Department of Economics: Observations On The Lack Of Raises and Thinking Out Of The Box

October 25, 2010, 2:07 pm

As if you didn’t know

We are in a prolonged period in which suppressing faculty wages is the preferred solution (after firing the staff) to “controlling” the costs of higher education.  Although paid better than many colleagues at state institutions and community colleges, for my two decades at Zenith, the faculty has come to the depressing conclusion at the end of each year that we are more or less at the bottom of our so-called “peer group” of liberal arts colleges.  One year, in an attempt to raise our position, our peer group was adjusted:  several larger research institutions were removed and they were replaced with smaller liberal arts colleges.  This helped our ranking for a bit, but of course, university rankings — whether they are compiled by U.S. News and World Report or by the AAUP — don’t pay the mortgage.

At age 52, I make slightly more than 107K, 16K less than the median salary at my rank at Zenith and, adjusted for inflation and health insurance, less than I made three years ago.  The actual number of my salary tells you little, since I am quite sure that salaries vary wildly at Zenith and that I make more than some people who have worked there for longer (colleagues are invited to contribute their own salaries, anonymously if they wish, in the comments section.)  What I also know is that we don’t get meaningful raises any more, and that it seems unlikely that the wage gap will be closed except through the retirement and departure of better paid colleagues.  Two years ago, Zenith finally locked on to what the public and state schools have known for a long time:  pay your faculty less, and there isn’t a damned thing they can do about it.  Year before last, we received no raises; last year I was pretty much at the top of the chart at slightly less than 2%; and this year’s overall pool will only be increased by 2%.  Simultaneously, insurance costs and co-pays have risen, and our health insurers are reimbursing less than they did, mostly by fu@king up our paperwork.  Conference stipends no longer come close to covering the costs of conferences (sometimes they cover the plane ticket and that’s it.) The teeny raises also mean we are getting smaller institutional contributions than we expected to our retirement savings and — for those of us in our fifties who are at what we were led to believe was to be our peak earning capacity — beginning to address mid-life financial responsibilities for our families with a diminished ability to meet them.

The only way to make more money is to work more:  we now have multiple opportunities to teach more classes, and be paid adjunct wages to do so.  This is called, for those of you unfamiliar with labor history, “speed up.”  The idea is this:  the university needs more revenue, so regular faculty teach an extra class in our extension program, for which everybody in the class has paid $2,130.  Regular Zenith students pay $2600 for summer courses, plus a housing charge for dorm space that would otherwise be vacant.  The faculty stipend for any of these courses is around 6K (which is about 1K more than an ABD adjunct wage at Zenith and 2K less than what grad students are paid for their own courses at Oligarch); there are 15-20 people in the class.  You do the math here:  are Zenith faculty being paid a fair wage for this work?  No.  They are being paid a market wage – and, my guess is, twice what adjuncts at the local state schools are paid.  And yet, increasingly, faculty are getting squeezed into doing this as their salaries flat line.

Here’s the bottom line:  I am not unsympathetic to the financial problems in higher education, or to the important restructuring that is long overdue at my own institution.  But I refuse to sell myself for less; I refuse to sell myself for less than I am worth; I refuse to contribute to the casualization of academic labor; and I refuse to do what is essentially volunteer work for my employer.

As an aside, this also leaves your Radical — who is, in fact, a devoted teacher, in the curious and ironic position of being asked to reverse priorities that were just recently reversed.  Having had a huge career crisis resulting from the error of over-invested in the institution to the detriment of my scholarly pace; having reversed that formula following my big crisis and entered into one of the most productive scholarly periods of my life; having had my salary suppressed as an associate because I did not publish as others did while I was institution building; guess what?  Faculty are currently no longer being rewarded for their scholarship — unless it can be leveraged into an outside offer.  Instead, the only way to get a decent “raise” is to increasingly take on work to the detriment of one’s scholarship.  I have more or less missed the train of history on this one, which is a stunning discovery, to say the least.

And yet, it is also potentially liberating and — not to be mysterious — it is a problem I am working on, because if I can’t control the financial priorities of the institution, I can control my own choices.  If I am no longer really working in hopes of improving my economic condition, what am I working for, and how should I imagine what “a better life” means? What would it mean to exercise more choice over the job I am underpaid for, and simply create priorities that are independent of — or selectively dependent on — the priorities of the institution?  To do less institutional work for my flat lined salary as compensation for not getting the raises I should be getting for my accelerated scholarly activity?  To do another kind of institutional work that is wholly and completely chosen, and which gives prestige to Zenith in exchange for Zenith giving me my freedom to define my own priorities?

Or even to imagine leaving academia entirely and becoming a writer, full-time?  Stay tuned.

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