THE IMAGINARY TOWER

Posted in Rants on March 26th, 2012 by Ed

The best part about being a professor in this country – I can't speak for any other – is that no one really understands what we do but everyone knows that we're doing it wrong. Don't get me wrong, we should be open to criticism from the public, elected officials, and so on. But in exchange, critics should make at least some effort to understand how academia works and how it's structured. The failure to do so leads media figures and armchair critics to make mistakes like pointing out the salary for full professors at Top 50 universities without realizing that the overwhelming majority of teaching is done by temps – adjuncts, visitings, grad students, etc. – and 99% of the institutions of higher education in this country are nowhere near R1 schools in terms of salary. Sometimes this is done with the intent of misleading a public that doesn't know any better. In other cases it's probably legitimate ignorance that "Full Professor" is a title worn by only a small percentage of instructors at any school.

I have grown accustomed to the fact that academics understand how academia works and most people outside of it do not. That's OK. I don't know much about how your job or field works either. That's why I don't make a habit of telling you that you're not working hard enough, that you make too much money, or that I have some brilliant ideas about how to radically change your industry. I do expect, however, that people within academia will understand it. At the very least. But there are some people who don't.

They are called administrators. Here's one who has been given an audience in the Washington Post for reasons that have not yet revealed themselves:

With the 1970s advent of collective bargaining in higher education, this began to change. The result has been more equitable circumstances for college faculty, who deserve salaries comparable to those of other educated professionals. Happily, senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000, roughly in line with the average incomes of others with advanced degrees.

Not changed, however, are the accommodations designed to compensate for low pay in earlier times. Though faculty salaries now mirror those of most upper-middle-class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks, they continue to pay for teaching time of nine to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks, making possible a month-long winter break, a week off in the spring and a summer vacation from mid-May until September.

Such a schedule may be appropriate in research universities where standards for faculty employment are exceptionally high — and are based on the premise that critically important work, along with research-driven teaching, can best be performed outside the classroom. The faculties of research universities are at the center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules. In fact, they often work hours well beyond those of average non-academic professionals.

Unfortunately, the salaries and the workloads applied to the highest echelons of faculty have been grafted onto colleges whose primary mission is teaching, not research. These include many state colleges, virtually all community colleges and hundreds of private institutions. For example, Maryland’s Montgomery College (an excellent two-year community college) reports its average full professor’s salary as $88,000, based on a workload of 15 hours of teaching for 30 weeks. Faculty members are also expected to keep office hours for three hours a week. The faculty handbook states: "Teaching and closely related activities are the primary responsibilities of instructional faculty." While the handbook suggests other responsibilities such as curriculum development, service on committees and community outreach, notably absent from this list are research and scholarship.

Near the end, he shares this knee-slapper:

While time outside of class can vary substantially by discipline and by the academic cycle (for instance, more papers and tests to grade at the end of a semester), the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth. And whatever the weekly hours may be, there is still the 30-week academic year, which leaves almost 22 weeks for vacation or additional employment.

Yep, that's what I do over summer and winter breaks – I go on vacations and I work at my other job. I'm a chimney sweep.

We could pick apart this douchebag's argument all day and it would accomplish little. Anyone who titles a piece "Do Professors Work Hard Enough?" is just dangling bait. And of course anyone who has spent five minutes in academia understands that if salary is the problem, grab the machete and start chopping away at the administration. I mean, god knows we need six assistant Deanlets and Vice Presidents of Instruction for every academic unit. And god knows they earn every penny of that $250,000 they take home every year. Yes, let's ignore that for now.

The biggest problem, and most academics will be loath to admit this, is that it's not hard to find examples that prove this author's point. Every department in every university in this country has that faculty member, the one or two tenured people who do absolutely nothing to justify their salary. You're either fooling yourself or oblivious to your surroundings if you think everybody's busting ass in your department. I have encountered tenured faculty who average about ten hours per week (if that) on campus. It happens. Of course, most of us Ph.D. holders work like mules for salaries that we're embarrassed to tell our friends who have high school diplomas. There's always that one asshole who decides that tenure means quasi-retirement and who knows how to milk the system.

In other words, academia is exactly like every other profession. Most people work hard. Some people are lazy sacks of crap.

We know how much right-wing media figures love to indict large groups of people based on anecdotal evidence. Even one case will do. That's just lazy journalism. In fact, based on this column I think we need to start asking whether our editorial writers are working hard enough. I've heard stories about burned out hacks who churn out WaPo columns in 45 minutes using only a cut-and-paste database of conservative talking points.

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