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But academe has never liked thinking of itself as an “industry,” despite graduate-student and public-university unions’ recent strides toward changing this fact. Tenured and tenure-track faculty members at private universities can and should support the collective bargaining rights of their colleagues in contingent positions and at state schools. For the most part, however, they are not legally permitted to unionize themselves, due to the 1980 Supreme Court ruling against it in NLRB v. Yeshiva University. In non-STEM fields, an almost nonexistent job market also means that most faculty members lack the individual bargaining power of other managerial labor forces. It is therefore not surprising that tackling faculty-hiring and compensation norms at private universities remains taboo.
There are, frankly, good reasons to find the topic vaguely embarrassing. First, the oft-cited “crisis of the humanities” is most urgent at the level of rampant faculty casualization and the disappearance of tenured and tenure-track jobs. No one will, or should, shed tears for anyone lucky enough to have a permanent position. That is doubly true where elite institutions are concerned. Second, unlike our peers in, say, medicine or engineering, where different specializations have totally different markets, our internal salary differences cannot easily be made legible to people outside our profession. Trying to explain to even my own nonacademic spouse why one English professor earns $300,000 per year while another with ostensibly similar credentials earns vastly less is well-nigh impossible. So why should readers of even The Chronicle care?
In short, it’s because unchecked free-market logic is bad for most people, in most jobs, and should be questioned from both below and above wherever we can manage it. The neoliberalization of the university is detrimental to all; working toward fairer departments and institutions can happen in parallel to larger-scale professional reforms. Even elite universities can serve as useful microcosms for highlighting the negative workplace effects of vast wage disparities and cultures of silence around them, helping us to figure out fair constraints and safeguards that may then inform broader workplace trends in some way. And the legislation sweeping the country right now is about holding private organizations accountable to minimal standards of clarity around who gets paid what.
Universities should introduce reasonable faculty compensation incentives for things other than immediate retention threats.
Because the payoff — pun intended — of neoliberal reasoning in university hiring and salary decisions is so murky, its workings and shortcomings alike are unusually bald. Faculty compensation at private universities is often wildly inconsistent, pegged not to performance benchmarks or even reputation as such, but to the market alone in the form of “outside offers.” The only way for most faculty members at private institutions to get a compensation increase beyond basic cost of living is to have evidence that they are at risk of being “poached.” This impedes institutional functionality on the most basic level. It encourages bad faith in seeking positions that are in ever-shorter supply, and leaves search committees constantly wondering who is applying in earnest and who is applying mainly to get a raise at their home institution. Such gamification of academic job-seeking gobbles up huge amounts of time and energy from colleagues who could be spending it on teaching, research, and other kinds of program-building. The result is a quiet culture of cynicism that should have no place in a university. Not only does it vitiate the university’s ideals, it disincentivizes the nuts-and-bolts sort of institutional commitment that is arguably its lifeblood.
As Faisal Devji, among others, has pointed out, this system is partly the result of a celebrity-academic culture associated in the humanities and critical social sciences with the age of high theory in the 1990s, which widened the gulf in compensation between the “haves” and the “have a lots” — often within single departments. When every university is clamoring for the same small handful of people in large part because offers from elsewhere have upped the sense that they are coveted, the amount of such an offer rises astronomically. “As with the lottery,” Devji wrote in 2020, “the promise of stardom requires its aspirants to tolerate their own deprivation in the meantime, and that of their profession more permanently.”
Salary gaps, which can sometimes be hundreds of thousands of dollars per year between close colleagues at a shared rank and level of productivity, are more egregious still in an era largely devoid of such unquestionable “stars.” As both Lee Konstantinou and Katie Kadue have argued in these pages, there is little consensus among humanities faculty these days as to who fits this definition. There are, of course, better- and lesser-known scholars who speak across fields, and there are people whose primary importance is field-specific. Both kinds of voices have value to a well-rounded department, and a starless intellectual ecosystem is arguably sounder all around for producing more and better work, with smaller fields at least standing a chance of greater professionwide enfranchisement.
What this often means in practice, however, is that faculty-hiring committees struggle to align their more granular sense of this new intellectual terrain with cruder administrative ambitions of “star poaching.” Compensation disparities, in turn, are liable to become disconnected from any field’s internal justification for them; respect among peers gives way to valuation by proxy. At the very least, it means that faculty members who do the long-term work of burnishing a department and school’s reputation — to say nothing of teaching and service — can quickly find themselves making far less than new hires with comparable, or even lesser, achievements. Among other things, this diminishes the will for tenured faculty to engage, which is essential to shared governance, with an eye to fairer working conditions for all campus employees.
The legislation sweeping the country right now is about holding private organizations accountable to minimal standards of clarity around who gets paid what.
The only way to keep these massive (and in some places, growing) compensation gaps from corroding faculty morale and motivation is to keep them a secret, enforcement of which is plainly illegal and so depends on social mores of gentility and discretion that are now changing, as the Times articles lay out in detail. There is also ample evidence that such tacit expectations affect women and racial minorities most of all, who frequently do the most service for the least pay. To my mind, however, pulling back the curtain on faculty compensation is not only, or even primarily, an equity imperative. It is essential to improving the culture of the academic workplace in general, and by extension, our ultimate claim to a distinctive kind of intellectual value. The pitfalls of free-market logic, that is, are also an increasingly salient human-resources concern.
Here are a few suggestions for policies to introduce more fairness and transparency into the private university workplace. At the very least, they can serve as conversation fodder. Some suggestions are lifted from other sectors, and some are from colleagues at public institutions who have led the way on this front:
- Whether or not they are required to by state law, universities should list salary ranges for all positions, at all ranks. Stipulating a salary ceiling outright removes the possibility of open-ended negotiations, and almost certainly decreases the likelihood of searches failing because salary goals are not met. At the same time, it leaves room for some performance-based variation within ranks.
- For all university divisions, publish annually an internal, anonymized list of salaries organized by rank and by category, e.g., humanities and social sciences.
- Determine a maximum allowed salary differential within each rank, as well as within departments. A school with the money to do so could then still aim high with any given hire but would be forced to increase the lowest salaries, a common practice in many other workplaces. This would likely result in an effectual salary cap, which to my mind is a welcome development.
- Universities should introduce reasonable faculty compensation incentives (which is to say, not necessarily on par with an outside offer match) for things other than immediate retention threats. Publications, awards, and significant service roles in both the university and professional organizations are examples of credentials that many public universities reward, with greater and lesser degrees of administrative discretion. This need not cede too much ground to the boogeyman of “quantification”; acknowledging a monograph is not the same thing as counting Google Scholar citations.
- Equity audits should be routine and mandatory — every five years, at minimum — in both departments and divisions.
- Minimum raises at promotion to both associate and full faculty members should be stipulated for all, in advance of applying for them.
None of the above is revolutionary, and it is not intended to be. Standardizing salary expectations to ensure fairness between colleagues, as well as to eliminate the possibility of extreme outliers, would improve morale for everyone (except for the outliers on the high end). With better morale comes better retention in the long run, and richer institutional and intellectual lives — as well as, one hopes, greater solidarity across campus. And fostering more transparency around money would help mitigate the cynicism and suspicion that fester in any sealed-off space. “It’s always been like this,” many faculty readers will no doubt be thinking now. But hey, what if it weren’t?