This is my take on the conversations over at Historiann’s and Tenured Radical’s (and TR’s newest post, here). In brief, the questions are these: should faculty fight for salaries equivalent to those of professionals in the private sector? Is it time for solidarity — to organize and demand six-figure salaries for the professoriat?
I will not join this fight, and here are my reasons why:
Three structural reasons:
1. Higher education is a not-for-profit enterprise. Yes, PhDs are, like doctors and lawyers, highly-educated professionals with postgraduate degrees. And yes, doctors and lawyers often make, right out of the gate, salaries that tenured faculty can only expect near retirement (if ever: I myself am unlikely ever to get to that level). But here’s the thing: the folks in those other fields making those high salaries generally work in the private sector. A lawyer working primarily in pro bono work, or as a public defender; a doctor who primarily works for charitable organizations or a clinic: these people are not going to be raking in the big bucks. There are a number of outraged statements out there, by tenured faculty, that “working for less than one is worth” (a statement I don’t fully understand, hence the quotes) constitutes a form of charitable contribution to one’s employer. Welcome to reality, folks, that’s kind of intrinsic to non-profit work more broadly. In my view, that’s part of the deal I made when entering a not-for-profit field.
2. The other deal we all made in entering the world of higher education is that we would work many hours per week, but within a relatively flexible time schedule largely (if not entirely) of our own devising. We also don’t have direct oversight: faculty act as independent contractors of sorts, designing classes and pursuing research without having to report back, on a daily or weekly basis, to a person in authority. We have summers entirely free to structure as we please: yes, we still work during them, but what luxury to be able to do so exactly where and when and how we wish. Then there are other benefits like travel: next week, for instance, I am going to a European capitol city in order to give a talk at a conference, with all my expenses to be paid by my hosts. Academia offers spectacular privileges to people who value a high degree of independence and flexibility. I would much rather have these benefits than a lawyer’s salary and obligations. And yes: I do see it as a direct trade-off.
3. The fastest route to full and complete adjunctification of higher education is to make hiring adjuncts an ever better deal. This may be where we’re headed anyway, but the best way to accelerate the process is for tenured faculty to insist on remuneration equivalent to their private sector peers. The larger the gap between what it costs institutions to sustain a full-time line with benefits, and hiring an adjunct, the more adjunctified the university becomes, pure and simple.
Two personal reasons:
4. I have no aspirations to be rich and no ego investment in the idea of my salary equalling my “worth.” Given my salary (which, 16 years into my career, is about 30% below the figure that started this whole conversation), and given the cost of living in my locale, I am middle class. That’s fine: in my view I eat well, dress well, travel when I want to, have a nice home because I put a lot of time and effort and creativity (not a huge amount of cash) into it, have a decent retirement fund. What would I do with more money — buy a larger house, or a second home? vacation in fancier hotels? drive a newer, or more luxurious, car? Those things do not particularly appeal to me. I enjoy living and traveling modestly: there is, literally, nothing that money could buy me that I currently lack or want. And when my household income was, for one short, flush year before the economy tanked, 10K higher than it currently is, SweetCliffie and I started a private nonprofit foundation in order to give away that extra income. I could get all fired up about my “worth” but I just don’t operate in that way. I think tenured faculty on the whole make very poor poster children for the theme of economic injustice.
5. I work within a context where fighting for a higher salary, even if I were so inclined, would undoubtedly be a massive waste of my time. Realistically, there simply is no chance that my salary is ever going to equal that of a private-sector professional. Zero. So, here’s my choice: I could increase my workload by engaging in the kind of tasks that I, personally, find tedious and loathsome: organizing, sending emails, scheduling meetings, talking with administrators, taking notes, reporting back, writing memos, etc., and gain precisely nothing but a lot of grief because, I repeat, salaries at OPU are never going to increase substantially. Or: I can spend my time alternately connecting with my off-campus community, and working on the book that will get me a promotion to full professor. The latter activity will, when completed, get me a small raise (though I still won’t make six figures). Gee: pounding my head against the wall for no benefit, or pursuing modest pleasures: which one should I choose?
Nota Bene: Let me be clear: if OPU suddenly decided to give all faculty significant raises, I would not refuse. I’m not romanticizing some kind of ascetic refusal. Indeed, I’d be happy to revive my foundation, put more money into my retirement fund, etc. The point of this post is to explain why I do not feel actively aggrieved, angry, or self-pitying about my salary, why I do not want to storm the battlements.