THE IMAGINARY TOWER

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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39 Responses to “THE IMAGINARY TOWER”

  1. HoosierPoli Says:

    Is it just me, or are almost all undergrads just a general blight on the educational system? They pay tens of thousands in borrowed money to attend a school and then demand that their professors shred their academic standards, which are the only REAL value a degree has.

  2. notemily Says:

    Yeah, the educational system would be great if it didn't have all those pesky students in it!

  3. Middle Seaman Says:

    Engineers, bureaucrats and car mechanics typically have an 8-5 work days. In the US this happens 50 weeks a year. (In Europe vacation time is about 4-6 weeks or: they don't work hard enough.) Cleaning crews work 8 hours days starting after the 8-5 shift is gone. How come we cannot make professors do the same?

    The simple mindedness of the guy crosses the line way too much. Mr. Levy used to be a head of a university. How come this bureaucrat forgot professors' administrative duties? How about faculty meetings? Is my committee work not included? How fast do you grade homework or exams? (My son claim that in hell you grade exams all the time.) Should I rob my class material from somebody else or I have to do it myself. Can I meet my students when they need my assistant or should I limit myself to the 3 hours he counts? Who the f–k does curriculum development? (Must be a VP of which we have 500.)

    The problem Mr. levy is multifaceted. His math sucks; he cannot count hours. He doesn't understand that for each hour in class there are multiple hours spent preparing, checking, grading, discussing, collaborating, investigating and searching. He really knows very little about a professor's work and duties. I didn't even get to research.

    Mr. Levy you got an F. You are yet another example of our "leaders" that should be all expelled to a remote island (Elba?) to reduce the damage you cause.

  4. Arslan Says:

    The magic of conservatism means that you can obsess over particular subjects(like taxes or immigration) or people(e.g. George Soros) without ever having to consult a source of basic, un-biased information on them(partially because "un-biased" in the mind of a conservative means conservative). So you get people screaming about taxes and government spending when taxes are still at unprecedented lows. You've got people claiming that the US has "open borders" when in fact it is one of the most difficult countries to get into legally. You've got people claiming George Soros is a secret Communist when he spent most of his life attacking quasi-Communists and was mentored by an anti-Communist hack, Karl Popper.

  5. c u n d gulag Says:

    How about Editorial, or Op-ed writers?
    How hard do they work?
    All they need to do, is come up with some semi-coherent gibberish, once or twice a week.

    I've heard that all David Brooks does, is eat alphabet soup, and then writes down whatever comes out of his ass.
    And that, before going to bed, Ross Douthat pulls out a crown of thorns and a Playboy, slams his nuts in the door, and then goes to sleep (passes out) with a recorder, that he then transcribes from – and there's his next column!

    On a more serious note:
    Well, this is the exact same argument that is being used against public K-12 teachers.

    Since most of the rubes in this country went to some level of public K-12, or have/had children who

  6. c u n d gulag Says:

    Whaa happen?
    Half of my comment disappeared!

    Too bad for all of you that this has happened before, and that I copied it before I his "Submit Comment" – HA!

    Here are the rest of my word-turds:

    …who’ve gone to public schools, this argument against K-12 teachers isn’t sitting too pretty. They know most teachers work very hard for not much money.

    So, why not try the same argument at the college level?
    This is something the rubes know nothing about, except that they’re told it’s filled with vastly overpaid, lazy, elitist, Liberals – so, it must be true!

    I was an Adjunct Professor at a private college from ’94-99. I was paid $1,200 a semester, or about a $100 a week.
    And let me tell you, by the time I got done with my class(es), graded papers, quiz’s, and tests, and researched, planned, and prepared, for the next class or semester, I wasn’t getting much more than minimum wage – if that.

    The money in college is at the “elite” Professor level (I’d define that, but most of you who’ve been to college know what I’m talking about, aka: “celebrity” Professor), and in the Administration.

    You could tell how well the average Professor is getting paid by looking in the parking lot. Since I taught in a private college, the nicer and newer cars were driven by the students and administration. The more beat-up and run-down cars were driven by the average Professors. And I, an Adjunct, had a 15 year-old Ford ‘Gas-guzzling’ Crown Vic, with peeling paint when I started, and the same, now 20 year-old car, with even more paint peeling off, when I left.

    Yeah, he’s lying, or an idiot – or, more likely, BOTH!

  7. A Says:

    Montgomery County resident here: Assuming the professor in this example

    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.

    lives anywhere close to any of the campuses, with that salary, he/she also has a spouse working full time just to afford a modest apartment/lifestyle.

    Just pointing out a portion of the salary equation that is not understood in the south (where my father has a huge house that he purchased for less that we paid for our 1 bedroom Montgomery County condo) & other regions. (& don't get me started on the local taxes.)

  8. Xynzee Says:

    "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."

    Gold! Now to just modify this whenever I hear one of their adherents spout off.

  9. xulon Says:

    One summer, after several months of layoff, I started going down to the day-labor place. Nickle above minimum, do whatever they send you to do and go home with $50.00 in your pocket. I was sent to an apartment complex to clean the landscape. When I showed up, the guy looked at me with my somewhat slight build and glasses and said "Shit! They sent me a teacher!"

  10. Misterben Says:

    Maybe you should consider writing a rebuttal and sending it to the paper. Or a bunch of papers. Your points are valid and you make a solid case.

  11. Aaron Says:

    Remember, the Washington Post is owned by Kaplan University… draw your own conclusions about that.

  12. anotherbozo Says:

    "You could tell how well the average Professor is getting paid by looking in the parking lot."

    One more reason reading the comments section here is often as worthwhile as reading Ed's blog. Thanks, c u n d, you're right on target!

  13. jeneria Says:

    For once, just once, I wish someone would write an article about the amount of administrative bloat at universities. At some schools it's six faculty to every admin many of whom have vague titles and giant salaries. And they are virtually immune to downsizing, budget cuts, and firings. When I was at a certain southern university and they were cutting programs, adjuncts, and resources they were hiring admins to oversee the cuts. At my current. very small institution (2500 students) we (faculty and staff) have not received raises in three years but the 5 VP's and President have every year. What do those 5 VP do? No one is entirely sure except they give powerpoints at our annual in-service that say they do stuff. Most of my friends in academia don't want tenure, they want an admin position. It's less work, more pay, and job security.

  14. jeneria Says:

    Sorry for all the typos. I cut the shit out of one of my fingers and have lost all ability to type with my left hand.

  15. Plinthic Says:

    His complaint is part of a larger attempt to downplay and trivialize the work of college and university faculty. Faculty don't bring in the big deals like Wall Street traders, they don't save lives like thoracic surgeons, and they don't sell million dollar real estate. Therefore they are overpaid. If you work in a university, especially a state funded institution, you hear a continuous whining coming down from the state legislators and the administrators that we need to get all these professors to do some real work, bring in some grants, do their own secretarial work, teach more classes, etc. It just pisses them off that some people are actually paid to think and write for a living. And they need to convince themselves that as highly paid administrators they are better than the faculty they "manage".

    That's why at my university the administrators are trying to intervene in the classroom, creating idiotic new campus wide programs with little or no intellectual value, trying to get courses out of the lecture hall and onto a Youtube screen, creating halfwitted seminars that taught by deanlets and administrative staff – basically to prove that – "Hey – this so-called teaching ain't that hard, guys. Now why don't you faculty all go out there and get a federal grant or something and justify your salaries."

    You know it really sucks to be an uneducated worker in this country. The pay sucks and the benefits suck. Maybe that's the way it is going to be from now on. But the goal of the people at the very top of the food chain is to move that line even higher, so that even college-educated and graduate-trained professionals are also slaving away at shitty wages and long hours, and taking orders from a small handful of fat f*cks who sit on their asses all day in the administrative building.

  16. Number Three Says:

    As an escaped academic myself, there is much truth to what Ed says. And the transparent attack on the academy, as one last outpost of autonomous action and thought in an increasingly dumbed-down, sound-byte world, is something against which all of good faith must take a stand.

    But, a quick dissenting note. I would be interested in an objective assessment of the value of much of the research actually done in the modern R1 university.

    I guess I'm not talking about the sciences or engineering (not my areas, but maybe the same points apply). In the humanities and social sciences, though, a lot of what scholars expend a great deal of energy on, often but not always with university or other grant support, is of interest to only a very few, and of (arguably) little social value.

    Now, I will quickly agree that it is hard to know what the actual social value of another book on the poetry of John Donne or another book on the Civil War is (just examples). It is great that we have a few folks around who keep up the erudition of the past. It would be a shame to be a society where *no one* could provide a learned commentary on, say, the works of John Locke or Eugene O'Neill.

    But it wouldn't be ridiculous to suggest that scholars could think a bit more about the social relevance of their work. Writing just for other members of your own (incredibly small) subfield may be a path to career success, but does give rise to legitimate questions about social utility.

  17. John Says:

    In an ideal (for me!) fantasy world, things like this would come out, and then ALL teachers EVERYWHERE would take a (magically self-sustaining and somehow comfortable) 20-year haitus. Just to prove a point.

    So, you think teachers are lazy, overpaid elites in their ivory towers? Fine then, you ignorant little shits, educate yourselves for a generation and see how it works out for you.

  18. Sluggo Says:

    @ John

    That's called home schooling :)

  19. comrade x Says:

    What is especially appalling is the mindset of a lot of American workers these days, brought about by a declining public education system and a mental diet of infotainment like Fox News. Like spitefull children they demand that every working person be dragged down to their level -working multiple jobs, living from paycheck to paycheck. I hope this schadenfreude brings them a little happiness ( albeit of a very shitty sort ) because levelling everyone down to serfdom isn't going to advance their economic well being one bit.

  20. Monkey Business Says:

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

    I think this is the fundamental truth of the universe.

  21. jeffteaches Says:

    The administrative bloat applies to us in the public school, as well. We have a massive central office, the size of 4-5 football fileds, a veritable anthill of administartive-ness! What the hell do these people do?

    Our county made the announcement that they would cut 54 positions and save close to $3 million. But who are these unlucky few? 54 sounds like a lot, but there are 600-700 employees there. Also, reliable scuttlebutt points to retirement for many of these people who are admins, while the rest are low-level support staff and custodians.

  22. Surly Duff Says:

    The only thing missing from the article was some thinly-veiled derision of the humanities. Something along the lines of, "I understand that high compensation may be warranted for academic fields that develop and create research benefiting society, but should we continue to overcompensate professors for contributing to the ongoing research of Kafka?"

  23. c u n d gulag Says:

    Surly Duff,
    Great point.
    The powers-that-be know that we need to keep at, or somewhere near, the top in technology. So, I don't think they'll be bitching too much about math, science, and computer professors.

    It's the ones in "the Humanities," like Literature, History, Philosophy, and the "Social Sciences" that have bulls-eyes on their backs.
    Lord knows they don't want people getting some empathy by and learning from other peoples perspectives.

    So, while they really like closed minds, they love empty minds even more.
    Empty minds make the most fertile fields – once you fertilize them with your brand of bullshit, you can plant anything you want, and it will grow, and grow, and grow…

    SERF'S UP!

  24. c u n d gulag Says:

    That should read:
    "Lord knows they don't want people getting some empathy by learning from other peoples perspectives.

  25. Paul Says:

    "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." Right. And: it's always been that way. What bugs me most about the WaPo article is that the guy is so obviously inviting us to blame skyrocketing tuition on professors/faculty. And that is such blatant busllshit.

  26. JohnR Says:

    Is it possible that everybody is simply missing the point, which is that the newspaper-formerly-known-as-WaPo has become a large troll bridge? On the rare occasions I read any bits of it, it seems fundamentally no different from the various old alt. boards or Yahoo Answers.religion or WSJ editorial page. Or any of the various Malkin/Althouse/Coulter/Erickson/Breitbart clones. The goal is simply to infuriate the suckers and then do a Nelson Muntz laugh and run away. There is no larger point; it's all become an exercise in 3rd-grade nyah-nana-nah-nah point-making. As for this, plot the rise in tuition against the renaming of colleges to universities and the explosion of deans, vice-deans, junior-assistant deans, deanlets and deangleberries, and I'd bet it's a pretty tight linear relationship. This is just standard smokescreen stuff.

  27. Southern Beale Says:

    Since the topic is academia I thought folks would be interested in this story of NYU journalism prof Charles Seife, who became the subject of one of Breitbrat James O'Keefe's "stings" because Seife caught him breaking IRS law. It's pretty funny, actually.

  28. terraformer Says:

    Attacking educators accomplishes two things:

    1) Questions their integrity and worth, which results in anything that they have to say as being equally questionable (say, that global warming is real, or that Keynesian economics continues to be proved right).

    2) Suggests that an education is not really needed or is not as important as society has historically been led to believe. Lack of education (formal or informal) leads to ignorance; ignorance often leads to Conservatives being elected.

  29. bb in GA Says:

    Spare me the Right Wing media branding groups of people.

    Son, that's media period – Right Wing, Left Wing, No Wings – BTW didn't the T party get a good dose of that from the Media?

    I taught a low level college algebra course last Fall in a two year school as an adjunct. I refused to do the MathLab crap where the student has a multiple choice for answers to homework. I did it 'old school' w/ pencil and paper turned in to me so I could correct their work.

    I worked about 20 hrs per week (3 in class, 6 commuting and the balance on homework testing etc.)

    I made about $6 per hour when you subtract the $3 gas I used.

    //bb

  30. Will Says:

    "…education is not really needed or is not as important as society has historically been led to believe."
    Case in point: a hedge fund manager earns more than 85,000 teachers.

  31. Elle Says:

    The specifics would make this story far more entertaining, but discretion is the better part of valour.

    I was at a very entertaining meeting once between a member of the Cabinet and a whole host of senior business leaders. One burnt about five minutes ranting about how public funding of universities was stupid, because there was no way that anything anyone learned there would help us do business with China, to inexplicable nods from the weaslish set of McKinsey clones with shiny INSEAD MBAs. I had been somewhat on the fence before that meeting, but left it fairly certain that the businessperson who could speak intelligently about the economy, rather than mouthing half-remembered Austrian-school platitudes, was as rare as June snow.

  32. garry Says:

    my wife works with special needs kids in an elementary school, and we see the same administrative hostility there. they keep cutting teachers and aids in the name of cost, then hire more administrators. there is an overall aura of fear amongst the staff, as nobody will speak out on anything for fear of losing their jobs. very hostile work environment.

    regarding the larger point: it's a popular sport to point out how overpaid and underworked other professions are. it really helps nurture your own sense of being put upon.

  33. Ozymandias, King of Ants Says:

    Surly Duff:

    Not to mention that the professors (full, associate, assistant, adjunct) in the humanities and arts do not make nearly as much money as professors (full, associate, assistant, adjunct) in the sciences, engineering, and (especially) business at the same university.

    At least in any school that I've ever been associated with, but those have all been private universities, so it may be different in public systems (although I doubt it).

  34. Sarah Says:

    Dude, in NE Florida (can't speak to whether this occurs anywhere else) they've been pushing the "teachers don't work that much" line for several years now, except they've been doing it against K-12 teachers. The argument being that because school runs from roughly 7:15 to 1:30 (or variations thereof), teachers don't put in full days, and they get summers and winter breaks off on top of that. Yeah.

  35. Xjmueller Says:

    When I saw this piece on Sunday morning I wondered if you would comment. I was thinking of how wealthy you're becoming as an adjunct as I read it. Actually, I would like to see you post something more someday about this. You've had some good posts about teaching and academia since I've been reading you.

  36. Xjmueller Says:

    Also, enjoyed the comments on this from the folks with experience in the field.

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