DEALING WITH THE FOURTH ESTATE. The Northern Star published some information about University faculty and staff earning more than $100,000 per year, and a reporter is working on a followup story. Herewith her questions and my answers.

1. In 1998, there were 51 employees who made $100,000 or more. Now there are 80. What do you think of this change? From an economic perspective, is this an alarming change?

Start with some information in the article.

Of the 80 top-paid employees, 13 are professors, including accountancy, finance, mathematics and physics professors. The majority of the six-figure positions are reserved for administrators and college deans, according to the fiscal year 2004 working papers.
Isn't the accounting program well known for student success on the CPA exam, and didn't the department chairman recently leave? Mightn't finance professors have opportunities to make even larger salaries on LaSalle Street? Didn't several members of the Physics faculty participate in the discovery of the top quark?

The University has enjoyed some success in recent years in improving the reputation of its academic programs, and the visibility the football program has earned only helps people discover those programs. It ought not come as a surprise that some of the administrators and deans might have received outside offers, leading either to pay raises to keep them here, or to higher salaries to attract their replacements. Nothing alarming there.

On the other hand, slightly over half the students who enroll at Northern Illinois University graduate within six years. Several of the athletic programs fall short of the minimum academic performance the National Collegiate Athletic Association is seeking. I would be alarmed if the people responsible for these failures to perform adequately are among the most highly paid administrators.

Note also these paragraphs in the article.

Sandra Flood, president of the NIU Instructors Union, said the faculty has been shorted since administrators have very high salaries. Instructors make $32,000 on average, she said. The union, which has 200 members, has "absolutely" fought for salary increases for instructors. In 1992, Flood made $16,000 as a full-time instructor; now, $30,000 is the minimum starting salary.

"The numbers of administrators and support staff have ballooned over the past few years," Flood said. "The personnel dollars cannot keep up with the numbers, and the faculty have reduced in number and the work has increased."

The use of instructors -- faculty members who enjoy no opportunity to earn academic tenure and who are -- as the quote notes -- hired very cheaply and often treated as contingent labor is one dimension of what I refer to as Big Red Subway quality education. To the extent that resources are going for additional administrators rather than additional faculty (and we haven't even begun to talk about the lack of paper in the computer labs and on occasion the dry-erase markers in the so-called smart classrooms) I actively raise the alarm.

2. What factors in the economy may have produced this changed?

There are several factors. State government operates under the misconception that university faculty are overpaid and underworked. If that is the case, why are the graduate programs a great opportunity to meet people from all over the world? You'd think local students would be in on the gravy train. The administration operates under a further misconception that "productivity" equates to "dollars per student credit hour," a temptation to hire cheap labor to teach large classes, learning be d***ed.

To their credit, senior administrators recognize that their teaching faculty ought also be rewarded.

In the last 20 years, professors have lost ground with regard to salary, and NIU is working to improve salaries, [president John] Peters [ formerly Pat Summitt's boss] said. For example, when NIU receives an increase from the state, the funds are directed to salaries, he said.

"I will fight for pay increases [for professors] whenever I can," Peters said. "I’m not in favor of decreasing salaries."

3. What were economic conditions like in the late ‘90s? What are they like now?

Macroeconomic conditions were similar, although the dot.com stock market bubble was fooling a lot of people. We did not yet know we were in a war. The mind-set at the university was one of downsizing and retrenchment, some of that in response to pressures from Springfield, some of it mistaken. (I did not make myself very popular in those days pouring scorn on some of the university's attempts to boost enrollment and retention, noting that the middle schools and high schools in the area were overcrowded and we'd have to deal with that problem in a few years.) Perhaps the administrators are taking a closer look at middle and high school enrollments today. The more alert among them will be paying particularly close attention to the mounting evidence that the very expensive brand name universities such as Harvard, Colorado, and USC do no better by their students than does Northern Illinois University. Perhaps (dream on?) some of the individuals earning those large salaries are working on strategies to get that message to potential students.

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