5.4.10

TRY SOME REAL GRIPES. There's a tradition of academicians attempting to make sense of the propensity of professors to be left in their politics. Sometimes it's about egalitarianism and higher sensibilities. Sometimes it's about resentment. A recent Thomas C. Reeves essay is in the second tradition. It's less than convincing.
Take the issue of money--always a good place to begin with things American. Academics outside business and the sciences often labor for many long years in college and graduate school in order to obtain a doctorate. More than a few collect their diplomas sporting some gray in their hair along with a briefcase full of debts. If we are lucky enough to land a tenure-track position in higher education, a large "if" over the last four decades, we frequently start at a salary that a skilled blue collar worker might expect a few years out of high school. Don't think about salaries at Harvard; consult the data on most academics published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. A friend's son, a brand new pharmacist, recently started work at a local drug store with a salary that exceeded my University of Wisconsin System salary when I retired as a full professor.
That's long been the case. My dad walked away from Massachusetts for the electrical equipment manufacturers in 1955 for that reason. And yet the supply of professors replenishes over time. (There's a connection between salary compression and tenure that I could address, but I'd like to finish this essay before my arm gives out.)

First a job, then a place to live.
The affluent suburbs, where the successful in other fields gather, are out of the question, of course. And so many of us move into older, deteriorating, often dangerous areas, telling all who listen that we made the choice deliberately and that we, being humanists, have a natural desire to live among the poor and oppressed. In my experience, some English and anthropology professors actually believe this nonsense, and enjoy dressing as factory workers and displaying furniture obviously purchased at a rummage sale.
Aren't there other options? Schoolteachers and police officers as neighbors? (Whether those slumming pseudo-prole academicians could actually operate a vertical milling machine, nay, an electric can opener, is another matter.)
Many academic families have two incomes, and some have other sources of private income. These professors can and often do enter the less exclusive suburbs, only to find that they have very little in common with their neighbors. They aren't invited to join the country club, as everyone understands that professors lack the necessary funds. They aren't invited to join the yacht club for the same reason. It's difficult to join a cocktail party discussion on the joys of owning a Lexus when you've just driven up in an older Corolla.
Are those the kind of people you'd want to socialize with? Come off it.

It goes on in this vein, but I want to finish tonight.
Thirdly, there is the issue of occupational mobility and professional advancement. High income neighborhoods have constant turnover because of promotions and advancement. Professors, on the other hand, are more often than not (especially the white males) stuck on a campus for many years without a prayer of moving up or out. They have little or no control over their annual salary increases, if any, and having attained the rank of full professor have only "more of the same" and retirement to look forward to. Watching their former students scale the heights of prosperity and power can cause considerable chagrin.
My dad bailed as an assistant professor. If the perquisites of the job don't offset the salary ... The tenure system probably makes the academic job market more rigid (mid-career academics: accept committee assignments and other institution-specifici projects carefully.)

The expression "generalizing from one's own experience" comes to mind.

2 comments:

Dean Dad said...

"The tenure system probably makes the academic job market more rigid."

Other than the wobbly "probably," I couldn't agree more. Now as an economist, what do you think of market rigidities?

Whenever I bring this up, I get flamed to high heaven. It's nice to see someone with opposite politics notice the same thing.

Stephen Karlson said...

Well, pardon me for allowing that I hadn't investigated the empirical research!

There's a further complication, in that what goes on at the margin of decision making is what affects salaries. Thus academics who make too many institution-specific investments in human capital derive some benefit from the job-hopping of the more highly regarded or the more ambitious or the more tolerant of risk.

Rigidities, like any other economic phenomenon, come with tradeoffs. There are some theoretical papers in American Economic Review and Journal of Political Economy that model labor markets with skill obsolescence. One way to encourage people to participate in those markets is to pay people a lot and turf them out when their skills depreciate. That's the pay structure in pro soprts. Another way is to pay people less, but provide insurance against being fired. Hence academic tenure.

Those papers, admittedly, do not consider other complications such as the evergreen disciplines (where the skill depreciation is less obvious) or the existence of external job opportunities (in business colleges, for instance, tenure means little against six- or seven-figure offers from the private sector.)