us, on a complex series of government subsidies that are channeled through financial aid, research grants, "general funds" and donations. Our product (education)has no direct market and our consumers frequently act against their own best interest. All the things that would let "the market" work are wonked.
At my R1, we get about 200 applications for a single tenure-track faculty opening, and about 20 for administrative positions. In both groups, the rate of fully qualified applicants is 10%. As a homework exercise, work out why the latter salary is essentially market clearing already, and the former isn't.
If the existence of tenure makes the job of professor so desirable that large numbers of people will work at low wages just for a shot at getting it then isn’t it possible that it’s helping the budget? Most professors probably work at least a little while before they become dead wood. Some may never become deadwood. Is the money saved by ‘under paying’ adjuncts totally used up by overpaying dead wood?
Also, as has been pointed out previously, a lot of professors are accepting lower pay than they’d like because they have tenure. If you remove tenure than you’d likely have to pay them more. I’m sure that the literature PhD who focuses on postmodern-communist interpretation of transcendental poetry has specialized skills that will be hard to market. But if they can read, write and show up on time every day they qualify for a lot of office work. Pull tenure and you’ll have to pay them more. Think of it as increasing the risk factor when calculating the present value of an investment. i.e. If you won’t promise me some money in the future you have to pay me more money right now.
In the long term this will likely make your budget problems worse. Fewer adjuncts will mean more full time professors, who will want more money to offset the uncertainty associated with their continued employment. You can probably offset this somewhat by having classes taught by grad students / TA’s. There might be fewer of them, depending on the true value of tenure. A robust job market with increased mobility might create more grad students.
The budget problems aren’t going to go away. I recognize that society benefits by having people study the classics, whether or not there is an immediate need. But society also benefits by filling in pot holes, funding the public defenders office, and not taxing me so damn much that I might have to move just to keep out of bankruptcy.
The solution is to make a high school degree worth something, which would take away tremendous costs from people who just want to get a dang job when they're old enough to work.
I'm not trying to be "clever." If the problem is Wal-Mart pay for adjunct faculty members, I simply don't understand why only full-time, tenure-track teachers should be part of the solution.
A dean-level job at my very-far-from-R1 community college starts at $120K. Our president started at $220K. I think we'd get plenty of fully-qualified applicants at 33% less.
Another line of research builds on the tournament models of Ed Lazear and the late Sherwin Rosen. I think Cornell's Robert Frank has extended the logic with his "winner take all" work. The analogy one commenter drew to show business matters here: with internet classes and cheap duplication of DVDs, the possibility of a teaching company paying only a few dynamic lecturers rock star fees to produce the classes and then marketing them widely and cheaply exists. Because on average entertainers cannot expect to do any better than plumbers, one winds up with similar average salaries, although in one labor market it is an average of a few stars and a lot of table-waiting wannabes, and in the other it is the average of comparable journeymen.
There's more in that line of research as well, but more than I'm up to verifying this evening. (It's always a good evening when the Braves lose.)
Independently of you, the proposal simply doesn't make sense to me. Maybe it's passe to be anti-market, but the market hasn't given us accessible health care or primary education, so I don't expect it to solve our higher ed salary issues.
I have no problems with proposals which involve eliminating tenure and making adjunct salaries livable wages. But please don't act like the market is going to preserve the best of what a well rounded higher education should be. It won't. The market largely doesn't give two &%$#s about what many of us research-- even if we are producing and perserving knowledge which is fundamental to a literate society.
I agree with several of the commenters here that academia has a lot in common with the entertainment industry when it comes to the teaching part of the business. Many good points have been made, so I won't reiterate, except to note that in an industry where lots of workers will basically give it away, demanding a good wage ain't easy. You've got to, somehow, bring in more value than the next person in line.
I do suspect that academia is in for the same wrenching changes that journalism and the music industry are experiencing, and for the same reasons. Even if you're a good teacher, can you compete with a model where one rock-star prof gives recorded lectures, backed up by on-site instructors who can handle 10 sections/semester? How about immersive online experiences--Grand Theft Russian Literature, anyone? If someone could guarantee a company 10,000 sales a year at $50 a pop, it'd get done.
Faculty in grant-writing disciplines like mine do perform another function: generating overhead. I don't know how many faculty can be supported under this model, though. Times are tight, and the skills necessary to regularly pry money out of the Feds are not thick on the ground. Faculty do perform important running-the-college functions, too, but not for the majority of their time. The core function is teaching and/or doing research, and that's what needs to be evaluated.
Is this a market-centic analysis? Yep. It is. But we're talking about money, not art. People who don't need money have almost complete artistic freedom, and that includes academics. On the other hand, earning a middle-class salary with health benefits means participating in the market somehow. Artists do it, engineers do it, computer geeks do it...why should academics be immune? We're not monks. (We used to be, but we're not anymore. That's another topic, though.)