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.