Ah, back in the days of yore, this blogger remembers teaching (using that term very loosely) a half-dozen (6!) U.S. history survey courses each semester at the Collegium Excellens. This blogger was chasing nickels (that the Collegium honchos threw around like manhole covers) because the sixth course was an "overload." Using the rule of thumb of "3 hours of preparation for every hour in class," this amounted to a 66-hour work week. Was this blogger a lucky sumbitch or what? Multiply this work week by 32 years and it's no wonder that this blogger when he hit the Eject button in 2004 looked like Wile E. Coyote in the "Roadrunner" cartoons after another disaster with something sold by the "Acme Corporation." Now, more than a half-decade later, the Great Recession is being felt in the Groves of Academe. If this is a (fair & balanced) tale of woe, so be it.
Goodbye To Those Overpaid Professors In Their Cushy Jobs
By Ben Gose
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The notion that college professors lead easy lives isn't quite dead, but it may soon be history.
A decade or two ago, it wasn't hard to find state legislators, pushing for university budget cuts, who complained about the leisurely lives of academics. Try a Google search for such criticism today, and not much turns up.
There may still be full professors who teach three or four classes per year, head off to their cabins for the summer, and send their own children to college with a generous employer subsidy, all while enjoying job security denied to most other workers. But each year, fewer and fewer professors have it so good: An increasingly small percentage of those standing at the front of a college classroom are on the tenure track. For adjunct instructors, who now make up more than half of the professoriate, life is a scramble to piece together as much income as a bartender's. And the young academics who do win coveted tenure-track appointments are hardly coasting—they're working harder than ever before.
So instead of the bellowing legislator, what you find today is college teachers policing their own—to root out any suggestion that the life of the mind is a life of leisure.
John Hare became furious in early 2009 when he learned that a professor at the University of Florida had fought the administration after it asked her to teach three classes per year instead of two.
Mr. Hare's own daily existence is a crazy jumble of students and papers—and he loves it. As a professor of American studies and English on Montgomery College's campus in Germantown, Md., he teaches four sections of composition and one of American literature every semester, and is entering the third year of a six-year contract. But life at the community college beats his earlier career as a technical writer, he says, in which he had little control over his work and had to show up each day at 8:30 sharp every morning.
Now, "I have to spend 15 hours a week in a classroom talking about things that I really love with some pretty interesting people. Once in a while, I have to read their papers. The heavy lifting is picking up the papers to take them back to the classroom.
"For this, I get paid."
Mr. Hare learned that Florida's Florence E. Babb, a full professor who also served as graduate coordinator of the university's Center for Women's Studies and Gender Research, had sought an arbitration hearing rather than teach an extra course during a financial crunch. (Ms. Babb, who declined to comment, had pointed out at the time that she was initially told her load would double, to four courses, but that before the hearing the university agreed to count her duties as graduate coordinator as a course.) The university prevailed in the dispute.
Mr. Hare believes that such actions threaten to backfire against all college faculty members, including those with far less job security. "It contributes to a public perception that we all face at budget time—that we don't work very hard, that we have an objection to working hard," he says.
Last September some professors at the University of California decided that not working on days they were supposed to teach might actually help the university win more support from the Legislature. The professors called for a walkout of classes—to demonstrate how budget decisions were affecting students—even though the president's office had prohibited them from taking furloughs on teaching days.
James Hamilton, a tenured professor of economics on the San Diego campus, called out his fellow professors on his blog. "If some of my colleagues perceive that they now have better opportunities than teaching at the University of California, I'd encourage them to resign so that they can take advantage of those opportunities," he wrote. "If not, they need to stop whining and do their jobs. And perhaps even be thankful that, unlike many other Americans, they still have one."
The professoriate may be policing its own perceived slackers, and there may not be as much grumbling from legislators as there once was about professors out mowing their lawns on Friday mornings. But what about professors' pay—does it qualify as cushy?
For those people lucky enough to land full-time jobs at universities, the pay can be good, although, of course, it's all relative. For example, a mathematician at a college or university makes an average salary of $72,320 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (An annual survey by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources provides a more detailed breakdown: A full professor in mathematics and statistics at a four-year institution makes $84,324; an associate professor, $66,012; an assistant professor, $55,765; a new assistant professor, $55,186; and an instructor, $42,782.) That compares with an average salary of $67,430 for an accountant or auditor, according to BLS figures, and $75,220 for a statistician.
The average annual salary for English instructors at a college or university, meanwhile, is $65,570, according to the bureau. That's about $10,000 per year more than high-school teachers make ($55,150), but high-school teachers probably started earning real wages at least six years earlier, and have a better shot at tenure.
And, of course, many adjunct instructors in college make far less than high-school teachers, and must supplement their income with other work. Steve Street, a lecturer in the writing program at Buffalo State College (who writes occasionally for The Chronicle's Adjunct Track column), makes just $15,000 per year teaching six classes. He also does some freelance writing (including for The Chronicle), and in each of the past two summers has filed for unemployment benefits.
"I've been working for this system for 15 years, and I'm not at all happy with where I am," he says.
Most professors fare less well than lawyers and doctors. Nancy Folbre, a tenured economist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, finds the comparison apt, since all three careers require significant graduate or professional education and an apprenticeship period. She views the residency in medicine and the grueling years before making partner at big law firms as analogous to the bid for tenure.
Lawyers earn an average annual salary of $129,020, according to the labor bureau, and family doctors and general practitioners earn $168,550. The average wage for college and university professors whose disciplines are not listed separately (unlike the economists and English professors, above) is $77,080.
That said, few tenured professors are likely to want to trade places. "The main benefit is being around other smart people and getting to talk about ideas all day," says Ms. Folbre. "If you talk to most faculty members, that would trump everything."
And yet many highly satisfied full professors also say that any young scholar trying to follow in their footsteps is delusional.
Cary Nelson, a tenured professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the American Association of University Professors, believes it is no longer ethical to recommend Ph.D. programs to promising undergraduates. "It's a ticket to exploitation and semi-starvation," he says.
Peter D.G. Brown, a professor of German at the State University of New York at New Paltz and one of the few tenured professors who has fought for better working conditions for adjuncts, says the odds against finding a tenure-track job simply make pursuing a Ph.D. a bad bet for most people: "I do everything I can to talk them out of it."
In fact, it's become such a long shot to snag one of those "cushy" jobs—relative to the years of study required even to be in the running—that some experts believe it is now economically rational only for children from affluent families to pursue academic careers.
"Is there a harm to that?" asks Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University, who blogs for The Chronicle. "The answer is yes. You're no longer sorting for the most-talented faculty. You're sorting for people who can afford that wage discount."
As long as the national economy remains in the doldrums, even those with the most-secure academic jobs may have to work harder. Stephen Nelson, a tenured associate professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State College, argues that budget-crunched institutions should touch the "third rail of campus politics" and make professors who are accustomed to teaching four or five courses per year take on another course. Doing so could eventually lead to a reduction of 15 to 20 percent in the size of the faculty, he points out, and save colleges a lot of money.
Increasing teaching loads is not exactly an idea that has caught fire (although Carleton College has delayed a planned reduction for tenured professors from six to five courses a year). But who knows what the future holds in a double-dip recession?
Not surprisingly, some professors want the suffering to land elsewhere. Last summer 23 department chairs at San Diego signed a letter urging the University of California system's president, Mark G. Yudof, to "drop the pretense that all campuses are equal" and consider closing those at Merced, Riverside, and Santa Cruz to save money.
That prompted an angry columnist at the The Modesto Bee, near Merced, to label the idea's proponents "fish-taco-eating egotists."
"These folks are willing to stab in the back thousands of students and would-be students, UC faculty and support staff, and cities just to keep their own inflated salaries for what amounts to a three-day workweek," wrote the columnist, Jeff Jardine.
The stereotype of the cushy life may be dying, but watch out for some last gasps along the way. Ω
[Ben Gose is a senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Grose is a graduate of Dartmouth College.]
Copyright © 2010 The Chronicle of Higher Education
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