Groves of Luxury and Idleness?

As is so often the case with right-wing critics of academia – even, or perhaps especially, those who are academics themselves (and so, perhaps, often brimming with resentment against their mostly left-wing colleagues?) – retiring sociology professor David Rubinstein, in his recent piece in The Weekly Standard, offers what I think is a misleading picture of the facts.

I won’t deny that being a university professor is one of the nicer jobs out there (though I think Rubinstein misunderstands the reasons for that), and I’m very grateful it’s my job. But that’s no excuse for making the job look a hell of a lot more privileged than it is. I’m glad that Rubinstein was able to find himself a cushy job at a prominent university; but I suspect it was rather less cushy than he makes out – and to the extent that it was cushy, it was a lot less typical than he implies.

a happy professor

True, Rubinstein taught only two courses per semester. (He makes it sound as though all or most professors are equally lucky. Here and throughout, Rubinstein treats his own idiosyncratic experience as a model whereby to impugn all of academia.) But by pretending that his salary covers only hours in front of a class, he makes his salary look fantastically high. Would he think that a trial lawyer should be paid only for the time she’s in the courtroom? Most of a trial lawyer’s work occurs outside the courtroom (or had better!).

Rubinstein tries to give the impression that his preparation for class was minimal; he speaks of “abundant material which could be reused indefinitely and took maybe 20 minutes of review before class.” But then, perhaps realising that this makes it sound as though he never bothered to update his course, he quickly goes on to say: “Adding new material required hardly more effort than the time to read what I would have read anyway.” In other words, it doesn’t count as work if he would have done it anyway? Does that mean that nobody who enjoys their job should be paid?

It’s true, of course, that professors have much more control of their time than is the case in most other jobs. (Actually it ought to be the case in a lot of those other jobs too.) But having more control of your worktime doesn’t mean it’s not worktime.

In addition to preparing for class, there is, of course, the heaviest and most time-consuming burden of a teaching job: grading. Let’s take a 2/2 teaching load like Rubinstein’s, bearing in mind that it is atypically light. Suppose each class has, say, 30 students, and that in each class the professor assigns two papers, a midterm, and a final. Assuming a lowish average of five pages per assignment, that’s 1200 pages of student assignments per semester to read, comment on, and grade.

Rubinstein admits that the “really arduous part of teaching was grading exams and papers,” but adds that “for most of my classes I had teaching assistants to do this.” Well, that’s nice for him, but if this is supposed to be an indictment of academia generally, he should keep in mind that not all academic departments offer graduate programs, and so not all of us are blessed with teaching assistants.

Rubinstein also exaggerates the extent to which having teaching assistants is a timesaver. If you’re teaching a course with teaching assistants, then you need to supervise those assistants: to review their grading, to sit in on their discussion sections, and so on. Teaching assistants are in effect apprentices, and taking on an apprentice is not exactly an end to all labour. (Of course some professors don’t adequately supervise their teaching assistants. But that’s a problem with those professors.)

Moreover, if you have teaching assistants, that means you’re in a department with graduate students – and that means that while your time grading undergraduate papers and exams is reduced, your time grading graduate papers and exams is increased. And while graduate courses tend to be smaller, graduate papers and exams tend to be quite a bit longer and more complicated. (I’ve taught at both departments with grad students and departments without; I’m not sure which one generated more grading work per class.)

In addition to all that, of course there’s also time spent meeting with students about assignments. “I usually scheduled classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays: The rest of the week was mine.” Did he do no grading? Did he have no office hours?

But that’s not all. So far I’ve discussed only the amount of work involved in teaching courses. But most academic institutions also base salary on research; so time spent on doing research is also part of the job – part of what you’re paid for, part of what pay raises are based on, etc. (And if you’re not at a research institution, then the odds are that you’re going to have a much higher teaching load than 2/2.)

Rubinstein admits that “research requirements to achieve tenure and promotion are rigorous,” but casts doubt on the value of that research; he is “hard pressed to explain why sometimes exquisitely esoteric interests should be supported by taxpayers.” Well, I certainly agree that taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to fund anyone’s research, esoteric or otherwise; I’d like to see the academic sector, like all other sectors, converted over to a strictly voluntary basis. It’s a little odd, though, that in treating his list of complaints as a charge against academia generally, he writes, first, as though all colleges and universities were public, and second, as though public colleges and universities were solely tax-funded.

But in any case, given that Rubinstein is no libertarian and has no objection to tax-funded research per se, the real nub of his objection seems to focus more on the research’s esoteric nature than on its tax-funded status – which gives his complaint a certain anti-intellectual tinge. Well, if he’s asking why esoteric research has value, I would refer him to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book I, and Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, as well as to Kelly Jolley’s and my “Two Lectures on the Idea of the University.”

Rubinstein says he was paid in the summer with no teaching obligation. Did he do no research in the summer? Moreover, does he know that not all academics receive summer pay unless they teach? Rubinstein adds that “[c]olleagues who pursued grants taught less, some rarely seeing a classroom.” In other words, those professors who bring in money from independent sources don’t have to do as much teaching; so it’s not as though they’re not carrying their weight. Doing less teaching is not the same thing as doing less work. And of course, it’s not as though the phenomenon of professors “rarely seeing a classroom” is especially common, whatever Rubinstein’s tone might suggest.

the actual Groves of Academe

Rubinstein tells us that the average salary for full professors is $108,749. But that statistic is misleading for a couple of reasons. First, focusing solely on full professors gives a misleading picture of what academic life is like; academic salaries for the lowest 10th percentile are less than $28,870.

Second, as everyone in academia knows, academic salaries in the sciences – the fields that yield products that industry and the military care about – are significantly higher than those in the humanities. (Campus infrastructure in the sciences – buildings and such – likewise receives much higher funding than in the humanities.) So the salaries in the sciences are pushing up the average. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean salary for engineering professors (at all ranks – I couldn’t find it just for full professors) is $96,480; that for philosophy professors is a rather lower $69,150. (For Rubinstein’s own field, sociology, it’s $71,830.)

Rubinstein tells us that “[t]he tenured live in a different world than [sic] ordinary mortals, a world in which fears of unemployment are banished, futures can be confidently planned, and retirement is secure.” What universe is he talking about? Doesn’t he read the news? First, post-tenure review is being rammed in everywhere these days. Second, universities are increasingly relying on low-paid temporary faculty not eligible for tenure. Third, the financial disarray that besets the academic world means that tenured professors all over the country are being fired or furloughed, and entire departments are being eliminated. Most academics discuss such matters a fair bit. How have these events escaped his notice?

Rubinstein criticises academic “[p]rotests against efforts to reform pay scales, teaching loads, and retirement benefits” for “squeezing taxpayers … whose lives are in most cases far harsher than their own.” Once again, in his world all universities are public universities, and all public universities depend solely on taxes for revenue. Has he never heard of tuition? Rubinstein also ignores the fact that administration’s share of university revenue has been steadily increasing at the expense of faculty’s share for some time. What universities need is not more revenue, but rather a saner distribution of it.

Indeed, it’s questionable whether a university needs an “administration” at all; certainly there’ve been world-class universities that had none. And a substantial percentage of a university administration’s job seems to be the task of coming up with meaningless trivia, makework, and bureaucratic hurdles that make instructors’ jobs harder. The same insanity that besets the corporate world bests the academic world also. (And for similar reasons: subsidies, artificial barriers to entry, and other governmental interventions favour hierarchical monstrosities over rival business models.)

Rubinstein acknowledges that “compared with professionals in the private sector, college professors are underpaid”; but he responds that “[t]he rarity of quits and the abundance of applications is good evidence that the life of the college professor is indeed enviable.” That’s true; but a large part of the reason that it’s true is the relative autonomy that professors enjoy, which derives in turn from the tradition of shared governance – woefully partial and increasingly under attack, but real nonetheless. In other words, a large part of the reason academics find their jobs so attractive is that academia is one of the fields that come closest (magno sed proxima intervallo) to a worker-run industry. (An irony, given Rubinstein’s contemptuous remarks about unions.) We should be trying to push all of industry farther in the direction that academia has travelled, rather than trying to reverse academia’s meager gains as Rubinstein favours.

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3 Responses to Groves of Luxury and Idleness?

  1. MBH May 29, 2011 at 10:50 pm #

    Speaking of: how’s the MPhil at AU coming?

  2. David Gordon June 1, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

    No one with a real job would have had time to write a post of this length.

    • Roderick June 1, 2011 at 4:29 pm #

      I had my TA’s write it for me.

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