On Salaries and Money and American Universities

My last post on the future of the humanities led me to think about American higher education, which I am tempted to call, semi-blasphemously, “our peculiar institution.”  But it also led me to think about money. I was led to that thought by recalling that I, a humanist scholar, am a state employee of North Carolina.  But my munificent salary is, actually, largely paid by “private dollars,” funded out of the “endowed chair” donated to the university by members of the Hanes family (of Winston-Salem and underwear fame).  This post will be an unholy mixture of what that fact means for American higher education and what it means for my own relationship to money and to my work.

I am not being ironic when I use “munificent” to characterize my salary.  I make more money than ever, in my most avaricious dreams, I could have believed an English professor could make.  That salary is public knowledge because North Carolina has rather strict “sunshine” laws.  You can go to a website and look it up.  Yet in keeping with American prudery, which insures that we know less about our friends’ financial circumstances than about their sex lives, I can’t bring myself to name the sum here—or to name the sum that my wife and I have accumulated in our retirement accounts.  When, every once in a while, I do disclose those two numbers to friends and family, I am very conscious of a weird (unsettling) mixture of shame and boast in the disclosure.  I think I am overpaid—but I am proud to be valued so highly.  David Graeber is good on this feeling in his book BullShit Jobs.  For those of us who love our work and didn’t go into it for the money, there is something shameful about the pay.  Even more shameful when the pay makes one rich.

I feel guilty getting paid so much for doing a job that I like and that, frankly, comes very easy to me.  I have many colleagues who are overwhelmed, who feel constantly way behind, who are anxious, who are bedeviled by a sense that they have never done enough.  I have been, until the past year, always extremely busy; I have always worked on weekends.  But I have seldom been anxious.  When I go to North Carolina, it became clear to me very early on that this place operated at a speed that was very comfortable for me.  My pace of work, my productivity, was going to place me in the top tier at UNC.  I was never going to be made to feel inadequate, not up to snuff. (I am not extremely busy at the moment–which makes me feel even more guilty–because I have become persona non grata on campus following my public criticisms of the Chancellor.  I don’t get asked to do anything anymore.)

A time came, inevitably, when I was a victim of salary compression.  Professors get raises that average below inflation.  I tell my grad students the hard truth that their starting salary at a job could easily become their salary for life.  Raises will never go far beyond the increases in the cost of living.  But here is where we get back to the “peculiar institution” issue.  American universities exist within a prestige hierarchy. At the top of that hierarchy—meaning not only the top schools but also the wannabes—there is competition for the “best faculty.”  This is just one place where things get weird.

Why weird?  Because the measure of quality among faculty is their research productivity.  As my cynical friend Hans puts it: “in academics, quantity doesn’t count, quantity is everything.”  It’s not quite that bad, but almost.  Faculty must publish in order to distinguish themselves from other faculty—and then universities must have a faculty that publishes a lot to distinguish themselves from other universities.  In Britain, this has led to the absurdity of the government actually allocating funds to departments based on their research productivity; in America, it is more indirect, since the “best” universities can increase their funding through three means: 1) more state support in the way of research grants from the Federal (and in the case of state universities) and state governments; 2) an ability to charge higher tuition because more prestigious; and 3) a greater ability to raise philanthropic dollars because more expensive and more prestigious, which means having richer alumni.

One oddity (among others) is, of course, that research has, at best, a tangential relation to the educational mission of the university.  More to the point, the students attracted to the university by its prestige have very close to no interest in the research that underwrites that prestige.  Furthermore, the connection between prestige and the research is also completely fuzzy.  For one things, the prestige hierarchy is just about set in stone.  The same schools that headed the list in 1900 still head the list in 2020.  Reputations are, it seems, just about impossible to tarnish.  They glow like the light from long extinguished stars.

It is true that some schools—notably Duke—have managed to elbow their way into the top tier.  There are now lots of Duke imitators, all trying to crack into the stratosphere of Harvard, Yale, Stanford.  But it seems quaint to think Duke’s success can be tied in any direct way to its faculty’s research.  That success seems much more tied to a well-timed (they got into this game first) branding exercise.  They made splashy faculty hires, at the same time that they made themselves into a perennial contender for the national basketball championship.  What those faculty actually did after they were hired was secondary.  It was a question of having names on the letterhead that would lead to U.S. News (and other ranking outlets) to give Duke a boost.

Duke’s timing was impeccable because they hopped aboard the first privatization wave.  The 1980s began the move toward a renewed obsession with prestige that dovetailed with the superstition that “public” education was, by its nature, inferior to “private” education.  As the rich and the elites (see Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites) abandoned the public commons (most dramatically in where they sent their kids to school), universities like Duke and my alma mater Georgetown were there to pick up the slack.  Georgetown shows that there was room to move up for the Duke imitators; the smallish privates, like Georgetown, Northwestern, Emory, and Vanderbilt, came up in the world, occupying a particular niche below the Ivies, but with a prestige value, a tuition price tag, and tough admission standards that simply were not the case when I was a Hoya in the 1970s.  As I learned when I got to grad school at SUNY Buffalo in 1974, they thought of themselves as having taken a chance on me because they didn’t know what a Georgetown degree meant.  Yale and Cornell turned me down.

My old employer, the University of Rochester, has always wanted to play in the Northwestern, Emory, Vanderbilt league–without ever quite managing to pull it off.  When I taught there in the late 1980s, Rochester’s president insisted on a 30% rise in tuition–in order to bring UR’s tuition in line with Northwestern etc.  He said we would never be thought any good if we didn’t charge like “our peers.”  I argued that there surely was a market niche for a good school that charged 30% less–and that UR had a better shot of getting students in that niche than in competing with Northwestern.  I, of course, lost the argument–but not just in terms of what the university did, but also in terms of its effect on applications and admissions.  I didn’t understand in those days that, when it comes to higher education, for many aspirants prestige trumps all other factors every time.  And just as in the wider market, it pays much better to cater to the wishes of the well-to-do than to a mass market.

Back to research for a moment.  As Christopher Newfield’s work has amply documented, universities lose money on the big science grants they get.  The infrastructure required to compete for such grants costs more than the grants can bring in.  Thus, either tuition, direct state support, or philanthropic dollars must underwrite the research enterprise.  Yet schools compete wildly for the research dollars because they are essential to their prestige.  Thus, UNC set a goal some years back of $1 billion a year in research funding, a goal that the Vice Chancellor for Research also admitted would worsen our bad financial plight.  We have since surpassed that goal—and are going broke.  But we had 44,000 applicants for 5000 undergraduate slots this past admissions cycle, and our departments and schools remain highly ranked.

The research imperative also makes faculty lives hell.  I have been lucky, as I already said.  For whatever reason, research has always come easily to me; it is not a burden, just something I do.  In part—and truthfully—I enjoy it.  But I will also admit it is so tangled up with issues of self-respect and of respect from my peers, that I would be hard pressed to sort out the various strands of my emotional attachments to my work.  I do know, however, that for many of my colleagues, the research is just a site of constant frustration, of a constant sense of not being good enough or productive enough.  For what?  First of all, the university needs good teachers, as well as good administrators who serve as directors of undergraduate studies, who sponsor various student clubs, who keep the educational enterprise running smoothly.  The administrative bloat on American campuses (which has, demonstrably, be a major factor in the rising costs of higher education) stems in part from freeing faculty from doing that work in the name of giving them more time to do research.

No one wants to admit that much of the research is not much worth doing.  The world will get on just fine without the many bad books and journal articles—many of which are never read by anyone—that the emphasis on research creates.  We have wasted countless hours from imaginative people by pushing faculty toward only one metric of work, toward only one way to contribute to the university.

My position is that good books will still get written even if faculty weren’t forced to write them.  This is tricky.  I am, after all, trying to think about prestige hierarchies.  And it would take a massive cultural sea-change within academia to reach the point where those who were productive researchers were not at the top of the ladder.  Cultural sea-changes require alterations in what Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling.”  I have already indicated the extent to which I recognize my own research was motivated by issues of self-worth and of looking worthy in the eyes of my peers.

Reputation drives many academics much more than money—and it cripples them far more effectively as well.  But still, part of me wants to insist that if the work is worth doing, it will get done.  In other words, we could lose all the research produced just because there is gun to people’s heads—and there still would be good books written (and some bad ones as well) because there will still be people for whom the enterprise of writing a book is central to their sense of themselves (as writers, as persons) and because they see the writing of books as valuable in and of itself.  That Holy Grail of “intrinsic value.”  I doubt we ever get full purity.  But, after all, we do do certain things because we find them worth doing.  And the writing of books is either something some people find worth doing—or it shouldn’t be done at all.

I always read Proust and other social novelists with an inability to suspend disbelief.  I could not understand a life where social climbing, where social ambition, was the driving passion.  I thought that such a world had long since disappeared.  People didn’t orient their lives in that fashion anymore.  But today I read The New Yorker and it is full of tales of people who are tortured and paralyzed by social media, who are obsessed with the “right brands,”star chefs and restaurants, and by celebrities.   And I should probably admit that academics are embroiled in their own kind of social climbing; they, too, want to be part of certain inner circles.  I always held myself rather aloof from all that—and, yet, by the Proustian law of getting what you seem (to others) not to want, I have had, by any objective standard, a highly successful academic career.  I never reached superstar status; I am more like the number 50th ranked tennis player in the world, known by some but not all, but still getting a fair number of perks that fall to those in the inner circles, even if I don’t have their name recognition and my books are read by much, much smaller audiences.

Among the perks, in my own context, there is that absurd salary.  When compression struck, I was able (as you are forced to do in the academic game) to go get an “outside offer.”  I had the kind of research profile that would lead another school that was in the prestige game to bid for my services.  I was able to force UNC to raise my salary so it was in line with that of my colleagues who had been hired after me or who had gotten outside offers of their own.  (Maybe another time I will talk about the complex layers of guilt unleashed by playing the game of getting such an offer.)

Which brings me full circle.  UNC can only compete for the “best faculty” as it struggles to maintain its high reputation, its high ranking, because private donors (alumni who are committed to UNC maintaining its standing) supplement the salaries the state is willing to pay.  UNC, like almost all the top public universities (Virginia, Michigan, UCLA, Berkeley) is a quasi-public school at this point.  Since UNC is more dependent on state dollars than the other schools I have just named, its standing is, in fact, sinking while theirs is holding steady.  Public schools further down the ladder—the UNC Charlottes of the world—are playing a desperate game of catch-up since they don’t’ have the fund-raising potential of the “flagships” and thus are hurt even more by the steady withdrawal of state support.

In short, the privatization of American higher education is a product of the lessening prestige of the public schools—a decline that is semi-rational given that schools are much less fully funded now than they once were.  But it is only semi-rational because it is also tied to the resurgence in the US of prestige-hunger, a resurgence related to the many sins that get covered by the name “neoliberalism.”  There is a heightened—if only rarely explicitly stated—sense of the great divide between winners and losers in our contemporary world.  And going to the “right” college now seems essential (to many people) to making sure you are one of the winners.  The Dukes and Georgetowns of the world have risen because of that anxiety about being left behind and because anything public has been underfunded and denigrated since the 1980s.  This, of course, explains the recent scandal of cheating the admissions process.  More importantly, it explains the on-going scandal of “legacy” admissions, which are motivated by fund-raising imperatives and by the time-worn abilities of elites to retain privileges.

The wider story, however, is about distinction–and cultural mores.  Here’s another argument I lost regarding college admissions.  UNC never had any “merit-based” scholarships (apart from the Moreheads, a whole ‘nother story).  In the early 1990s UNC realized it was beginning to lost the “best” in-state students to schools like Brown and Georgetown and Harvard.  Losing such students, of course, hurt our US News rankings, since average SAT scores for the incoming class were a major metric.  So it was decided to begin offering $500 and $1000 named scholarships to top applicants, irrespective of financial need.  My argument: “you mean to tell me that giving someone $1000 off our $12,000 in-state tuition will make them come to UNC, when their family is fully ready to pay $45,000 for them to go to Brown?”  Once again, I was wrong.  Students wanted to be singled out as “different,” as “special.”  The merit scholarships did increase our yield among top in-state students.  Maybe I am hopelessly romanticizing the 1950s and 1960s–and maybe the middle middle class that came from still exists.  I went to the most elite Catholic high school on Long Island.  All of my classmates went to college.  And there was some sense of a distinction between “going away” to college and going to a college within fifty miles of our high school.  But, really, beyond that little to no sense that Hamilton was different from Villanova, or Northwestern not the same as Marist.  And there was certainly no sense that a school had to distinguish me from other admitted students in order to get me to attend.  I can’t help but believe we are a far less democratic, far less egalitarian society culturally and emotionally (as well as, obviously, economically) now than we were in 1965.

My fat salary is linked to the same sea changes.  In academia, too, the divide between winners and losers has widened.  The spread between the highest and lowest salary in my department is much greater now than it was in 1992, when I arrived.  And, of course, academia has also created its own version of “contract workers,” the “adjuncts” who get low wages and no benefits to do the teaching that the “research faculty” does not do.  It stinks—even as I am a beneficiary of it.  No wonder I feel guilty.  Yeah, you say, you and your guilt feelings plus $1.50 will get you a ride on the subway.  I hate coming across as defensive, but I will record here that I have turned down all available raises over the past five years (admittedly, they were hardly large) so that the money could be distributed among my less well-paid colleagues.

A last point about money.  This thought comes from the Paul Manafort story.  I must be a person of very limited imagination.  Over the past three years, after all the deductions for taxes, retirement funds, health insurance etc., my wife and I together have approximately $10,000 a month in take home pay.  That’s the amount that lands in our bank accounts each month.  We bought our house quite some time ago, so our monthly mortgage plus escrow is $2000.  I understand that is low for most people.  But we have had a number of medical bills that our shitty medical insurance fails to cover—certainly coming to at least $500 a month when averaged over a whole year.  In any case, the point is that we can’t spend $10,000 a month—even as we were supplementing my wife’s mother’s retirement home costs to the tune of $1500 a month, and give a fair amount of money to our two children.  Yet we do not deny ourselves anything, and basically don’t pay much attention to what we spend.  This last, not paying attention, is an astounding luxury after at least twenty years of sweating every penny.  Yet, even with being wildly careless in relation to our earlier habits, there is always enough money.  In fact, it slowly accumulates, so that at the end of every year, no matter what medical emergencies or extravagant trips or increases in the number of charities we send an automatic monthly donation to, there is an extra $10,000 or so.

Clearly—as Paul Manafort showed us—there are a significant number of people in the US to whom $10,000 a month would be woefully inadequate.  Of course, there are millions more for whom, as for my wife and I, it would be untold riches. I don’t really know what moral to derive from that fact.  So I will simply state it here—and cease.

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