The Chronicle Review

Academic Inequality and the Star System

April 14, 2014

Which professors become highly visible may have changed since the 1990s, but the business side of the academic star system is still going strong: Universities that hope to move up in the graduate-program rankings target top professors and offer them high salaries and other perks. Against the backdrop of a rampant reliance on adjuncts, that strikes some people as even more ethically questionable than the famously high pay of Duke University English professors that scholars griped about in the 1980s and 90s.

The New York Times reported last June that New York University, which has faced protests from graduate students and adjuncts over pay and benefits, was helping to buy second homes in desirable places like the Hamptons for some of its most-valued faculty members and administrators. When word leaked last summer that David H. Petraeus, the former CIA director who has a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton, was going to earn between $150,000 and $200,000 for teaching a single course at the City University of New York’s honors college, students protested, and Mr. Petraeus agreed to teach for $1. Columbia University bought the economist Jeffrey Sachs an $8-million townhouse when he moved from Harvard in 2002 (although, in fairness, the first floor was reserved for the Earth Institute he heads, and he pays rent).

The "old" star system, with its greater focus on humanities celebrities, saw institutions like the University of California at Irvine go after a handful of big names—Jacques Derrida, J. Hillis Miller, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in Irvine’s case—who were also getting attention outside academe. Scholars worried that the collegiality and rough egalitarianism of university departments were threatened by such tactics, a concern that seems quaint now.

"Obviously, the original star system was ironic," says George Boulukos, an associate professor of English at Southern Illinois University, referring to supposed radicals who played universities off one another to gain higher salaries. "People talked about these people as being ‘Neiman Marxists.’ But now the irony is gone, because everyone just embraces the market." Established stars take it for granted that they’ll get outside offers; then they either move or use the leverage to increase their salaries. From Boulukos’s perspective, at a smaller public university, it looks like a game of musical chairs in which most academics are left standing.

The star system is "in hyperdrive," says Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success. A decade ago, her university began a $100-million program to bolster departments in the arts and sciences, hiring established scholars from better-ranking departments. One beneficiary was Scott Soames, a philosopher. Hired from Princeton in 2004 and chair since 2007, he and the department have been on a hiring spree that has brought it from 46th in the country to 11th, according to the much-watched rankings system created by Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago. Leiter says he’s heard the housing subsidies for USC philosophers hit $500,000 in some cases, although Soames says that is an exaggeration. But housing subsidies are essential in recruiting, Soames says, given LA’s high cost of living.

The high salaries and perks given newcomers could potentially have caused friction with professors hired when the department was "less distinguished," Soames acknowledges, but that hasn’t happened, he says, partly because everyone benefits when the department attracts more majors and better graduate students. Soames says that he is unhappy in general with USC’s reliance on adjuncts, but that the philosophy department rarely employs any. According to figures on the university’s website, 70 percent of USC’s faculty members are off the tenure track.

At USC, Kezar says, the word is that departments can hire only "transformational" scholars, which rules out 99 percent of the labor market. That high standard makes it tough on departments that either don’t already have the clout to hire stars or whose disciplines have not produced obvious standouts. "It used to be one or two institutions that said, ‘We want to rise in the rankings,’ so they targeted stars. Now the star system is more widespread.

"It is reshaping the academic labor force," she says.

Maria C. Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, which advocates on behalf of adjunct professors, says hiring a star is a "marketing tool" for universities, but a "deceptive" one because stars teach relatively few students. Stars are also underrepresented, relative to adjuncts, among teachers of large-enrollment, general-education courses. "Part of the problem with the system is it puts the most vulnerable students with the most vulnerable faculty," Maisto says.