Monday, June 15, 2009

Salaries – Public or Private (or both)?

The indefatigable Lesboprof has a thoughtful post up about whether salaries should be public information. She makes several great points in favor of publicity, including preventing discrimination and giving rookies a fair sense of the going rate.

I agree, but will take it even farther.

One really basic benefit of publicity is that it will frequently put the lie to the tiresome claims of 'bloated administrative salaries' that usually constitute the first salvo in academic politics. I make substantially less than my predecessor did several years ago, and that was true at my previous job as well. My counterparts here also make far less than you'd expect, given their qualifications, performance, and scope of responsibility. (This year's raise: 0.) Put that out there, and put the finger-pointing to rest. Structural problems are structural, not personal.

At colleges where that isn't the case – where the bloat is actually real – then shedding light can only help. It's a win-win either way.

(The only level at which this falls apart is with Presidents, since they typically get some substantial portion of their compensation in 'allowances' for housing, a car, etc. I'll admit not quite understanding this, since it seems bound to lead to issues. I'd rather take the equivalent in salary – even with the tax hit – to have the privilege of being able to stop for milk on the way home without filling out an expense report, or of being able to paint the flippin' living room without anybody's permission. But that's me.)

Public salaries also make it much harder for cowardly administrators to cut side deals. On behalf of those of us who are actually trying to do the right thing, this is good news. Yes, there are currencies other than money – course releases, office locations, travel money, etc. – but taking a really big one off the table can limit the abuses. Since public institutions aren't publicly traded, there's no issue of stock options substituting for salary, which is what led to so many abuses elsewhere. My cc doesn't, and couldn't, issue stock. What you get is what you see.

Public salaries can also serve as useful counterarguments to those in the popular press – I won't name any names here – who like to claim that academics are getting fat at the public trough. Look at what people actually make at the cc level. With a few exceptions in some very specific regions of the country, these numbers don't suggest any kind of boondoggle. If anything, including adjuncts in the overall list – I'd insist on that – should give a sense of just how inexpensively cc's generally are run. Yes, some of the four-year and graduate institutions might rather sweep that particular fact under the rug, but it's true. Cut our budget, and we start cutting functions.

At a more fundamental level, though, I'd love to get past the idea of academia as some sort of calling, and recognize that it's a job. Treat it as such. The 'calling' idea, I think, is part of why so many adjuncts allow themselves to be exploited for so long. They just can't imagine doing anything else, and/or don't want to admit defeat. (A calling is supposed to be deeply personal. If you can't get anywhere in your calling, what does that say about you? Rationally, that's crap, but psychologically, it's powerful.) As long as they hold pre-modern, romantic notions of the 'profession,' they're ripe for the picking. We need to disenchant the job, which means, among other things, putting it all out there. Yes, that may have a depressing effect on graduate school admissions. That would be a sign of success. The goal here is to stop talented young people from throwing themselves into the sausage grinder. Warning them upfront that even a 'win' – a tenure-track job – isn't all that much of a win economically might just dissuade some, which can only help.

I'll go farther, though. It's ludicrous that public institutions should be the only ones with open books. My modest proposal: open salaries by law for every employer in America. Let's see where the real bloat is. Hint: it ain't community colleges.

Lesboprof's arguments seem to me just as valid for the private sector as for the public. Rookies should be able to learn the going rate, and discrimination shouldn't be able to hide behind a corporate veil. In an era of government bailouts, the idea that professors making $45,000 a year are open to scrutiny but bankers making a dozen times that, aren't, is insane. Let's see where all the money is going – not just public sector money – before we start judging just exactly who's exploiting whom.

I've long suspected that the taboo against talking about salaries served certain interests over others. Here's a chance to see. How much does the talking head on Fox News get? How much does my functional equivalent at an HMO get? No more of this 'selective transparency' crap. Let's get it all out there, and have a real discussion about priorities.

Transparency is great, but not just for the public sector. I'm tired of uberwealthy commentators cherry-picking the occasional anomaly from the public sector for political purposes, while remaining immune from scrutiny themselves. Fair is fair. Open the books, and let the chips fall where they may. Let everybody get a sense of the going rate. Then let the real debate begin.