Current Affairs Higher Education

working hard or hardly working: labor day thoughts on the professoriate

A recent NY Times article causing reaction on the WPA-list takes up the subject of the public bashing of professors. It's really a fairly dated complaint. At least I can't recall a time in my professional life when professors weren't being bashed, even though this piece wants to suggest this is some kind of recent turn of events. The common response on the WPA list is to react with a list of the hard work one is doing.

I have several reactions to this, but that response is not one of them (even if I do think I work hard).

1. Most highly-educated professions are disliked as professions–lawyers, bankers, doctors, politicians, teachers–so why not professors? Can you name a profession that requires graduate education that isn't disliked? Maybe there are some, but only because their cultural profile is not very high. Americans as a whole distrust education and educated people (remember less than 10% of Americans have graduate degrees). That's life. 

2. Related to point one, the average American doesn't understand (or value) the work we do, especially in the humanities. Certainly we could do more to reach out to the public. However in doing so we compete with a pro-corporate mass media. I have little doubt that if humanists' political views were more in line with those of the mainstream media, we'd be represented in a far better light. 

It's a little odd these days to try to argue that professors are only working a couple of hours per week comprised of the time they are teaching classes or holding office hours. How many people cybercommute these days? Watch those house hunting shows and everyone is talking about needing a home office. I assume that's because they are working at home. The nature of labor across many professions is tending more toward the shape of academia than away from it.

3. The article suggests professors make a lot of money (really?) and throws around 6-figure numbers. According the bureau of labor statistics, the national median for post-secondary English teachers is $58K. Yes, some other professors earn more (e.g. median for engineering is $86K, but that has something to do with the non-academic market for engineers), but I haven't noted a dramatic overall increase in the salaries of English professors in the last decade. That is, looking at the BLS stats and those on, I doubt an incoming asst prof at SUNY Cortland, where I started in 2001, is making more than I did (after you factor inflation, etc.). The uproar is over the increasing cost of higher education, but until someone shows me some evidence to the contrary, it doesn't seem to me that the increase is a reflection of increased costs for faculty. In fact, given the shift toward adjunct faculty, I would find it hard to believe that faculty costs overall can have gone up in real dollars. Certainly not in the humanities.

4. If one wants to be unhappy with the cost of higher education, join the club. I've got two kids too who will want to go to college in the next decade. But I think part of the unhappiness is the sense that one is required to go to college to get a decent job. Let me point out that this fact is not the responsibility of higher education. Universities don't write job ads for corporations. I still say that people happily pay for a nice car the same amount they might pay for in-state public university tuition. But they want the car and they don't want the education. They just want the job that requires the education (actually they don't want the job either; they want the stuff they can buy with the pay from the job).

5. The other thing people seem to dislike is tenure. And I think they place themselves in that position and say "if I had tenure then I'd sit around and do nothing all day." Well, maybe that's why you don't have tenure. To get to tenure, a person has to exhaust a tremendous amount of labor. Seven years of graduate school (on average), working as a TA or adjunct, borrowing a lot of money all for the chance to just compete for a tenure-track job. Most people wouldn't take that risk (probably because they are sane or something). Then one has to negotiate the job market and tenure process. Really you can only get to tenure if you have a tremendous amount of intrinsic motivation for doing the work required. Now others might not value that work (see above), but doing it for the extrinsic reward of tenure protection isn't going to be sufficient. 

Now that's not to say that there aren't lazy professors. I'm guessing there are lazy people where you work too. That's not to say that some years one is more productive than others. Anyone is sales has this same experience. We are all familiar with this trend among professional athletes. The point though is that overall professors have plenty of motivations for continuing to work after tenure, including material rewards like better pay and perks but also reputation and improved working conditions. In turn universities benefit from the reputations of their faculty. 

In the end, tenure is one of the benefits of being an academic. Any pro-business, free-market advocate should appreciate that. If University A offered you $75K and tenure and University B offered you $80K and a 3-yr contract, which would you take? Yes, there are plenty of job-seeking phds out there, but if you want proven faculty with national reputations, there's a competitive market for such folks. How much more would a university have to offer you to compensate for not offering you tenure? Then, thinking of this from the university perspective, which approach is more cost-effective?

Maybe as a university you do tenure a few duds. Every large corporation has employees that somehow manage to hide under the radar. And yes it probably is harder to get rid of those folks. But compare that to the cost of not offering tenure. Sure, hypothetically every university in the world could decided simultaneously to stop offering tenure. Hypothetically every business that employees people in any profession might simultaneously decide to start paying those folks half what they currently pay them.

Or not.

The fact of the matter is that when you factor in the years of education and the precarious nature of the job market and tenure process, that academia is not a good profession to enter for making money.

I mean, isn't that obvious. Just to hit the point home. The median salary for writers is $53K and for nurses its $63K. And I don't want to denigrate nurses in any way. My mother is a nurse. But no one thinks nurses make "a lot" of money, do they? Well, English professors make less, only a little more than "writers."