30.5.03

IT'S CALLED A MARKET TEST. "So when [Alabama music professor Marvin Johnson] learned last fall that the average assistant professor in the business school was earning $72,691, while the average full professor in the humanities made $63,531, he was shocked, he says. 'It seemed completely out of whack,'" reports Katherine S. Mangan in the Free Chronicle (via Political Theory.) "He decided that something had to be done. At his urging, the university's Faculty Senate voted last month to endorse a proposal that would put a cap on raises for the most highly paid professors on the campus, many of whom are in law and business. Schools that still wanted to pay their professors more could do so by charging higher tuitions, the proposal says." As. If. There's. Anything. Wrong. With. That. Students in the lucrative degree fields are harvesting many of the gains from trade for themselves, with the administration skimming some of the take to pay for assessment of the obvious, beer-'n-circuses, diversity boondoggles, and academic fads. That's not how everybody sees it.

"'There's a tendency to value very obvious practical gain over human enrichment,' says Charles W. Nuckolls, a professor of anthropology at Alabama. 'That's why it's easy to see why professional schools, which emphasize their practical focus, get more money,' he adds. 'The long-term consequence will be the erosion and eventually the demise of the liberal arts, particularly at state-supported schools.'" Not. The demise of the liberal arts began long ago, with the gutting of the core curriculum. There's plenty of evidence that rigorous schooling in the liberal arts enables such graduates to make connections that more "practically" trained (and yes, I am using different verbs deliberately) graduates cannot. Put most simply, a business degree has greater entry-level but less upside potential than a liberal arts degree. But where does one get such a core curriculum any more? Your general education requirement is more likely to resemble a railway tariff: some class rates here, some commodity rates there, an exception or exemption under footnote (b).

"The salary differences have been exacerbated because the market for top talent in law, business, and medicine has become increasingly competitive. In business, that's largely because of a shortage of business doctorates. In other professional schools, the obsession over a program's ranking is often said to account for much of the intense competition -- and higher pay -- for 'star' faculty members. Whatever the cause, professional schools are shelling out big money to attract new hires." Tournament in progress? Is the tenure system and the graduate program so cumbersome and so unresponsive that additional Ph.D. programs in business and related disciplines are not forthcoming (shameless plug: check out Economics 640)? Are the transaction costs so high, and the ignorance so great, that aspiring academics can't arbitrage the difference? How big a compensating differential do professors require to put up with business students?

Somehow I suspect I won't persuade Professor Johnson: "'The notion that someone who's devoted his or her life to a field and has earned two promotions is somehow less worthy than someone right out of graduate school is ludicrous, but that's the way it is,' he says. 'It isn't just about money. The whole value system is skewed toward professional schools and their needs at the expense of traditional disciplines.'" On the other hand, if university composers wrote music that people would listen to, some in their ranks could become the next John Williams, or Jerry Goldsmith, and be able to buy way more toys than those Masters of the Universe wanna-bes in the Faculty of Commerce. In fact, they could double-dip, and sell their music to the studios after presenting their juried recitals. Or would you prefer to go to the Football Model, where very few people earn two promotions, because most are out after a losing season or two? There was an article in Journal of Political Economy some years ago about precisely that tradeoff: how do you protect people against the possibility that their work will be obsolete in ten years?

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