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"The charmingly naive American student is in fact a cash cow"
August 28, 2013 9:31 AM   Subscribe

"The coming of “academic capitalism” has been anticipated and praised for years; today it is here." (Thomas Frank for The Baffler)
posted by box (121 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
In Canada, currently the post-secondary participation rate for the high-school-to-25 cohort is about 35%, and I'm guessing it's about the same for the States. This 35% figure includes trade school, so I'm guessing the number of people enrolled in "proper" post secondary coursework (colleges and university) in the States is lower than that.

My question is, what's worse: being a member of the 35% who graduates with a degree of some kind (and some of the time with large debt) or being in the majority that never goes to college or university or trade school at all?

And since we know that post secondary education results in roughly doubling one's income (compared to going through life with a high school diploma), how come we aren't sending more people on to college or trade school? How tragic is that?

I find these sorts of articles on MetaFilter to be a little bit like navel gazing.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:41 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


O.K. gang, here's the plan: The 'Free' University. A US accredited nonprofit institution providing undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Cost of tuition not to exceed 1/10 of the current poverty guidelines for a single person.

Initial endowment funded by a contribution by a generous tech billionaire.

All classes will be primarily web-based, with functional lab space located in major US population centers.

Graduates of the Free University reporting income above a certain threshold (e.g. 2.5x average income) after 5 years of graduation agree to pay 5-10% of their income back to the University in exchange for their education.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:49 AM on August 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


The last component was historically solved by something known as 'taxes' but as that apparently doesn't work anymore, we'll route around the problem via contract law.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:53 AM on August 28, 2013 [46 favorites]


KokuRyu: And since we know that post secondary education results in roughly doubling one's income (compared to going through life with a high school diploma), how come we aren't sending more people on to college or trade school? How tragic is that?

Err., employment income is not exactly a zero-sum game, but it's not exactly not, either. Educating a greater proportion of our society is not going to increase the proportion of well-paying, educated jobs past a certain threshold. At some point, we'll simply have enough engineers and doctors and whatever, and extra people with those degrees will simply end up underemployed. I would argue that this is happening to a significant extent already.

The same goes for trades. You simply do not need an infinite number of plumbers and electricians.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:54 AM on August 28, 2013 [9 favorites]


That plan would further destroy the University as we know it. The problem isn't how we are educating, it is the administrators.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:54 AM on August 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


All classes will be primarily web-based...

I loved everything about your plan except this. Having taken some online classes, it's just awful. Imagine one of those enormous auditorium classes, only 100x worse because you can't even really interact with your classmates, let alone professors.
posted by DU at 9:57 AM on August 28, 2013 [20 favorites]


Can someone summarize? Frank's prose is so purple, I'm getting bruises trying to read it.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:58 AM on August 28, 2013 [12 favorites]


That plan would further destroy the University as we know it.

Like the Open University did in the UK?

All classes will be primarily web-based...

I loved everything about your plan except this. Having taken some online classes, it's just awful. Imagine one of those enormous auditorium classes, only 100x worse because you can't even really interact with your classmates, let alone professors.


My thinking is that it would keep down the initial start-up costs before the students start paying back into the system.

i'll stop the thread hijack now
posted by leotrotsky at 10:00 AM on August 28, 2013


Can someone summarize? Frank's prose is so purple, I'm getting bruises trying to read it.

Hear, hear. Fortunately MisanthropicPainforest seemed to have distilled the main point: "The problem isn't how we are educating, it is the administrators."
posted by Gelatin at 10:01 AM on August 28, 2013


a few months ago, I was in a client meeting with a company that staffs health clinics and provides centralized care services for a variety of major universities. The client's CEO goes into a keynote talking about who they are and the value they bring to the various institutions that they service (not students, the institutions). At some point, on a tangent about their counseling and behavioral health 'product', he literally comes out and says, "It is important for us to track and monitor the health and mental well being of the student body. Take the shootings in Virginia Tech a few years ago. Terrible thing. When you think about how each of those murdered students represents a $50,000/year revenue stream on tuition alone, minimizing such violence makes sense not just on a moral perspective but on a financial one as well."

Boy, was I so glad to quit that job.
posted by bl1nk at 10:01 AM on August 28, 2013 [56 favorites]


I sure enjoy reading Thomas Frank's prose (purplish in places, but what a figure!), although reading that guy is consistently a downer.
posted by notyou at 10:02 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


O.K. gang, here's the plan: The 'Free' University. A US accredited nonprofit institution providing undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Cost of tuition not to exceed 1/10 of the current poverty guidelines for a single person.

Initial endowment funded by a contribution by a generous tech billionaire.

All classes will be primarily web-based, with functional lab space located in major US population centers.


O.K., how are you paying your faculty and your administrative staff competitive wages? If the answer is "we don't get real faculty, we just hire a bunch of adjuncts and pay them next to nothing" then why is anyone going to go to your university? Don't think you've saved much, by the way, by not having buildings and putting the classes online; online education done well doesn't actually cost significantly less than in-classroom education. The expensive part of a good tertiary education is the people doing it, not gathering the students in a room somewhere to listen to a lecture.
posted by yoink at 10:05 AM on August 28, 2013 [14 favorites]


Mitrovarr, I keep hearing that every single young person can simply show up and become a plumber or an electrician and they will all be given great jobs! The unemployment rate would rush to -∞. I see it in nearly every damn article about jobs, unemployment, underemployment and "let's hate millennials."

In all seriousness, I just finished reading a book on the crises of American universities and the running colleges as a business mindset is at the top of the list. It makes my blood boil that they build vain and expensive monuments to themselves and frills to dazzle and wow prospective students who are looking for a good time. Worst of all, they cruelly cover up serious crimes to maintain a good public image and then they have viewpoints such as the one bl1nk alluded to.
posted by samuelcramer at 10:07 AM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


"When you think about how each of those murdered students represents a $50,000/year revenue stream on tuition alone, minimizing such violence makes sense not just on a moral perspective but on a financial one as well."

Hah! Revenue spigots pointing our spouts from bucket to bucket.
posted by notyou at 10:07 AM on August 28, 2013


I've read about 10,000 denunciations of the expanding role of "administrators" on college campuses. Assistant Dean for X, Associate Provost for Y, Vice-President of Z, all making six figures, we hear. This is making life terrible for poor adjuncts and junior professors, who are paid less because of and micromanaged by this administrative cancer.

What I've never seen, though, is someone explain why this is occurring. Administrative expansion is treated as a root cause when it plainly isn't; it's a phenomenon one can observe at just about every college in America. So why is this happening?
posted by downing street memo at 10:14 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


So why is this happening?

Here's one hypothesis: maybe professors don't like to do administration, and they'd rather be doing professorial things.

He article also had something about the University of Virginia, where a board filled with richie-rich MBA types drove out an academic university president in favor of someone would spoke MBA-ese.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 10:17 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Speaking of charmingly naïve, Frank proposes that colleges become cheaper by being heavily subsidized by the states. But states have been on a de-funding project since I was in college, and that's a good 20 years now. Lotsa luck convincing state legislators to hike taxes in order to fund a bunch of egghead institutions.
posted by Gelatin at 10:18 AM on August 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


Err., employment income is not exactly a zero-sum game, but it's not exactly not, either. Educating a greater proportion of our society is not going to increase the proportion of well-paying, educated jobs past a certain threshold. At some point, we'll simply have enough engineers and doctors and whatever, and extra people with those degrees will simply end up underemployed. I would argue that this is happening to a significant extent already.

While I know it's not your intention, this argument, on the surface, then, seems to be arguing that we need a class system, and that we should just accept the fact that there will always be an under-educated, under-employed underclass.

Education does result in increased income, increased health outcomes, all sorts of stuff. The tragedy is not that a minority of the population is saddled with some student debt, but that the majority of the population goes through life without experiencing more opportunity.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:19 AM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've read about 10,000 denunciations of the expanding role of "administrators" on college campuses.

And they're all basically silly. Yeah, sure, there has probably been some unnecessary inflation of the ranks of administrators. No doubt you could axe a few "Associate provosts for Y" here and there. But you're only ever making very small dents on the overall budget this way. People love to look at the gaudy salaries of a the few highest paid administrators on the campus, but as a percentage of the overall university budget, it's simply not significant.
posted by yoink at 10:19 AM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


(Lots of luck dropping the quasi-professional sports teams, too; and anyway, as ridiculously corrupt as college sports is, it often subsidizes a whole raft of what my alma mater used to call "non-revenue sports.")
posted by Gelatin at 10:20 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think he captures pretty well the needling sense of disillusionment that descends upon many of us with expensive and seemingly worthless degrees.
posted by oregonsarah at 10:21 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Administrative salaries aren't driving costs:

Just for fun, let’s start with my own institution, Holyoke Community College. Using the chart’s numbers, from 1987 to 2012, “total administrators” (full and part time) increased by 14 percent. Over that same period, enrollment increased by 49 percent. Which means that the number of students per administrator actually increased. Using the raw numbers on the chart, in 1987 HCC had one administrator for every 73 students. By 2012, HCC had one administrator for every 96 students. How that constitutes “bloat” is beyond me. If the “bloat drives costs” argument were true, then, HCC should be cheaper for students in real terms in 2012 than it was in 1987.

Um, no.

Maybe community colleges are a special case, and I should look at private colleges instead. (That doesn’t help the “government employee” narrative, but whatever.) Take Smith College, a well-respected private women’s college just up route 91 in Northampton. Surely an elite college such as that has lined the pockets of its management!

Again, no. According to the chart, its administrative ranks have decreased by 37 percent, even as its enrollment grew by 9 percent. Surely, it must be cheaper now!

Nope.

Well, maybe it’s a Boston thing. (We in Western Mass sometimes get overshadowed.) Let’s look at Northeastern University. It’s one of the more expensive universities in the state, obviously driven by its negative 76 percent change in the number of administrators.

...

Cost drivers include Baumol’s cost disease, the rise of IT, various unfunded compliance mandates, and public disinvestment. Among elite privates, replace “public disinvestment” with “status competition.” If you want to get a handle on costs, address those. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work; there aren’t as many of us per student as there used to be.


The above is from Dean at the aforementioned college. I think public disinvestment is the key here.
posted by zabuni at 10:22 AM on August 28, 2013 [19 favorites]


A big part of why college has become so expensive is that the state has given less and less money to colleges. I heard an interesting report the other day that the decline in aid for colleges neatly tracks the increase in cost for medicare. In other words, the state has been cutting college aid to pay for increasing costs in healthcare.

So, yet another way in which the American health care system is screwing up America.
posted by zug at 10:22 AM on August 28, 2013 [16 favorites]


KokuRyu: While I know it's not your intention, this argument, on the surface, then, seems to be arguing that we need a class system, and that we should just accept the fact that there will always be an under-educated, under-employed underclass.

Education does result in increased income, increased health outcomes, all sorts of stuff. The tragedy is not that a minority of the population is saddled with some student debt, but that the majority of the population goes through life without experiencing more opportunity.


Well, while an enlightened and sufficiently wealthy society might send everyone to publicly funded universities, it's still going to be true that not every job in society requires an education. So either some people won't be going to college, or some people will be getting degrees they don't use in the workforce. There's no way around it.

Those jobs don't have to pay poorly - unions used to do something about that, before they were systematically undermined. However, I don't think getting those workers degrees that contribute nothing to the actual function of their jobs will help improve their income.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:27 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, the trouble is that we already have a class system and we refuse to admit that or to support policies that would reduce that inequality. Which would include educational policies that do not enable and encourage people to take on unsustainable levels of student debt in the search of phantom "opportunities" for uplift. This is especially true in the case of people suckered into the for-profit game, where the large majority of (underprepared) students end up in debt but without degrees.
posted by col_pogo at 10:39 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Let's just accredit the Khan Academy, since they've already done all of this.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:41 AM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


And while it is true that students are paying more and more at state institutions because the states pay a smaller and smaller percentage of the Universities' costs, it often isn't true that the states are paying less in adjusted dollars. Universities are just becoming more and more expensive institutions to operate. For a state to fully fund a university now is a much, much larger investment than it was in the 1950s; all other things being equal, the state will be committing a much larger percentage of its budget to "higher education" than it used to do. That either means cutting other things it spends money on or raising taxes even above historical high rates. None of these are easy decisions to make.
posted by yoink at 10:41 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


A big part of why college has become so expensive is that the state has given less and less money to colleges. I heard an interesting report the other day that the decline in aid for colleges neatly tracks the increase in cost for medicare. In other words, the state has been cutting college aid to pay for increasing costs in healthcare.

So, yet another way in which the American health care system is screwing up America.

It's not just healthcare; here's a look at California's public higher education system versus it's prison system. The big takeaway is: In both 1980 and in 2011, California spent 18% of it's budget on prisons and colleges combined. In 1980, it was 3% to prisons and 15% to colleges. In 2011, it is now 10% to prisons and 8% to colleges.

In inflation adjusted terms, a Cal State faculty member makes not only less than they did in 1980, but they now make less than a prison guard. Both academic and nonacademic staff per student have been declining, although faculty have been declining faster than staff, which may lead to a perception of more administrators. Prison guards and staff per inmate ratios are flat for adult prisoners. The voters of California have repeatedly voted for "tough on crime" measures that require massive additional prison funding, and, since taxes are essentially impossible to raise, defunding of other government programs.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:42 AM on August 28, 2013 [32 favorites]


Somehow, we have been had. We are a hundred thousand dollars in debt, and there is no clear way to escape it. We have no prospects to speak of. And if those damned dreams of ours happened to have taken a particularly fantastic turn and urged us to get a PhD, then the learning really begins.

Fortunately, Frank wrote this early in the piece, so one can realize that when he writes "college," what he really must mean is "the humanities at private schools."
posted by Mapes at 10:44 AM on August 28, 2013


Speaking of charmingly naïve, Frank proposes that colleges become cheaper by being heavily subsidized by the states. But states have been on a de-funding project since I was in college

Yeah, how naive. It's not like he wrote a book about that or anything.

The above is from Dean at the aforementioned college.

Dean Dad, not surprisingly considering his job, is a longstanding apologist for the administrator's point of view. I'd caution against taking his word on anything to do with academic labor, especially when it contradicts what many other studies of the issue have found.

What I've never seen, though, is someone explain why this is occurring. Administrative expansion is treated as a root cause when it plainly isn't [...] So why is this happening?

This is a way more interesting question than most of the other ones raised in this thread, but it's also addressed at length in the Ginsberg book that Frank is drawing from. It's clear that, like many other broad-scale social phenomena, there's not going to be a single cause here, but there might be a lot of them working in tandem. Just to start with, an important factor is the rise of administrators as a separate managerial class with their own separate interests and identity and management theory, instead of being drawn from the faculty and rotating back into faculty roles. Then there's the more hands-on role of boards of trustees and state oversight in the '60s and afterwards, partly as a bulwark against student (and faculty) radicalism.
posted by RogerB at 10:45 AM on August 28, 2013 [15 favorites]


Public disinvestment is absolutely the key, at least for public schools. 30-40 years ago, it was pretty common for states to fund 50+% of the budgets of state higher education. In most cases, that number is below 10%. In the meantime, cost have been rising (not necessarily things like administrator salaries, either, we are talking about energy costs, construction costs, etc), so the state's commitment should have dramatically risen, in dollars, rather than sharply contrasted. Essentially, voters who went to school on the state's dime (if they went), decided that they did not want to pay for the next generation to do the same.

I blame this on the idea that the purpose of higher education was "to get a good job." This changed what was a common good (an educated populace) to an individual good (a better paycheck), which may have seemed like a great way to get people to enroll, but it didn't help maintain voter support for the collective cost. As we have not hung together, we are all hanging separately. Funny, that.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:46 AM on August 28, 2013 [28 favorites]


Yeah, a lot of this trouble seems to stem from state financing woes.

Which makes the cult of business-friendly academia Frank decries more understandable; as states cut funding, university development staff turned to corporations for more of their budgets, complete with the cushy board appointments and business-friendly administrations. Small wonder the Virginia debacle he cites, in which a President who was an actual academic was almost forced out by a corporate-heavy board because she didn't speak the business buzzwords language, occurred.

Much the same problem has been happening with NPR, which, I will observe, doesn't devote ten minutes of its morning show to labor news.
posted by Gelatin at 10:49 AM on August 28, 2013


Universities are just becoming more and more expensive institutions to operate. For a state to fully fund a university now is a much, much larger investment than it was in the 1950s...

Serious question: If we took the facilities and staffing levels of a 1950s State U (modernized in only cost-saving/neutral ways*), and kept its 1950s budget, tuition, and state funding levels (all adjusted for inflation), could it provide an effective university education less expensively than a modern university?

* replace obsolete technology with equivalently-priced modern equivalents e.g. typewriters with computers, paper filing systems with simple databases, just as long as it's cheaper that way
posted by cosmic.osmo at 10:58 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nothing "charming" about 18 year olds doing as they're told and taking on debt that can dog them into retirement.
posted by ocschwar at 11:01 AM on August 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


What I'm wondering is whether universities should be smaller. It seems to me the attractiveness of online learning is its bootstrap nature leading to (presumedly) lower overhead costs. Is it possible that universities are simply too large? The administrative costs could be related to that. I don't know whether this makes any sense -- just throwing that out there.
posted by smidgen at 11:03 AM on August 28, 2013


If we took the facilities and staffing levels of a 1950s State U (modernized in only cost-saving/neutral ways), and kept its 1950s budget, tuition, and state funding levels (all adjusted for inflation), could it provide an effective university education less expensively than a modern university?

I'm not quite sure what the question means. You'd need massive (and expensive) changes to the science facilities, for example, or they'd be hopelessly outdated. You wouldn't be able to attract a very good faculty with 1950s academic salaries adjusted for inflation; that's simply a kind of labor whose price has risen over that period. The campus would have to be a great deal larger to accommodate the increase in student numbers. The campus population would be considerably more diverse, which demands a more intensive engagement from campus administrators etc. etc.

So I guess the answer is "no" but it's also "too many things have changed for a direct comparison to be all that useful."
posted by yoink at 11:04 AM on August 28, 2013


It seems to me the attractiveness of online learning is its bootstrap nature leading to (presumedly) lower overhead costs.

Genuine education needs teachers engaging directly with students. If all you needed was "clever person talking" you might as well just read a lot of books. The serious "overhead cost" of a university education is paying the professor and the TAs and if you skimp on that part of the equation you're degrading the educational experience.
posted by yoink at 11:06 AM on August 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


Not to pick on you, but is this true? I see several people saying different things in this thread.
posted by smidgen at 11:09 AM on August 28, 2013


You'd need massive (and expensive) changes to the science facilities, for example, or they'd be hopelessly outdated.

Scientific equipment and technologies are one thing, and are completely necessary for technical fields. I did undergrad at Georgia Tech, and I still live in Atlanta. I'm continually dumbfounded by the staggering amount of money that has been spent on shiny new academic buildings, and on creating "green" spaces on campus. I suspect it would have been much more "green" to just leave things as they were rather than undertaking massive construction projects, but I guess that's why I'm not a master of capitalism.

The point is that an 18-23 year old student could live and work in a refrigerator crate. The cost of erecting massive new edifices to vanity could be put to better use to the collective good by offering more tuition credits to lower income students, or subsidizing housing or textbooks.

I visit the campus and it feels like some kind of parallel universe from when I was there, and I've only been out of school for five years at this point.
posted by dudemanlives at 11:09 AM on August 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


Serious question: If we took the facilities and staffing levels of a 1950s State U (modernized in only cost-saving/neutral ways), and kept its 1950s budget, tuition, and state funding levels (all adjusted for inflation), could it provide an effective university education less expensively than a modern university?

Part of the problem is that they just don't scale. Current universities offer a lot more services (e.g. psychiatric support, reproductive health resources) and functions (e.g. apparatus for dealing with allegations of discrimination and harassment) than the 1950s school. This is obviously a very small part of the budget, but just the administrative demands of a modern school are not really comparable to one from 60 years ago. I don't think I would like to go back to that particular climate, myself, even if it saved a few bucks....
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:09 AM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


We won't build roads. We won't fix bridges. We won't defend the health and well-being of the populace. But we'll sure as hell fight unions, and build prisons, and cut taxes, and kowtow to corporate shamans. It's all one and the same problem.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:13 AM on August 28, 2013 [30 favorites]


I still wish I was 18 again anyway.
posted by colie at 11:18 AM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


The point is that an 18-23 year old student could live and work in a refrigerator crate. The cost of erecting massive new edifices to vanity could be put to better use to the collective good by offering more tuition credits to lower income students, or subsidizing housing or textbooks.

This may well be true, but if you actually had a look at the budgets I bet you'd be surprised how little difference it would have made to have deferred the "massive new edifices" and to have diverted whatever money you had saved to "tuition credits." And that's leaving aside the fact that capital budgets and operational budgets are usually pretty distinct and that it's a whole lot easy to get billionaires to donate large sums of money to something they can put their name on than it is to get them to donate those same sums of money to "paying for tuition" or "paying professors' salaries." So cancel the shiny "Mr and Mrs Rich Person Commemorative Building" and there's a good chance you've done precisely zero for those poor students "tuition credits"--but you've deprived all the students and the faculty of the advantages of the nice new building.
posted by yoink at 11:18 AM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


O.K., how are you paying your faculty and your administrative staff competitive wages? If the answer is "we don't get real faculty, we just hire a bunch of adjuncts and pay them next to nothing" then why is anyone going to go to your university?

So the solution to the problem you pose for on-line schools has already been solved by brick and mortar universities. Hire a handful of superstar professors, and then use adjuncts and grad students and support staff for the majority of instruction.

Here's an example of the ratio of students to superstars you can get with an on-line course. Peter Norvig, a well known AI researcher before coming to Google, ran an online course at Stanford with 100,000 students.

It's not that online education is better, or that staff is necessarily cheaper, it's that you can scale up one Big Name Instructor to a class of one hundred thousand students.
posted by zippy at 11:20 AM on August 28, 2013


And since we know that post secondary education results in roughly doubling one's income (compared to going through life with a high school diploma), how come we aren't sending more people on to college or trade school? How tragic is that?

I'd like to see this broken down by degree type and subject. I'm guessing the doctors, lawyers, MBAs, and other professionals are raising that average a bit.
How much does a BFA increase income?
posted by rocket88 at 11:21 AM on August 28, 2013


Peter Norvig, a well known AI researcher before coming to Google, ran an online course at Stanford with 100,000 students.

You know how on AskMe if you get a question from a student who is struggling in class in some way the best advice is so often for that student to go talk to the instructor and ask them to explain the concept they're struggling to grasp? Tell me how that is going to work in a class of 100,000. Again, if the point is "the information is out there" that was true before the web was even thought of. But "education" isn't just having a bunch of information dumped on you. Education requires the ability to say "sorry, I didn't grasp that, could you put it a different way?" It requires the ability to say "but what if..." and get a reasoned answer. None of these things is happening with a "class" of 100,000 students.
posted by yoink at 11:28 AM on August 28, 2013 [19 favorites]


Ugh, I realize I didn't clarify -- is it true that Professor salaries are what's driving the cost, that is. It seems like it's a mixture of things, and that a smaller school would be able to control costs better. Anyway, I'm just being lazy and not wanting to look it up --- maybe later tonight. :-)
posted by smidgen at 11:28 AM on August 28, 2013


...with functional lab space located in major US population centers.

So, people not living in major population centers are just shit out of luck? And, what qualifies as a "major" population center? Top 10 in population? Top 15? That's still cutting-out millions of people. Winners and losers?
posted by Thorzdad at 11:32 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


When the coup took place, there was at first no explanation given at all. Then there appeared a leaked email from a super-wealthy trustee of the business school—Mr. Jefferson’s university suffered from a troubling paucity of “strategic dynamism,” he moaned. Oh, but that would change now that the plutes were in charge: “There will also be a strategic planning initiative commenced by the Board of Visitors with a focus on strategic dynamism.” Billionaire alumnus Paul Tudor Jones II soon chimed in with a newspaper op-ed informing Virginians that Jefferson himself would have welcomed the coup because he was a “change agent.” Reading these preposterous declarations at the time, I was convinced there had to be some deeper motive, that no one really talked this way. Since then, however, we’ve learned that these people meant this stuff.Read the board members’ emails back and forth to one another* and you start to realize that the poor president was the casualty of a long-running argument the University brass had been having among themselves about . . . “the rate of change.”

That the people who hold the ultimate authority at our institutions of higher learning are dedicated to a notorious form of pseudo-knowledge is richly ironic, and it is also telling. The point of management theory, after all, is to establish the legitimacy of a social order and a social class who are, in fact, little more than drones. The grotesque top-heaviness of the American corporation is an old story: we have more supervisors per worker than any other industrialized nation, and quite naturally we have developed an extensive literature of bogus social theory assuring those supervisors of the rightfulness of their place in the world—a literature that also counsels everyone else to acquiesce to their subordinate station in the Great Chain of Free-Market Being.
Nothing will get better until this country's Paul Tudor Jones IIs are traipsing around the free enterprise zones of the world like so many white Russians, endlessly complaining to all and sundry about their lost investment portfolios.

It's not very complicated why everything is fucked. Our world is run by ignorant greedy parasites.

(just got rejected for an adjunct project job at a local state college that paid $3K per class because I wanted more than one section. but they said they would add me to their "pool of adjuncts"... proletarianizing the phds indeed)
posted by ennui.bz at 11:33 AM on August 28, 2013 [12 favorites]


Part of the problem is that they just don't scale. Current universities offer a lot more services (e.g. psychiatric support, reproductive health resources) and functions (e.g. apparatus for dealing with allegations of discrimination and harassment) than the 1950s school.

In other words, the university is at once a site of public disinvestment and (at least for its students) a purveyor of the sorts of social services that other countries fund for the general public.
posted by kewb at 11:33 AM on August 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


Always, always ask where the person who says you don't need to go to college went to college. Colleges do a lot of things shittily, and need a lot more restructuring, but the college experience is one that I desperately don't want to see confined to the leisure class.
posted by Apropos of Something at 11:36 AM on August 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


Thomas Frank: BA: University of Kansas, University of Virginia, PhD: University of Chicago.
posted by downing street memo at 11:38 AM on August 28, 2013


Err., employment income is not exactly a zero-sum game, but it's not exactly not, either. Educating a greater proportion of our society is not going to increase the proportion of well-paying, educated jobs past a certain threshold. At some point, we'll simply have enough engineers and doctors and whatever, and extra people with those degrees will simply end up underemployed. I would argue that this is happening to a significant extent already.

Yeah. I think this is really the part of the problem people aren't looking at. College degrees aren't becoming a bad bargain because too few people have access, they're becoming a bad bargain because too /many/ people have access. It is no longer an automatic ticket to the middle class, because too many people are coming out with degrees to be absorbed by it.
posted by corb at 11:44 AM on August 28, 2013


This may well be true, but if you actually had a look at the budgets I bet you'd be surprised how little difference it would have made to have deferred the "massive new edifices" and to have diverted whatever money you had saved to "tuition credits."

Maybe. Though, until I actually decide to thumb through the Institute's budget, I'll just throw around phrases like "strategic dynamism" and hope nobody asks what it means.
posted by dudemanlives at 11:51 AM on August 28, 2013


Here's an example of the ratio of students to superstars you can get with an on-line course. Peter Norvig, a well known AI researcher before coming to Google, ran an online course at Stanford with 100,000 students.

MOOCs have a completion rate of something like 5-8%. More traditionally-sized online courses have much better completion rates, but substantially below those of face-to-face courses. MOOCs may, with a lot of work, become ways for trained professionals to complete certificate programs, but, as a venue for undergraduate education, they don't look very promising. It's telling that the big universities that are developing these programs (e.g. Stanford) do not see them as a replacement for their curriculum; they are, in fact, using them as a laboratory to improve their more traditional (and full-fee) online offerings.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:51 AM on August 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


So, people not living in major population centers are just shit out of luck? And, what qualifies as a "major" population center? Top 10 in population? Top 15? That's still cutting-out millions of people. Winners and losers?

The perfect is the enemy of the good. Also, people could obviously relocate if they want to get access to a free education in the hard sciences. Even now folks move to go to school.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:57 AM on August 28, 2013


College degrees aren't becoming a bad bargain because too few people have access, they're becoming a bad bargain because too /many/ people have access. It is no longer an automatic ticket to the middle class, because too many people are coming out with degrees to be absorbed by it.

You have it backwards... it's just like the PhD "oversupply" question: if universities hired tenure-track professors like they used to instead temporary adjunct labor, there would be a PhD *shortage*.

If our economy produced middle class jobs like it used to, there would be a college graduate shortage.

There's nothing different about academia from any other big business in this country and nothing will change until we change the way this country is run.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:00 PM on August 28, 2013 [14 favorites]


Yeah. I think this is really the part of the problem people aren't looking at. College degrees aren't becoming a bad bargain because too few people have access, they're becoming a bad bargain because too /many/ people have access. It is no longer an automatic ticket to the middle class, because too many people are coming out with degrees to be absorbed by it.

My gut feeling is there is quite a bit of blame-the-victim there. If not, why are we constantly assaulted by assertions from the business elite that so many positions are going unfilled because they can't find educated and skilled people to fill them?

My personal anecdata: The tuition at my alma mater, Virginia Tech, has gone up more than 1000% since I attended in the late 70s. And yet the student body is essentially the exact same size.

ROI and "scalability" and other performance metrics are important things - maybe the most important things - in private colleges. But state colleges and universities are supposed to be tasked with educating their citizens, not making a profit.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 12:05 PM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


f universities hired tenure-track professors like they used to instead temporary adjunct labor, there would be a PhD *shortage*.

But that would also add enormously to the university budget. So...fee hikes all round, everyone?
posted by yoink at 12:07 PM on August 28, 2013


Here, by the way, is what I think a pretty level-headed overview of what is driving the cost-increases in Higher Ed. It's a piece for Inside Higher Education by the economists Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman who wrote Why Does College Cost So Much.
posted by yoink at 12:09 PM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


By the way, I'm not saying a course with 100,000 students is superior to in-class instruction, just addressing the question of how an on-line course can attract people when it's claimed that an on-line service might skimp on the quality of its instructors.

In fact, on-line has an advantage in this domain in that a single Big Name can be used to attract an enormous number of students to a class.

On-line, for its faults compared to in-class instruction, has no problem in this regard.
posted by zippy at 12:17 PM on August 28, 2013


Vis-a-vis administration: administrative costs are significantly driven by reporting requirements.

Schools have to do a great deal of reporting about grant and contract funds for research, much of which is appropriate and some of which is overkill; as schools get less state funding, more grant funding and contract funding is needed. Schools have to fund-raise. When you get 20% of your operating costs from the state legislature, you need to spend far less time and money massaging big donors, writing proposals, managing faculty effort, etc than when you get 6% (a not-uncommon trajectory, one we've seen here at Large Land Grant).

There is a mania for quantifiables about schools, both internally and for external consumption, and gathering those quantifiables takes time and effort. This is a philosophical thing as much as anything else - I've noticed that as soon as anyone can gather data about something, it is instantly added to some kind of annual report even when it's not clear how useful or even accurate the metric is. In a large entity like a law school or medical school, money, publications and projects are best understood as flows rather than as discrete things, yet there's a tremendous push to provide ever more discrete numbers. This is very complicated to explain but it's part of my job. It's relatively easy to say, for instance, "over the years 2005 - 2010, our unit averaged $5 million per year in grant awards" - for reasons that are long and boring and to do with budget revisions, spending, carryover of funds and a lot of other stuff, it's actually very difficult to say "in fiscal year 2009-2010, we were awarded exactly $4,800,524 in federal funds". Trying to create that second number is a LOT of work, even though it seems from the outside like it should be easy.

There are also new and laudable programs. For instance, we have a fairly well-paid and very talented administrator whose job (in addition to some teaching) is to run several programs which recruit and fund students from low income communities, students from local immigrant communities (desperately needed once trained) and students from underserved rural areas. That's novel, and it's awesome.

And then there's the vicious circle of "marketing" - the more it is expected that universities market themselves, the more they have to devote time and personnel to marketing. This isn't optional unless you're Deep Springs or Harvard - everyone else ends up with slogans and logos and sidewalk clings with uplifting messages and YouTube commercials and a Facebook presence and so on.

There's also some job shuffling - there are jobs which used to be non-"professional" and unionized which have been essentially abolished as union positions and recreated as "administrative", a strategy to weaken the unions and to change the ideological composition of the workforce. So at least some of the increase in "administrator" jobs that we're talking about here (not the $250,000/year ones certainly) reflect reclassification of skilled secretarial work into non-union gigs with less security.

It's a lot more complicated than simply "there are a bunch of useless people making too much money" - if only this were the case!
posted by Frowner at 12:17 PM on August 28, 2013 [13 favorites]


The voters of California have repeatedly voted for "tough on crime" measures that require massive additional prison funding, and, since taxes are essentially impossible to raise, defunding of other government programs.

This may be the most depressing thing I've read this month.
posted by maxwelton at 12:17 PM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


But that would also add enormously to the university budget. So...fee hikes all round, everyone?

Or just take money from elsewhere in the budget, like administrator salaries or new construction.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:20 PM on August 28, 2013


I would like to second the article yoink linked above. One of the points they make is that higher education is a service industry, and that:
From 1947 to 2009 the average annual price increase for services was 4.0 percent, while for goods the average annual price increase was only 2.4 percent.
Services cost more, and given that the number and types of services that colleges and universities provide have increased, as a number of people in this thread have pointed out, it is not terribly surprising that costs have increased.

Think about this: the ADA was passed in 1990. This means that colleges and universities have had to not only make their physical spaces ADA compliant, buy have also created the various Offices of Student Disability Services that you see on every college campus. These office employ administrators and professional staff who have to know the law, and have to figure out how to make sure the school is compliant, how to accommodate students, etc.

I have had students who had cerebral palsy, were in wheelchairs, were legally blind, were hearing impaired. I imagine that, prior to the ADA, many of those students would have been told that they could not go to college (or strongly discouraged from doing so). And I imagine that they faced some pretty serious challenges if they tried. I think things are better now, and I'm glad that there are people on campus whose job it is to watch out for students' rights.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 12:42 PM on August 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Or just take money from elsewhere in the budget, like administrator salaries or new construction.

But that just doesn't pencil out. I mean, it would be really nice to think it would, but it truly doesn't. Believe me, I've sat in a LOT of different committee meetings looking at our university budget trying to think of magic ways we could make it all better. There isn't some evil cabal out there that is standing in the way of easy-peasy fixes that would bring about hugs and puppies and high-paying ladder-rank faculty jobs for everyone.
posted by yoink at 12:52 PM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


(I have a lowly perch at a highly ranked school.)

Just take money from elsewhere in the budget, like administrator salaries or new construction.

It really isn't that simple.

After you take out all the grants and work-study type of aid, much of the tuition cash is coming from a small cohort of students. And they will not be paying to live in refrigerator crates or 50's style dorms (how delightfully quaint!) - they do want minimal standards, and if University X doesn't provide it, you bet they'll prefer University Y. Likewise, alumni donations are very significant: those are rarely unrestricted, and very rarely going to places that the donors are not proud to be associated with. For research grants, a top tier university faces extraordinary reporting requirements and audit compliance rules, and dealing with those takes time, effort, and money.

New construction and administrator salaries do serve a purpose, even if that purpose is as banal as avoiding unilateral disarmament in an arms race for a shrinking pile of tuition and grant dollars.
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:52 PM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


And another vote for yoink's article linked above.

Technological progress has not reduced the number of labor hours required to provide most services. By contrast, technical innovation has significantly reduced the number of labor hours and kilowatts of power needed to produce most manufactured goods and agricultural products. As a result, the cost of a service such as a year of college must rise compared to the price of a basic car or a basket of groceries.

This is the well-known “cost disease” phenomenon. We think most contemporary critics of higher education fail to credit this argument’s real power in explaining the time path of higher education costs.

posted by RedOrGreen at 1:00 PM on August 28, 2013



Hear, hear. Fortunately MisanthropicPainforest seemed to have distilled the main point: "The problem isn't how we are educating, it is the administrators."


We can solve this problem through Massive Open Online Administration systems, which would get rid of a lot of the duplicated dead weight administration.

Sure, we'd still have to pay key administration talent near 7 figure salaries to keep them from jumping to the private sector, and they'd still have to increase the rate of new buildings, prioritize fundraising efforts, keep a tight lid on the number of tenure track faculty (and, of course, salaries), and increase tuition. But the point is that collectively, the whole university system would probably only have to pay a few dozen administrators those big salaries.
posted by weston at 1:01 PM on August 28, 2013 [4 favorites]



Just take money from elsewhere in the budget, like administrator salaries or new construction.


New construction, sadly, often comes from earmarked funds - the legislature, a foundation, alumni, the city, corporate funders - which can't be used for anything but new construction. Quite a few other things also come from restricted budgets - you can have a situation where you have a surplus of funds for X at the same time as you have nothing left for Y. For instance, if you have an endowment that is meant to fund student conference travel to a particular Important Conference and for some reason no students are able to attend for a couple of years, you'll have money piling up in that account, and even if you would like to fund faculty travel to a research meeting, you can't touch that endowed money. This is why you sometimes see articles like "the university spends $$$$ annually on its Critical Theory Criticism conference, while the stairs in the Great Hall are crumbling and the tile is falling off the walls!!" - the Critical Theory Criticism conference is funded by money left by the late Dr. Neville Cork-Nethersole for that purpose and that purpose only.

This is one reason why general funding from the state is so critical - it can be spent where the university perceives needs from year to year, not tied up for a single purpose.
posted by Frowner at 1:06 PM on August 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


Also, this MOOA business - won't that render the university even more undemocratic? At least at the moment, I can trot on down to the president's office with my union buddies to deliver a petition, or I can attend an important committee meeting - but if we have, like, twelve senior technocrat administrators for All The Colleges, how do we do that?

I add that universities should be job engines in their communities - now, rich-people jobs are not the greatest example, but I have never yet encountered a "get rid of the administrators" agitator who wasn't also "let's get rid of those lazy secretaries and stupid union rules" about it. Here at Large Land Grant, we are paid...well, somewhat below private sector rates, but we have great benefits and insurance, and a reasonable amount of job security. Unlike temp workers and retail staff and so on, we have at least some discretionary money to spend in the community, where it creates a local ripple effect. Sure, you could probably outsource some parts of my job to India (I'm not an administrator; I'm a secretary) and consolidate the rest so that my job became incredibly restricted and boring and a lot of other jobs were eliminated totally, but that person in India (or the MOOA staff assistant) isn't spending her money here in the community, and meanwhile the people who used to work here are on food stamps. One reason that Minneapolis doesn't suck is that we have a bunch of colleges which provide decent-paying jobs.

Everyone is all "oh, let's consolidate the jobs" without thinking about how exactly our new jobless communities are going to work.

And, frankly, one of the purposes of a scholarly institution is to have it retain some local character, institutional philosophy, etc. Scholarship isn't like widget manufacturing - there is no point at which you can say "we have the single best scholarship production process possible at this point in time". Different schools and departments have different philosophies and approaches which best suit different students and which generate scholarly debate. Of course, for instance, there are terrible French departments. But the solution isn't to standardize all French departments, consolidate most of them and have five national Standard French Programs in the name of efficiency.
posted by Frowner at 1:15 PM on August 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


Man, this thread is turning into a great example of the lack of solidarity Frank's piece is meant to call out, and of the kudzu-like spread of the managerial mentality. Memo to everyone who once sat on a cost-constrained committee and now feels that "budgets are complicated" is a justification for the proletarianization of the faculty: the constraints on your committee's spending were not God-given, and in fact they were part of the sad retrenching of academic labor politics and the lack of basic worker solidarity that are the subject of Frank's piece.

Thought experiment: why don't universities replace full-time administrators with adjunct permatemps who sit on committees for poverty-level wages on semester contracts? That vaunted "cost disease" doesn't seem to apply to every campus worker's wages equally, does it?
posted by RogerB at 1:19 PM on August 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


I add that universities should be job engines in their communities

Yeah, I always find it weird when the same people lamenting the lack of decently paid middle class jobs for college graduates are also harrumphing about how much leaner and meaner the administrative structure of universities could be and how we should be laying off all that "bloated" support staff.
posted by yoink at 1:20 PM on August 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


In my experience what most people lament is the multi-million dollar salaries of individuals in the administration, while most classes are taught by underpaid adjuncts.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:25 PM on August 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, some people also seem to hear "university administration" and immediately imagine rooms full of Senior VPs of Sinecure Studies and Fatcat Hobnobbing getting paid 6 figure salaries, but that doesn't really square with either my experience or the numbers.
posted by Copronymus at 1:26 PM on August 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


the constraints on your committee's spending were not God-given

No, but nor are they, for the most part, remotely in the power of the institution to alter. Nor am I making a "budgets are complicated" argument. In fact, what makes the budgets so dispiriting is often that the basic terms are all too simple--the limitations all too stark. The money simply isn't there for the things we'd all like to do. Pretending that there are simple solutions ("take all the money from the administrators and the building budgets!!! Wheeeeeeeee!") doesn't do anything, at all, to address the difficulties faced by adjunct faculty.

The senior administration of my statewide university system earns <1>fraction of that energy was expended on writing to state legislators and insisting that the state's budget for higher education was increased it would be infinitely more likely to actually make some real difference. Barking wildly up the wrong tree actually has a real cost.
posted by yoink at 1:31 PM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


In my experience what most people lament is the multi-million dollar salaries of individuals in the administration

Yeah, a really tiny number of people get big fat salaries. Those salaries could probably be lower without doing much harm to the institution. But they are also only earned by a tiny fraction of total employees of the university. So cutting them back actually doesn't make any meaningful difference to the basic terms of the budget.

And it's not, actually, clear that paying big bucks to a university president or Chancellor is a always a waste of money. You pay those people the big bucks not for the administrative work they do (that could be done better by much lower paid people--and it is largely done, in fact, by much lower paid people), you're paying them for fund raising and PR. And the simple fact is that if you're trying to get Billionaire X to give the campus a gaudy gift you're going to get a lot further if you can put them in the room with Famous Important Person Y rather than with Super Competent but Basically Anonymous Administrator Z. Universities rely more and more heavily on endowments. If you pay your President or Chancellor 500K and they bring in $10 million more than someone you'd have got for 80K then you made a really, really good deal.
posted by yoink at 1:38 PM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


The senior administration of my statewide university system earns <1>fraction of that energy was expended on writing to state legislators and insisting that the state's budget for higher education was increased it would be infinitely more likely to actually make some real difference. Barking wildly up the wrong tree actually has a real cost.

Aargh--I didn't notice I'd borked this until the edit window closed. It was supposed to read:
The senior administration of my statewide university system earns less than 1% of the system's core budget (that is state revenues and fees combined--the money we're free to spend pretty much anyway we like). Student protests over fees are obsessively focused on this less-than-1% of the system's budget. 17% of that budget, by contrast, goes on student aid. If every single senior administrative figure in the entire university system had their salary reduced to the statewide average, it would make no appreciable difference--at all--to student fees or the quality of the student experience on campus. All the rhetoric focused on that issue is just so much wasted breath, so much wasted political energy. If a fraction of that energy was expended on writing to state legislators and insisting that the state's budget for higher education was increased it would be infinitely more likely to actually make some real difference. Barking wildly up the wrong tree actually has a real cost.
posted by yoink at 1:44 PM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


And the simple fact is that if you're trying to get Billionaire X to give the campus a gaudy gift you're going to get a lot further if you can put them in the room with Famous Important Person Y rather than with Super Competent but Basically Anonymous Administrator Z.

Which, again, is why when the university has to do a lot of fund-raising, you have to participate in a pernicious system. You can participate well, with comparative honesty and an attempt to distribute the money you raise fairly, or you can participate poorly like Yudof in California and have your students beaten and tear-gassed when they complain, but it's extraordinarily hard to opt out. Reorganizing funding within the university is the very example of re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. In that process, of course, the already vulnerable will get shafted, whether that's the humanities or faculty generally or the unionized staff (except the Teamsters!) but positive change is only going to come by organizing to change the things that affect the university from the outside.
posted by Frowner at 1:47 PM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


If we took...a 1950s State U...adjusted for inflation...could it provide an effective university education less expensively than a modern university?
I'm not quite sure what the question means. You'd need massive (and expensive) changes to the science facilities, for example, or they'd be hopelessly outdated. You wouldn't be able to attract a very good faculty with 1950s academic salaries adjusted for inflation...


I was trying to ask if the changes that have driven the lamented tuition increases are actually educationally necessary*, or just nice-to-haves. For instance, I'm not even sure the science faculties would need facilities that are much different (for educational purposes), since it's not like undergraduates are at the cutting edges of their fields. I have the impression that, for students, universities used to be much cheaper but also more austere**, and maybe we need institutions like that again (that aren't MOOCs) if they can effectively educate undergrads.

* for undergraduates, I should have qualified
** At a minimum, what do you really need for an education? Teachers, books, classrooms, labs (and supplies), something to write on, cheap housing, and cheap food.

posted by cosmic.osmo at 1:48 PM on August 28, 2013


I'm not even sure the science faculties would need facilities that are much different (for educational purposes)

The undergraduates need faculty who are active in research in their fields. The faculty need the up-to-date facilities. (And there's a lot of emphasis on trying to involve undergraduates in the research experience these days, too).
posted by yoink at 1:52 PM on August 28, 2013


Well, some people also seem to hear "university administration" and immediately imagine rooms full of Senior VPs of Sinecure Studies and Fatcat Hobnobbing getting paid 6 figure salaries, but that doesn't really square with either my experience or the numbers.

The University of California system has, as of 2012, 301 employees with a gross salary of $500,000 or greater, and 1860 employees with a gross salary of $300,000 or more.

Sample non-Professor job titles in the > $500k range:

EXEC DIR FUNC AREA
HEAD COACH 5
VC FUNC AREA
EXEC DEAN SAC
AST TREASURER OF THE REGENTS
EXEC OFCR FUNC AREA
DIR EXEC

You can do the search here.
posted by zippy at 2:39 PM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Did anybody read to the end of the article where the dude says the job of fixing this falls to the students? Because, wow. That's not even charmingly naive, that's Zoey Deschanel pants on head special.

They use the same line in medical school. Because, you know, the lowest rank in any given power structure has the most power. I mean, it worked out pretty well for Chelsea Manning, right?

I think this is where a lot of the boomer hate stems from. Lines like this where it's like yeah, oh wow, geeze, that's a problem. Good luck with that kids.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 2:53 PM on August 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


The University of California system has, as of 2012, 301 employees with a gross salary of $500,000 or greater, and 1860 employees with a gross salary of $300,000 or more.

Several points that you need to understand when you look at those figures:

1) Coaches salaries come, for the most part, out of money the athletic programs bring in to the campus: that is, they aren't being paid out of the same pool of money that funds academic salaries. Get rid of the head coach of the UCLA basketball team and you don't suddenly free up money to spend on turning a bunch of adjuncts into ladder-rank faculty.

2) "Gross salary" is a less helpful number to look at in that chart than base salary. Gross salary can include all kinds of one-offs and administrative oddities. If you go down that list of highest paid "gross salaries" you see a lot of people in med school, law and business. They're often making money which, again, is not coming out of the university budget.

3) The UC system as a whole employs 180,000 odd people. Once again, slashing the salaries of a few hundred of them, no matter how gaudy those salaries are, isn't making a significant difference to the system's overall budget.
posted by yoink at 2:58 PM on August 28, 2013


The University of California system has, as of 2012, 301 employees with a gross salary of $500,000 or greater, and 1860 employees with a gross salary of $300,000 or more.

...out of over 208,000 faculty and staff.

For reference, that's about the size of General Motors. In any group of people that large, you're going to have some people making lots of money. And seriously, some of those titles you picked out? "AST TREASURER OF THE REGENTS", for instance, appears to be the first guy on this page, who's in charge of the UC endowment and is the equivalent of a CFO of a Fortune 500 corporation. Do you think his counterparts are going home with $300k? Total compensation for my company's CFO - and we're well, well, outside the Fortune 500 - was around $1.2 million last year.

Honestly, it is fucking quaint that people like Frank (and those in this thread) think that operations on this scale can be handled by faculty committees, meeting in the afternoons over bourbon or whatever.
posted by downing street memo at 2:58 PM on August 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


3) The UC system as a whole employs 180,000 odd people.

Oh yeah, downing street memo's comment reminds me I didn't even include faculty in that number.
posted by yoink at 3:00 PM on August 28, 2013


As I was getting ready to teach my first class this morning at my state university, a student (I think he was a student) walked in the room, his hand full of flyers, and asked if he could make an announcement. He proceeded to introduce himself as a member of a company that offered volunteer-opportunities-for-credit in "Africa." Instead of sitting in a classroom, he promised them, they could ride in a jeep, right past a lion.

After class, on my way to grab a cup of coffee, I passed students (I think they were students) on the sidewalk distributing "free planners!" from a marketing association.

In my next class, I reviewed the procedures for the student response system/clickers that the students will use. They can register their clicker number by following the link for the company that provides them, available on our Blackboard site. (When I attended a training to learn how to use these clickers, a student worker sat in with us. I'm pretty sure he was a student. He was introduced to me as an employee of the clicker company.)

That's all to say that, I was struck by the privatization of this beloved public university three times before lunch today.
posted by Fichereader at 3:11 PM on August 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


The University of California system has, as of 2012, 301 employees with a gross salary of $500,000 or greater, and 1860 employees with a gross salary of $300,000 or more.

...out of over 208,000 faculty and staff.


I guess I'd ask "should we be comparing UC pay to private sector or public?" Because if the latter is fair:

The Governor of California earns $168,000. That's less than half of what a UC Davis Chancellor earns (as base, not gross).

OK, what about looking at the number of employees? Well, we have 1.4 million members of the US armed forces plus another 850k reservists, yet the Commander in Chief gets a base salary of $400,000.

President Obama, leader of the free world? His base salary is less than the Chancellor of UC Davis's (plus hundreds of other UC administrative employees).
posted by zippy at 3:14 PM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


President Obama, leader of the free world? His base salary is less than the Chancellor of UC Davis's (plus hundreds of other UC administrative employees).

Politicians' pay gets limited because of political pressures. They don't want people up in arms about how much they're being paid. On the other hand, they all know that they can make any amount of money they like for the rest of their lives on the strength of having held that office, so the point is pretty moot. If you think that you could lure Jerry Brown, say, to become Chancellor of UCLA by telling him he'd get a fantastic pay raise, you'd be in for a disappointing conversation. These are simply not comparable employment markets.

But the issue here is not "are any specific individual cases of these salaries unfair" in any case; the issue is "do they make a significant difference to the university's budget, such that putting meaningful downward pressure on them would appreciably change student fees or policies relating to adjunct faculty." The answer to that question is "no."
posted by yoink at 3:39 PM on August 28, 2013


And it's not, actually, clear that paying big bucks to a university president or Chancellor is a always a waste of money. You pay those people the big bucks not for the administrative work they do (that could be done better by much lower paid people--and it is largely done, in fact, by much lower paid people), you're paying them for fund raising and PR.

For real? Hucksters, marketeers, and salesman... it's the way of the world right?

In fact, what makes the budgets so dispiriting is often that the basic terms are all too simple--the limitations all too stark. The money simply isn't there for the things we'd all like to do. Pretending that there are simple solutions ("take all the money from the administrators and the building budgets!!! Wheeeeeeeee!") doesn't do anything, at all, to address the difficulties faced by adjunct faculty.

So, I guess you just have to take someone who's devoted 10+ years of their life to becoming an expert on an academic subject, who has a very specialized set of skills and knowledge and fuck them in the ass. Time's are tough kid: bend over.

In that process, of course, the already vulnerable will get shafted, whether that's the humanities or faculty generally or the unionized staff (except the Teamsters!) but positive change is only going to come by organizing to change the things that affect the university from the outside.

That's a huge cop out. I mean by all means cash your paycheck but you're working for a big exploitative business; don't make excuses for yourself. Some day you're going to have to choose between your paycheck and solidarity with someone getting "shafted" by your employer.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:40 PM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, I guess you just have to take someone who's devoted 10+ years of their life to becoming an expert on an academic subject, who has a very specialized set of skills and knowledge and fuck them in the ass. Time's are tough kid: bend over.

And your solution that isn't based on magic is...?
posted by yoink at 3:47 PM on August 28, 2013


But the issue here is not "are any specific individual cases of these salaries unfair" in any case; the issue is "do they make a significant difference to the university's budget [...]"

That's not the only issue here, no. Of course it's true that the destruction of state higher education funding is the biggest single budgetary factor in the horrible new state of academic labor. But, again, budgets are political! And I bet that the dozen or so adjuncts who could be provided stable living-wage positions out of each $500K administrator's paycheck might differ with you about how trivial that budget line is, anyhow — it's easy to cry small potatoes when you aren't the one who's going hungry for any potatoes at all.

Anyhow, talking about how and why campus workers are so short on solidarity is important on its own, non-budgetary terms. It's partly because intra-university politics has been fragmented into a million small-scale budgetary fights, with academic workers divided and conquered into fighting against each other for the relative privilege of a tenuously middle-class life (much less a "CFO"-scale paycheck), that they can't present anything resembling a unified front to the outside world in defense of their state funding, cultural prestige, institutional mission, etc. It's not a distraction to talk about the privileged few on campus if the existence of that privileged few is an obstacle to organizing the rest, regardless of the few's ludicrous paychecks making a (relatively) small contribution to the overall problem.
posted by RogerB at 3:53 PM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, I mean, we could increase budgets by bring state funding levels back to what they were in the 1970s, but I suppose there's a fair amount of magic in assuming that to be politically feasible.
posted by downing street memo at 3:53 PM on August 28, 2013


And can I just add, ennui.bz, that there's really nothing more tedious than this particular exchange:

"We could fix X problem by doing Y."

"No, I'm sorry, but here's some reasons why Y doesn't work."

"Well, I guess you just don't care about X then like I do!"

Show me a solution that actually works and I'll be happy to sign on to it. But if you know what it is, then you're doing the world a disservice by keeping it to yourself. "Cut administrator pay and building budgets" happens not to be among the solutions that will work.
posted by yoink at 3:56 PM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


RogerB - I don't agree with you that bringing down administrator salaries would be dispositive here - but if you consider "administrators" as "management" (and it sounds like you do), it might be worth thinking about why managers have gained significant power within higher ed environments in the last 20-30 years.

The power relations narrative - the idea that managers have used their political cunning to usurp dollars better spent on faculty - is faulty and incomplete, mostly because the change seems to have occurred with some degree of uniformity across the American higher education system. You'd think, at some point, if this were truly a suboptimal distribution of dollars for the institutions themselves, someone at some point would've stripped layers of management and "gotten back to basics" by focusing on finding and developing better faculty members. This kind of thing happens in the corporate world all the time, as much as some here might not believe it.

What I might suggest - and, I'm not an expert and I am not putting this forth as gospel, only as an idea - is that broadly speaking the returns on management in higher education have increased and remained high throughout this period. In other words, managers are people who optimize production in the face of scarcity, and both production (to get grant funding, to attract the best students, to put them in good careers) and scarcity (of state budget dollars, of the kind of faculty that teach in career fields where prospects are strong) are increasingly important in higher ed.

We can argue why this is so - the college wage premium is important, the competition from better-educated students abroad is important, and personal experience has led me to agree with Frank that college is more than ever a shibboleth of the elite. We can argue about whether this is all socially optimal, too. But to deny that these decisions are grounded in real forces acting on the higher education world seems silly.
posted by downing street memo at 4:13 PM on August 28, 2013


Regarding the Baumol hypothesis, Felix Salmon has this to say:

the numbers show that wage inflation is — literally — the least of the problems when it comes to university cost inflation. ... if we exclude for-profit schools, which were a tiny part of the landscape in 1999, we have seen tuition fees rise by 32% between 1999 and 2009. Over the same period, instruction costs rose just 5.6% — the lowest rate of inflation of any of the components of education services. (“Student services costs” and “operations and maintenance costs” saw the greatest inflation, at 15.2% and 18.1% respectively, but even that is only half the rate that tuition increased.)

The real reason why tuition has been rising so much has nothing to do with Baumol, and everything to do with the government. Page 31 of the report is quite clear: “except for private research institutions,” it says, “tuitions were increasing almost exclusively to replace losses from state revenues or other private revenue sources.”

posted by shivohum at 4:13 PM on August 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


And I bet that the dozen or so adjuncts who could be provided stable living-wage positions out of each $500K administrator's paycheck might differ with you about how trivial that budget line is, anyhow

How are you getting a dozen adjuncts converted into, say, Assistant Professors out of 500K? Let's assume salaries of 60K (which is on the low side), and then add in health insurance, other benefits and retirement on top of that. You're probably getting 4 ladder-rank faculty members out of that 500K. But you've also reduced this "overpaid" administrator to a non-paid administrator. Don't you think that administrator probably "devoted 10+ years of their life to becoming an expert on a ... subject, [and] has a very specialized set of skills"? Why should they be getting "fucked in the ass" in this way? O.K., maybe you'll accept that they might deserve, what, a 150K salary? Oh, but now I've only got 350K to play with in turning adjuncts into Profs. Maybe that's 2 or 3. But there's a problem--Assistant Professors, all going well, turn into Assoc. Profs and Full Profs. That salary of 60K this year is going to become a salary of, perhaps 120K in 6 years' time. (While the 350K I'm paying the administrator will increase much less quickly). And it's all massively adding to my future retirement liabilities when I start figuring those out.

Maybe I'd be better off just making that one new full-time ladder rank faculty person for my saved 350K. But now, how many people are there earning 500K whose salary actually comes out of core funds and can be diverted into general academic salaries? And how many of them would be easily replaceable by someone who would do the job just as well with no consequent loss of revenues for 150K? Not, in fact, that many. I'm sure there are some, but it's not going to be dozens upon dozens. Maybe in the whole UC system there will be a dozen of them. And to find them would mean setting up a committee to examine productivity, the potential market for new hires etc. etc.--so even trying to find out how to do this isn't a cost-free operation. But, you know, it might be worth doing and it might yield some savings (god knows, the UC system has shed support staff in utterly brutal ways over the last six or seven years--it has had horrible effects on overall productivity, but it has saved money). But none of this is doing anything more than fiddling around the edges. It's not "changing the system" it's making tiny incremental changes to the system. It's not an answer to the question "why is higher education so expensive today"--it's simply a tiny, not particularly effective adaptation to the fact of that expense.
posted by yoink at 4:14 PM on August 28, 2013


Over the same period, instruction costs rose just 5.6% — the lowest rate of inflation of any of the components of education services.

What that argument fails to take into account, shivohum, is precisely the fact that the very structure of careers in academic instruction changed drastically because the cost of academic salaries became unsustainable. The proliferation of instruction by adjuncts is the mechanism that has kept overall instruction budgets low--but that's not proof of the price of instruction remaining constant.
posted by yoink at 4:19 PM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


The proliferation of instruction by adjuncts is the mechanism that has kept overall instruction budgets low--but that's not proof of the price of instruction remaining constant.

That's a good point. But in fact, wouldn't the large oversupply of Ph.D.s suggest that prices should be pushed down further, in fact, should drop significantly in the long run as tenured faculty are replaced by cheaper adjuncts? Wouldn't a lot of unemployed doctoral degree holders take a $40,000 tenure-less job with modest benefits over nothing?
posted by shivohum at 4:38 PM on August 28, 2013


That's a huge cop out. I mean by all means cash your paycheck but you're working for a big exploitative business; don't make excuses for yourself. Some day you're going to have to choose between your paycheck and solidarity with someone getting "shafted" by your employer.

Gee, yeah, like when I was on fucking strike with my union a couple of years ago. I have pointed out several times in this thread that I am a union secretary at a university. But you won't believe that - you'd rather believe that I'm some kind of ruthless rich administrator, because you can't believe that I, who know something about university budgets from the inside, can possibly, possibly both believe that faculty are getting screwed and believe that the core of the problem is in larger funding issues and needs to be resolved there. Let me tell you, I chose between my paycheck and solidarity - I lost over a month's wages and didn't take money from the strike fund because I knew others who needed it more. Have you lost a month's wages in solidarity with your university colleagues? I have to say, your comment is probably one of the most personally offensive ones I've encountered here.

I'd be interested to know what your line of work is, too. It must be very principled indeed.
posted by Frowner at 4:40 PM on August 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


It's not a tax cutting problem. Tax rates have never been higher in California than they are now, after a series of hikes in the past several years. Illinois recently doubled its top rate. In New York, state top rates are a hair under their all-time high and including local taxes are all-in higher than ever in many towns.

Medicaid, K12 education, criminal justice, and public employee benefits (especially pensions and health care) have risen faster than inflation or the tax base for decades. State universities had the least powerful political constituency, but soon enough the real cuts will need to roll into these other areas, too.
posted by MattD at 4:41 PM on August 28, 2013


But in fact, wouldn't the large oversupply of Ph.D.s suggest that prices should be pushed down further, in fact, should drop significantly in the long run as tenured faculty are replaced by cheaper adjuncts? Wouldn't a lot of unemployed doctoral degree holders take a $40,000 tenure-less job with modest benefits over nothing?

Of course; not only "would" they do so, they are doing so. That's one of the major ways universities are adapting to the fact that the amounts of money they receive from the state are no longer sufficient to cover their operations (along with their other sources of revenue). But that's not a disproof of the Baumol hypothesis--it's a consequence of it. If you go into an old bank office and look up you'll usually see a complex plastered ceiling that was originally painted and gilded and took scores of skilled craftsmen hundreds of person-hours to complete. If you go into a modern bank and look up you'll see acoustic tiles that are spat out of a machine somewhere in Indonesia or China, cost pennies to produce and are installed by some kid with a high-school diploma. Yes, there's a sense in which both processes are "ceiling-producing processes" but the fact that the former-process is now solely the preserve of billionaires who happen to have a taste for elaborate ceiling work is a consequence of the Baumol hypothesis and not a disproof of it.
posted by yoink at 4:45 PM on August 28, 2013


But that's not a disproof of the Baumol hypothesis--it's a consequence of it.

Well, what exactly is the analogue to the gilded ceiling? Presumably it's what tenure-track faculty produce given their extra job security, research budgets, relatively lighter teaching schedules, etc. And let's say all of this lets such faculty produce more elegantly rococo varieties of instruction and scholarship.

Yet if there are crowds lining up for adjunct spots, suggesting that these individuals would rather teach for a pittance than go into other fields, there should be even larger crowds lining up for tenure-track openings. In fact, since tenure has job security and other advantages, including the all-important prestige factor, the economics should suggest that if in fact universities wanted the "gilded ceilings" of tenure-track faculty, they could pay them, on average, even less than adjuncts get on a per annum basis.

If, despite that, the few ladder-ranked faculty get higher wages, it must then be not because of Baumol's cost disease but for other reasons.
posted by shivohum at 5:16 PM on August 28, 2013


To further clarify: I don't think it's some kind of failure of radicalism to say if there's declining resources, the problem of declining resources is not going to be solved by arguing that everyone should get tinier and tinier but equal slices of the pie. Not only does this line of thinking literally not solve the problem of shrinking resources since without external change the budget is only going to keep shrinking, but it isn't an accurate description of how people act in hierarchical systems. Believe me, I'm watching staff benefits get sliced and our pay frozen (to the point where I will actually be taking home less after our new contract - my paycheck will actually go down by somewhere in the neighborhood of $100/month, which is not trivial at all) because higher ranking people are getting raises. And yet "take their money and give it to staff" isn't really a solution, both because it will never happen and because it just kicks the problem down the road until the legislature decides to cut our funds again.

Also, you're getting awfully utopian, ennui.bz, about faculty. Where's the faculty member who doesn't think he or she should make a whole lot more than even the most skilled staff, if the world is put to rights? Far more common is the faculty member - yea verily, even in bastions of a certain sort of radicalism like comp lit and cultural studies, and I know for I've met them - who think that people like me are pretty much trained monkeys who should be grateful for the employment. And isn't it true that STEM postdocs and adjuncts tend to be pretty conservative? Sure, they'd all like to be tenure track, but in general they don't seem very into organizing to get to that point - they're not falling all over themselves in solidarity with the kids in sociology. And actually, one of the more unpleasant university experiences I've had was being brought in to a grad student organizing project - they wanted a worker-staff alliance (partly, I assume, because we already have a union) and I've seldom been in a room where so many people were from rich backgrounds and had never had to work full-time jobs outside of academia...or a room where people were so blatant about assuming that because I wasn't a grad student I was politically ignorant. It's very interesting, my friend - I often pass for a grad student in social settings because I look fairly young, talk a good game and have enough of an amateur interest in a couple of unusual subjects to sound fairly educated - so I've often had the fascinating experience of being treated first as a colleague and then, once the truth comes out, as a boring inferior.

None of this undercuts the need for stable tenure track positions, but it also makes me less willing to view the situation as a simple one with two sides.
posted by Frowner at 5:16 PM on August 28, 2013 [7 favorites]



Frowner: isn't it true that STEM postdocs and adjuncts tend to be pretty conservative?

Ummm, no?

I agree with almost everything else you've said in this thread, but this isn't true. In my whole entire department (in the physical sciences) I can think of one, maybe two people on the academic side who might be even remotely conservative. Maybe we're not all bleeding heart hippies, and yes we're not all out organizing with our department socialist (Trotskyist) but that's a very far cry from "pretty conservative". Okay, I'm in a liberal Northeastern enclave, YMMV.

Apologies for the derail, carry on.


The problem of declining resources is not going to be solved by arguing that everyone should get tinier and tinier but equal slices of the pie.

Pretty much this.
posted by RedOrGreen at 8:09 PM on August 28, 2013


In my whole entire department (in the physical sciences) I can think of one, maybe two people on the academic side who might be even remotely conservative.

Yeah, you tend to find the conservatives in the Business school. ("But why shouldn't we just let the market determine the cost of education?")
posted by yoink at 8:38 PM on August 28, 2013


This essay starts with utopia—the utopia known as the American university.

I would say the American university is better likened to the ship students board that will take them to utopia-- or more precisely, it takes them to a new world of unlimited opportunity where hard work will earn them the life of their dreams.

And you don't have to pay your passage in advance; you can work it out over a period of years.

But here in the Western hemisphere we've seen this deal before: hundreds of years ago, some of our ancestors received passage here in exchange for years of indentured servitude-- and now their descendants are getting exactly the same deal, except that the terms of servitude are generally much longer.

Many of the rest of our ancestors, however, weren't offered a deal at all; they were simply snatched out of their lives, chained and imprisoned, and forced to work for their captors for the rest of their lives.

And now, descendants mainly of this second group-- conveniently color-coded-- are having almost the same thing happen to them, only we don't call them slaves, we call them prisoners.

Four hundred years after the start of the colonial enterprise, it's come back around to its very beginnings: slavery, indentured servitude, and heedless exploitation of natural resources.
posted by jamjam at 9:20 PM on August 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


3) The UC system as a whole employs 180,000 odd people. Once again, slashing the salaries of a few hundred of them, no matter how gaudy those salaries are, isn't making a significant difference to the system's overall budget.

I calculated in a previous thread the last time this came up that if you paid all Berkeley faculty who made at least $40K a flat salary of $125K, you would save around 30% of the total amount paid to faculty -- ~40% if you went down to $100K. This suggests that there is plenty of room to save money on faculty salaries without threatening people's livelihoods. I'd be interested to see whether this holds true for administrators as well; I suspect it would.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:38 PM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


You pay those people the big bucks not for the administrative work they do (that could be done better by much lower paid people--and it is largely done, in fact, by much lower paid people), you're paying them for fund raising and PR.

I had to laugh here considering that Larry Summers provided Harvard with such excellent PR.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:55 PM on August 28, 2013


As far as STEM post-docs and grad students being conservative - as I understand it, they were the ones who were strongly against a grad student union here and as a result, two campaigns failed. Now, that's a bigger issue - at least here, they're much better paid than the humanities ones (humanities stipends are pretty much $13,000/year, or they were a couple of years ago the last time I asked someone) while STEM stipends start at $24,000 and go to mid-thirties. So the pressures that drive humanities folks are not felt in STEM fields.

En forme de poire, how do you propose to get something like a flat salary for all passed? Even the people who would receive an increase aren't all going to go for it if it means a salary cap - I can really only speak to the sciences, but if you're talking to a group where a reasonable number hope to achieve tenure and make north of $160,000 plus benefits (Does "a flat $125,000" include benefits?) a lot of those people aren't going to go for it. And a lot of people whose other options are medical practice or corporate research won't like it either. And then there's the practice of recruiting famous/established scholars - that's not just (or even mostly) a STEM problem, you're not going to get your field's Frederic Jameson to work for a capped $125,000.

The university is a site of uneven development! And competition between units! And a lot of snobbery, class and otherwise! I think that there's a whole lot of "there are these evil administrators [probably aided and abetted by lazy overpaid union secretaries] who are withholding the fair and equal pay that belongs by rights to all faculty, who are united on this topic" reasoning underlying this discussion.

I feel as though I am being misread to say that I think this is all fine and dandy, that I think marketing and corporate fund-raising and offices dedicated to it are wonderful. I don't, at all! I would infinitely prefer a university with...well, let's be honest, I'd infinitely prefer a totally reconstituted university with more job security, more equal salaries and teaching, arts and scholarship as its primary missions...but I think that internal reform at this particular moment in history is unlikely to work. I mean for pete's sake, consider all the student activism in CA - that was easily the most coherent, radical and largest student activist project I've ever seen. And yet it achieved few of its aims. Our union has struck twice in the past ten years, we lost each time and we don't have a third strike in us (as far as I can tell). These things have to do with existing power relations within the university and I don't think they're going to change until external forces (bigger social shifts, forms of organizing that are both within and without the university, some kind of totally unexpected boom, whatever) change them. That's not to say that I think organizing through the university is worthless and no one should do it, but until there's some bigger shift in society as a whole, it's going to be a holding action.
posted by Frowner at 5:11 AM on August 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


If not, why are we constantly assaulted by assertions from the business elite that so many positions are going unfilled because they can't find educated and skilled people to fill them?

This has more to do with the fact that fewer and fewer companies are hiring entry-level positions and providing training than they used to. Companies want people who come with more skills than simply a college degree, which skills are hard to acquire (outside of maybe a Vo-Tech) without having that work experience that requires the skills.
posted by corb at 6:26 AM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, you tend to find the conservatives in the Business school. ("But why shouldn't we just let the market determine the cost of education?")

Engineering seems to skew somewhat conservative, although there is a lot of variation in individual faculty members, and the same can be said of most Physics and Mathematics departments I have worked with. Which is a survey of roughly four institutions over a couple of decades, so....
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:30 AM on August 29, 2013


I calculated in a previous thread the last time this came up that if you paid all Berkeley faculty who made at least $40K a flat salary of $125K, you would save around 30% of the total amount paid to faculty

You calculated wrong. The average salary for ladder-rank salary at Berkeley is 150K (and that's including benefits). But you have to remember that that includes all those faculty who actually (unlike the Humanities professors) do have non-academic alternatives out there. Law school, Business school, Med school, many of the STEM faculty etc. You just do not get the best people in those fields for 125K. And much of the money that pays their salaries, in many cases, does not come out of a fungible "Big Pot o Salary Money" that could be used to wave the fairy want of instant Assistant Professorhood over the heads of poor starving Humanities PhDs. So the numbers aren't really what they seem even on the most cursory glance.

But hey, take all that out and you're probably still going to end up at a point where you could average everyone's salary out at something near 100K. So, yeah, it's a lot better than working at McDonald's, sure. And obviously lots of unemployed PhDs would jump at the chance to work for less. But, of course, that hasn't actually employed anyone new yet, has it? That's just evened up the curve for the already employed. We're told there is a crisis in academic employment and hordes of people out there who are qualified to be full time academic faculty who are without jobs. So we obviously need to cut pretty deeply into this 100K average if we're supposed to be employing all those people--enough of them, that is, to make a real difference. So we, what, double the size of the faculty? So everyone is being paid 50K now. But is that really the magical answer to the problem? Turn academic employment into a job with a starting salary about what high school teachers make and precisely zero room for growth over the course of a career? And are you really saying that no matter how brilliant you are in your field and no matter how many books you publish and no matter how many lives you change with your work you should never see any increase in salary. You should have no bargaining capacity in employment whatsoever. There should simply be a single, set salary for every single person in the field of 50K?

Somehow I'm thinking that this isn't what the hordes of unemployed PhDs are desperately hoping for, and that many of them would regard it as something of a booby prize if they were awarded it.

I had to laugh here considering that Larry Summers provided Harvard with such excellent PR.


Ah yes, a single example of one person doing their job badly proves that none of them ever did their job well and that the job itself is a total sham.
posted by yoink at 9:26 AM on August 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


As for conservatism in the STEM fields, I think you'll tend to see especially grad students and postdocs acting more conservative because their financial situation is very different from that of grad students and adjuncts in the humanities. They make more, their situation is more temporary (STEM graduate programs tend to skew a little shorter and--with some important and growing exceptions--STEM postdocs tend to last no more than a few years), and they can bail to industry if they want to make some real money. These are all reasons why they might oppose a union: they perceive it as potentially slowing down their progress to the next step in their career, which is almost guaranteed to pay much, much more.

Again, this is a broad generalization. The exceptions are becoming more commonplace.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:17 AM on August 29, 2013


zippy: "Well, we have 1.4 million members of the US armed forces plus another 850k reservists, yet the Commander in Chief gets a base salary of $400,000. "

He also gets a pretty f'ing huge retirement package, to the tune of ~200k a year. But yes, there's a trend for state administration to move into university positions; I've seen a number of state CIOs transition to a (higher paid) position at public universities when the government administration was likely to change.
posted by pwnguin at 11:17 AM on August 29, 2013


But you have to remember that that includes all those faculty who actually (unlike the Humanities professors) do have non-academic alternatives out there. Law school, Business school, Med school, many of the STEM faculty etc. You just do not get the best people in those fields for 125K.

A serious question: who is served by having the "best" people in these fields employed by the university? As far as I can tell, it's definitely not the students, nor is it the other people in those fields who would be jumping at the chance to teach and do research for 125K.

Ah yes, a single example of one person doing their job badly proves that none of them ever did their job well and that the job itself is a total sham.

Finished putting words in my mouth?
posted by en forme de poire at 12:06 PM on August 29, 2013


With respect to Frowner's point about STEM postdocs and graduate students being less willing to take collective action, I think that may be because in some ways they have more to lose by striking, because their work hours are under much more scrutiny already. To give you an example, there is at least one lab at my old institution where the PI enforces a work week of 14 hours M-F plus 8 hours on Saturday, and you can be dismissed for working less. When working fewer than 78 hours is grounds for termination (and not only termination from that job, but potentially being blackballed in the entire industry due to the PI's influence), people are going to be extremely skittish about striking. Not to mention that those positions are going to self-select for people who don't see anything wrong with the way they're treated. To contrast that, advisors in the humanities as a rule have less direct contact with their students to begin with, and in my experience are also usually more sympathetic to collective action. I'm not excusing this, btw, just trying to explain some of the differences.

As far as the sentiment that "you just do not get the best people in those fields for 125K" goes, my honest and non-rhetorical question is, who cares? A lot of people in academia (especially in STEM, of course, but not exclusively) are already able to make way more money in other sectors if they so chose. Anyway, who benefits from having the "best people"? I am really not convinced that it is the students, and it's certainly not good for the other (often excellent) researchers whose research was not quite as sexy the year they went on the market. (I'm not even convinced that it is good for fundraising, since even the most scintillating rock stars in academia don't usually have name recognition outside of their field.)
posted by en forme de poire at 12:33 PM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


(whoops, I double-posted that last point - respond to whichever version you want. need to recaffeinate apparently.)
posted by en forme de poire at 12:35 PM on August 29, 2013


To address the problem of overbuilding within Universities, one concrete reason (in the sciences) is mentioned by this Nature editorial:
Furthermore, universities prefer to put up a new building or invest millions in remodelling existing lab space rather than house scientists in older buildings that they already own. Why? One reason is that debt can be an accounting asset. A US government accounting rule called A21 means that the more debt universities have from construction, the more they can add to grants for overhead costs. If a university borrows $100 million to build a new facility and pays 4% interest, it can increase its indirect rate by including the $4-million interest payment in the calculation.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:52 PM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Related thread.
posted by homunculus at 6:23 PM on August 29, 2013


An article on the economics of tuition increases sent to me by an economist
posted by bq at 1:54 PM on September 3, 2013


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