At the top of this post, I’d just like to stipulate that I am extremely phobic about money. I never open my TIAA-CREF statements, and for years I avoided consulting the “little black book” in the library that reveals the salaries of everyone at my public institution, for fear of learning how vastly underpaid I was. (When I did consult it, I learned that I was underpaid by a little, but above all I found that I and all of my colleagues were “compressed” tightly together with our below-average salaries.) Because of my crippling money anxieties, I’m probably losing out on tens of thousands of dollars I might be able to save or invest more wisely, but then, that’s the price of my happy obliviousness. (At least I don’t carry credit card debt, and I never have had to–thank goodness.)
I found these two interesting, somewhat oppositional posts at Reassigned Time and Tenured Radical this week about universities and money in these hard times. On the one hand, TR reminds us that for those of us “regular” faculty who have tenure, it’s rather unseemly to complain when our colleagues on the staff may face layoffs because of budgetary downturns. In discussing the likelihood of a faculty salary freeze at her college next year, she says “Agreeing to a salary freeze, when it is explained as part of a well-reasoned plan is sticking out your hand and playing your role as a partner in the enterprise,” and then continues:
The strangest thing I have heard — and I have heard it from more than one person — is the narrative of sacrifice, in which a faculty member claims to have chosen university teaching when other, far more lucrative work was possible, but in an act of self-abnegation chose to teach the unwashed masses who seem to cluster regularly at private colleges and universities. Having made this sacrifice, the story goes, no others should be required: nay, this person should receive raises while others near and far, working class and middle class people working in soulless occupations, lose their jobs.
While it is not required of us to be grateful for having jobs as unemployment gallops to new highs, it is worth remembering that life isn’t fair. When we are not being rewarded with cash prizes for our accomplishments, it might be a good time to figure out if there are personal rewards other than money that cause you to stay committed to teaching and the production of knowledge. If there are not, I strongly suggest you use the safety of your tenured position to explore another line of work that would make you happy.
Fair enough. But, I would suggest that very few of even us tenured folk teach at wealthy “private colleges and universities” or tony SLACs like TR. (Having taught at a few different private universities, I can attest to the fact that they’re not all wealthy–in fact, some sectarian universities are perpetually struggling.) Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time reports that at her university, the faculty are being charged more for parking and health insurance, course releases are gone, travel money is vanishing despite the fact that the research requirements are rising, and yet, “[i]t’s being strongly hinted that faculty should give money to keep certain things afloat.” She continues:
I get really angry when it comes to all of the above. The bottom line is that I work at this place, and every such request that faculty “do their part” makes me feel like my work isn’t valued – like I’m not already doing my part by teaching in [fracked] up classrooms without the equipment that I need, quietly accepting that I have an office with no heat and that’s 400 miles away from the printer, teaching four freaking maxed out classes a semester, etc. I feel like people have their hands in my pockets and like they’re taking money that is mine and that I earned. And while I get the fact that a university is a special kind of place, blah blah blah, I kind of want to tell everybody that they can [frack] off and that I don’t make enough on a humanities salary, no matter how giving a heart I possess (and really, I don’t possess one of those, but for the sake of argument), to keep a university in the black. $hit, I’m not in the black just in terms of my personal finances. And yet, because of all of the PR surrounding this $hit, I feel guilty when I don’t give. You know what? Screw it. No more guilt. I’ll feel guilty when my student loans are paid off. Until that time, they’ll just have to be happy that I do my freaking job.
Mind you, Dr. Crazy’s book has just come out, so we know the girl works hard for the money. I bow to her achievements, producing a book while teaching a 4-4 load. I think most people would agree that faculty salary freezes are not the worst thing in the world, and that if everyone at an institution is suffering, then faculty shouldn’t be exempt, but I also think that most people would recognize that working at an already-beleaguered institution with high teaching loads and similarly high research requirements is materially different than working at an institution with a 2-2 load and/or at SLACs where the classes are small. Tenured Radical and Dr. Crazy work at very different institutions.
In the comments to the aforementioned post, Dr. C. goes on to raise an interesting related issue, namely, that “[w]hat I really see underlying all of this is that the notion that professors are gentlemen intellectuals still rules the day when it comes to the way money works at universities, even at a university like mine where that is far from the role that any professor I know inhabits.” Right on. With respect to my discipline, up to the mid-nineteenth century, historians were rich amateurs and hobbyists. Even after earning Ph.D.s at German universities (or at the few American universities that offered them) became de rigeur, historians were overwhelmingly WASP men of the ruling class, which is why the professional study of history had (and arguably still has) WASP ruling-class prejudices. Although I know a few genuine WASPs (one of whom will inherit family money, the other of whom won’t and is bitterly disappointed about that), I’m not one, and in fact I know a lot more historians who grew up very working class. One of my friends has a community college degree on his transcript, and another has told me that in her last year of college, she was living in her car.
While some of us may be independently wealthy or have married well so that our jobs just provide us with walkin’ around money, the vast majority of academics I know need a middle-class salary and benefits. And yet, the modal values of academia are upper middle-class. The profession still assumes at some level that we’re all sons and daughters of the ruling class, and that we’re too refined or rich enough already to haggle about money. At some level, isn’t this evidence that the profession doesn’t take itself seriously? Doesn’t it imply that at some level, we’re merely hobbyists who would be happy to fund our own travel, or pay for our own sabbaticals, because what we do isn’t really work?
Is the meaning of what we do all day long–teaching, research, and service–dependent on how badly we need the paycheck? Is it not work, regardless of the worker?