Thursday, January 26, 2012

Friday Follow-ups

A few follow-ups to issues that came up this week:

In response to the “rejection” post earlier this week, one commenter suggested that ageism is rampant in faculty hiring.  S/he offered no particular evidence for the claim, but stated it as a sort of “everybody knows.”

Like many “everybody knows” claims, I haven’t seen it.  Over the past several years, my college has hired faculty in their twenties and faculty in their sixties, with many in between.  The processes for screening applicants are rigorous enough that it’s hard to imagine that kind of bias making itself felt very often.  At my previous college, the same was true.

That’s not to say that my own experience is universal, obviously, but it does make me wonder about the pre-emptive certainty of the claim, and the purpose served by asserting it.  Presumably, if the practice were ubiquitous, I would have seen it by now.  Instead, the charge gets thrown around, but without proof.  It’s hard to prove a negative, of course, but the charge feels a little like working the referee.  

If anything, I’d think the valid concern would go the other way.  With colleges adopting “tiered” benefits packages based on date of hire, newer employees will never get the level of benefits of their elders.  That sure smells like age discrimination to me...


In reference to yesterday’s post about cost (among other things), a commenter asked how I could assert ever-rising costs for colleges in the face of flat salaries for faculty.

That’s an easy one.  Costs include much more than salaries.

The elephant in the room for any discussion of labor costs is health insurance.  When the cost of employer-provided insurance goes up, then labor costs go up, even if salaries remain flat.  The employee might not feel it, but the employer absolutely does.  From the employer’s perspective, an increase in the cost of benefits is no different than a raise.  

This is why I pull out what little hair I still have whenever I read the New Faculty Majority’s advocacy of the “Vancouver model” for paying adjuncts.  Vancouver is in Canada.  In Canada, health insurance is not attached to employment.  If you don’t account for that, then you miss the point.  Establish single-payer health insurance in America, and we can get a handle on the adjunct compensation issues.  Until then, we use adjunct compensation to get a handle on health insurance.  


The IHE survey of provosts made for fascinating reading.  The two findings that jumped out at me were the Lake Wobegon effect and the provosts’ views of unions.

The Lake Wobegon effect -- “where every child is above average” -- applied both to academic standards and the effects of funding cuts.  Substantial numbers of provosts reported that grade inflation and declining academic performance are major issues, but only at other places.  And funding cuts will reduce quality on their campuses, even though they haven’t yet.

Many commenters took those responses as evidence of denial.  That may be, but there’s also a sense in which they have to give those answers.  A chief academic officer with a conscience would resign if s/he thought that academic standards had declined on her watch.  But if you don’t deploy the threat of decline in the future, it becomes hard to argue against further cuts.  So you adopt a seemingly contradictory view.

The responses on unions were portrayed as negative, though I read that as a function of the question asked.  If you assume that unions exist primarily to benefit their members, then the answers given necessarily follow.  That doesn’t necessarily imply that unions are objectionable; it just means that their first priority is their membership.  (The same argument holds about the claim that corporations exist primarily to make money.  Of course they do.  The relevant question is whether they accomplish a broader social good anyway.)  I don’t see the contradiction between saying that unions exist primarily to serve their members, and that they’re generally positive anyway.  Are they helpful, or self-interested?  Yes.  Just like corporations.