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 wont deny that being a university professor is one of the nicer jobs out there (though I think Rubinstein misunderstands the reasons for that), and Im very grateful its my job. But thats no excuse for making the job look a hell of a lot more privileged than it is. Im 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.
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 shes in the courtroom? Most of a trial lawyers 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 doesnt count as work if he would have done it anyway? Does that mean that nobody who enjoys their job should be paid?
Its 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 doesnt mean its not worktime.
In addition to preparing for class, there is, of course, the heaviest and most time-consuming burden of a teaching job: grading. Lets take a 2/2 teaching load like Rubinsteins, 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, thats 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, thats 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 youre 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 dont adequately supervise their teaching assistants. But thats a problem with those professors.)
Moreover, if you have teaching assistants, that means youre 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. (Ive taught at both departments with grad students and departments without; Im not sure which one generated more grading work per class.)
In addition to all that, of course theres 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 thats not all. So far Ive 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 youre paid for, part of what pay raises are based on, etc. (And if youre not at a research institution, then the odds are that youre 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 shouldnt be forced to fund anyones research, esoteric or otherwise; Id like to see the academic sector, like all other sectors, converted over to a strictly voluntary basis. Its 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 researchs esoteric nature than on its tax-funded status which gives his complaint a certain anti-intellectual tinge. Well, if hes asking why esoteric research has value, I would refer him to Aristotles Metaphysics, Book I, and Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, as well as to Kelly Jolleys 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 dont have to do as much teaching; so its not as though theyre not carrying their weight. Doing less teaching is not the same thing as doing less work. And of course, its not as though the phenomenon of professors rarely seeing a classroom is especially common, whatever Rubinsteins tone might suggest.
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 couldnt find it just for full professors) is $96,480; that for philosophy professors is a rather lower $69,150. (For Rubinsteins own field, sociology, its $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? Doesnt 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 administrations share of university revenue has been steadily increasing at the expense of facultys share for some time. What universities need is not more revenue, but rather a saner distribution of it.
Indeed, its questionable whether a university needs an administration at all; certainly thereve been world-class universities that had none. And a substantial percentage of a university administrations 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. Thats true; but a large part of the reason that its 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 Rubinsteins 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 academias meager gains as Rubinstein favours.