hell no, I won’t go

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.

This entry was posted in career.

26 thoughts on “hell no, I won’t go

  1. I’m torn, because I kind of agree with everyone who’s participated in this conversation–I think you’re right that organizing and fighting is more work–uncompensated work, and that’s just exhausting to even consider. But I also agree with TR that we need to do something about the systematic cultural and actual devaluation of our labor. (More than just b!tch about it on our blogs, that is.) Then again, I also agree with Dr. Crazy, who says today that she’s very cynical about the possibility of any positive change.

  2. See, I think I’m with Crazy: the trends in higher education that we all deplore — higher rates of contingent labor, cultural excoriation of the professoriate in general and non-STEM fields in particular, real devaluation of our labor and, in the past few years, of our actual salary figures — are here to stay. I would love to work in a world where liberal arts faculties were expanding, all new PhDs were getting TT jobs, and everyone was being paid plush salaries. But unfortunately, as a member of the reality-based community (remember that phrase?) I cannot imagine that ever happening.

  3. I haven’t been following the debate this go-round but I basically agree with your structural reasons 1 & 2 and personal reason (#4), though I wouldn’t mind having a much larger budget (and closet) for my shoes.

    Here’s why I must once again say that I adore you: “SweetCliffe and I started a private nonprofit foundation in order to give away that extra income.”

  4. I agree with all of this. I also agree that I’d take more if it were offered. After 8 years in the biz, I have loads of debt, no car, and no house — and no possibility of any of that changing in the forseeable future. And yeah: I’d like to set up college funds for my niece & nephews, because my siblings sure as hell won’t be able to. And some days, I just remind myself that the steretypical college professor had patches on the elbows of his tweed jacket because there were *holes* there, and one couldn’t just go buy a new tweed jacket on a professor’s salary.

    Here’s what I WOULD take: an end to being culturally devalued. I am fine with being paid less than other people with equivalent educations because, like you, I just don’t need that much stuff. But when I’m living paycheck to paycheck AND having to hear about how me and my colleagues are greedy and lazy and irrelevant… well, it makes me really want to throw in the towel some days.

  5. Barbara, I’m with you on the shoes though, like you, I am limited for closet space. Also, maybe if I were rich I’d eat lots of expensive artisanal cheese. But in general I’m cool with my lifestyle. And thanks for the love!

    And Notorious, I hear you on how tiresome it is to be characterized as greedy and lazy. That is sort of like the final insult.

  6. Very well put.

    My thought has always been… if I don’t feel like academia is treating me well enough, I will leave it. Their loss. But I’ve always been a bit full of myself.

    As an aside: I do want more money, but mainly because I’d like my husband to be able to quit the job he hates without us having to worry about losing his salary. If we save up enough we can do that (because it will kick off dividends). And I want to keep contributing to the cousins’ college tuition and all the smaller things we do, and I want to keep being able to get St. Andre cheese on occasion without being guilty about its effect on the monthly budget… and maybe have a second child some day. I used to not care so much about money but after a sabbatical year I realized what money can buy in terms of freedom so I want more.

  7. As a widow with no dependents (but college funds for two grandchildren) I’m paid more than enough. I can tithe my income to organizations I care about. Like you, I can travel, eat, and consume in accordance with my relatively modest tastes. Like Notorious, I mind the devaluing of our work that is part of the package.

    I’m less interested in the money than the cultural values. And I’d be very interested in working to change those. In particular, I want to change the idea that if it matters, it earns money. This is such a patently foolish idea that it’s extraordinary its traction in the academy (and outside it).

  8. In general, I agree with you. However, in the UK, we’ve lost some of the freedoms you list under #2 (my curriculum, syllabus and assignments are all checked by a committee prone to arbitrary-seeming changes. I have to team-teach against my preferences, timetabling of classes is centralised and out of my control meaning that my ability to schedule my working life is restricted – yes, noone tells me what to do outside of my classroom times and meeting slots, but when you have 9am classes and 5pm classes for several days of the week, you are kind of tied to campus…) and others are going (my research objectives have to be approved and targetted at submissions for the Research Excellence Framework assessment, and the resources I can draw on to do my job are shrinking monthly… (I used to see things like my lab-space and the support of the excellent departmental technicians and secretaries as part of the trade-off you describe in #2… but they are becoming less and less available). Seems to me like the contract is breaking down from the employers side without any acknowledgement or even apology. Not sure we could DO anything about this, but it bugs me!

    I’d like more money for books! But I am a bit of a bookaholic, and would cope with the library.

  9. Susan, I’m not sure whether the profession really is devalued, or if it’s just Teabag and Fox, Inc., that is influencing the public discourse. Certainly there are troubling things going on — calls for standardized teaching to be measured by gradation tests, things like the Texas A & M assessment of individual faculty members as net “profits or losses” for the university. The hysteria is having an effect in some areas. Yet, I find that 99% of the people I meet outside the academy have great respect for professors and their work, are interested in hearing about both my teaching and my research, and often have fond memories of a prof. or HS teacher that influenced the course of their lives. I don’t think the general population actually devalues professors — yet. But if this discourse goes the way that other ones have, that are taken up by the extreme cultural right, then we are in trouble.

    And Jane B.: your situation sounds far worse. While on my campus, we also have centralized timetables for teaching, one can give in preferences which usually are honored: I’ve never ad two classes so far apart, for instance, or been forced to team teach. Checking research projects in the sciences is done in various ways (obviously, protocols for human subjects & for lab animals; likely also for anything chemically dangerous), but that mainly is putting a restraint on methods rather than goals or outcomes. In other words, you can research what you want, as long as it can be done safely and without undue cruelty to animals.

    If I started losing significant portions of my #2 point, I would consider quitting and moving to India. I could retire there now…

  10. What Notorious said in paragraph two above really speaks to me.

    Also, most of us have tons of debt from grad school, so it would seem as though the salaries should be higher in order to reflect the fact that we’ve PAID a lot in order to become qualified to hold the position.

  11. Ink, as I said, I wouldn’t be averse to a higher salary, I’m just not going to become an organizer demanding it. It’s probably true that academic salaries in most non-elite institutions could be somewhat higher.

    However, I think the better solution to the problem of PhD debt should perhaps be to compensate grad. students and adjuncts fairly for their labor by paying them a better wage, and/or giving better benefits, rather than to compensate *some* of them after the fact — the ones that ultimately land high-paying jobs. Obviously, that doesn’t help you or Notorious in any way (or me, at one time, though my debt was not high). But I think if we’re going to talk about economic injustice and the university, the first group to leap to my mind is not full professors already making in the six figures (which is where this conversation started, at TR’s). In the broader scheme of things I hardly see her, or myself at my more modest level, as disadvantaged and in need of redress. It would seem to me eminently more fair and sane to allocate resources to paying a living wage to grad. & contingent labor, such that folks don’t have to assume a huge burden of debt before they even get to start their careers.

    It would be great, of course, if everyone within the orbit of academia could do a little better. But try as I might, I cannot find it in my heart to bleed for someone making six figures.

  12. I’ve been out of the blog loop the last few days, taking a bit of our fall break to repaint our living room, dining room and hallway. Your house posts have inspired me!

    Financially, I’m someone who cannot complain in any way, shape or form about my salary. I’m actually a bit embarrassed and nonplussed at how much I bring in. Of course, on the flip side, employment opportunities for my partner in this city are slim and getting slimmer. So that one generous salary has to support four for now and three for a long term (I don’t know how independent autistic youngest will ever be) and we do find ways to spend it all (most recently, on paint).

    That said, as many others have noted, the devaluation of our profession in the eyes of some in the community is maddening. I get tired of all the “must be nice to have the summers off” comments when I think about how many administrative, research and writing duties, as well as course prep, I squeeze in during that “free time”. I work on vacations, I work over holidays, I work weekends, evening and nights just the way my professor father did. Like you, I enjoy setting much of my own work tasks, but just because I do so doesn’t make it less onerous to mark eighty midterms or seventy short essays.

    My eldest daughter has said that she doesn’t want to be an academic. Why? Because she doesn’t want to be working “all the time.” She’s looked into matters and feels that working as a psychiatrist is more balanced, even given the rigours of residency.

  13. Sorry not to have kept up with the conversation yesterday–Weds. is my seminar afternoon.

    I think the relatively low pay (for most of us) and the lack of prestige/feeling that it’s open season on us all of the time are inextricable. That is, I don’t think the relative prestige of our jobs will increase if the pay doesn’t. Look at the Wall Street crooks who blew up the economy, got bailed out, and at the same time enjoyed record-high compensation. I’d like to say I’m shocked–but the fact is that more people believe that the 4th grade teacher and the college professor down the block are both bigger sucks on public money than any Wall Street scumbag. (That’s “free market” money, don’t'cha know!) The money they make insulates them from public opprobrium, in this country anyway.

    Volunteer or ill-paid labor has never been prestgious in the U.S. The most prestigious work pays the most, and that’s in large part why it’s considered prestigious by others.

  14. I think you’re being a little inconsistent here, Historiann: on the one hand, I think you’re saying that people don’t respect profs *because* they are ill-paid and people tend to respect the rich, like those Wall-streeters; on the other hand, you seem to be suggesting that people believe, erroneously, that we are in fact very well paid — so by your logic, shouldn’t we be *high-prestige* in the public mind, since people *think* we’re rolling in it?

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  16. Honestly, if college profs could get their student loans forgiven, then I’d continue to work as an adjunct for a lot longer. But the threat of having those debts drag me under? I can’t stay in the game. No one will hire me full-time, and I’ve accumulated so much debt while underemployed for the last four years that I’ve reached my tipping point. I have two kids to consider for god’s sake. I can’t just live on credit cards and hope during the summer time. That kind of thinking has earned me 100K in student loans, and about 50K in other debt, mainly credit cards, over the course of my graduate school years and adjuncting years combined. Hubby’s got 100K in student loans, too. We’ll likely have to declare bankruptcy, but we can’t get rid of our student loan debt. Do I think that professors should be paid more? Well, it would be nice if they were paid differently. Forgive the student loans! Give people a living wage if you’re going to use them as adjuncts. And for god’s sake, give contingent faculty year-long contracts instead of this semester-to-semester BS.

  17. Fie, you’re a good example of why I think it makes a lot more sense to lift up TAs, adjuncts, and other contingent labor before tenured profs. Your life would be very different if you had been able to minimize your debt by being paid a decent wage as a grad. student TA and later as an adjunct. Raising the pay of tenured profs, on the other hand, would do little to assist someone like you, since you may not ever get to be in that position, given the burden of debt you are struggling with now.

    I repeat: if we’re going to talk about economic injustice and the university, tenured faculty need to get in line behind a lot of other people.

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  19. I think the thing that Historiann is talking about has a different motivation. The people down the street, who are maybe out of work, don’t resent the Gordon Gekkos of the world except in a “rail against the rich” kind of way, which is why they continue to get away with murder. The average person can’t imagine life as a corporate raider, I’m guessing, but he or she can imagine life as a teacher, since it’s closer, and thus the teacher becomes the target of all the rage about lost employment, etc. It’s unfair and counterproductive, since it’s a distraction from the corporate hijinks that are continuing to dig the hole deeper, but that’s what happens.

  20. Squadra – I have an interview for an editing position on Friday that pays even less than the worst full-time teaching jobs I’ve heard of. In other words, the low 30s. Even though the pay sucks, I hope I get it. It would be steady work. I wouldn’t have to bring work home with me. And there would be some potential to steadily move up based on my performance at work, rather than my extra activities (publishing, service, on top of teaching). I might actually have time to have a life and see my kids on occasion, instead of holing up every night and weekend to work. I’m so sick of academia telling me I’m not good enough. It would be nice to get out of the rat race once and for all. So wish me luck. If I get this job, there will be one less adjunct to kick around and one less PhD desperate for a job. It would be good for all of us.

  21. I think I’m pretty much in agreement with most of what you’ve said here, Squadro, but particularly so the business of respect. On the one hand I don’t care all that much about whether the rest of the world respects me and my profession. On the other, in my experience they do anyway. When I meet people and tell them what I do, they are generally impressed, not dismissive. Undoubtedly this has something to do with where and with whom I socialize, but I’m certainly not exposed to widespread derision of my profession.

    While I don’t much care about making oodles more money (though like you would not refuse it), and don’t think that paying more (which isn’t going to happen, regardless) would necessarily bring about that respect, the one way that I suppose that more respect would be beneficial is if it meant that it wasn’t so easy to cut budgets for humanities faculty. I don’t mean my salary in particular, I mean lines in my department or funding for our research or that sort of thing. All the sorts of things that make my life more difficult than it might have been 30 years ago and that make other people’s lives — adjuncts, particularly — close to unbearable.

  22. Good luck, Fie! Keep us posted.

    And Blake: Yes, I think you have it just right that the problem is more at the impersonal level, in terms of slashed funding that makes our departmental culture more difficult. But at the individual, personal level, the people I meet generally seem very interested when they hear I’m a prof.

    For those interested in following the conversation further, TR has another post up, and jb at ageofperfection.blogspot.com does as well.

  23. I’m in a low wage state with poor benefits and I have been a professor for 24 years. I am in debt because of conferences and the cost of books (no, our library is not up to date, and no, we do not have travel money, but yes, we must be up to date). This month I have both the copayment for minor skin cancer treatment and also the cost of reappraisal for the house, so it can be refinanced at a lower rate, so I can pay down other debt as well as the house. That is $800 in all I do not usually spend, so, groceries will be on credit. Time spent figuring out how to manage all of this has been time I could have put into work. So yes, I do care about money — a lot — and I would like to make the Southern regional average for my rank, and so on.

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  25. I really like what Notorious said in her second paragraph. And, like you S., I don’t expect or need to get rich in this profession. I just want to be able to not worry about money running out every month (as it has done since I began this job). I don’t need to drive a Mercedes, or have an enormous house. All I ask for is financial solvency and the ability to sleep at night without worrying about whether I can afford groceries.

    When I graduated with my Ph.D. I knew I wouldn’t be paid much for a teaching gig, but I’m in just as dire straights now as I was as a TA.

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