For my brief, positive review of the book, see here.
In the very first chapter of Higher Education?, the authors discuss the compensation that professors earn in comparison to the job that they do. They point to the fact that professors (at least at R1 or prestigious private universities) are paid a lot of money (six figures in a lot of cases, if you just read the book) for not a lot of work (four classes taught a year), usually with graduate assistants doing the bulk of the grunt work (grading, leading discussions, answering questions). This may be true for a small number of very prestigious schools (the Golden Dozen, as the authors call them), but for the majority of the professors out there who are in fact lucky enough to be on the tenure-track, this is not the reality.
State support for higher education had clearly been deteriorating. This has lead to an erosion of the real salaries of professors, while they have been asked to teach larger and larger classes, sometimes requiring that the professors teach an overload course, sometimes compensated, sometimes not. And these are not professors who are only teaching four classes a year. These are professors who are teaching four or five classes a semester or quarter. These professors are not making anywhere near six-figure salaries.
The picture that the opening chapter paints of university professors is one of lavish (unearned) privilege. The Ivory Tower is full of Marie Antoinettes calling for the ungrateful, unwashed masses of undergraduates to eat the proverbial cake. Maybe I’m over-reacting, and I know that there are many, many professors out there who do want more and more and more (money, prestige, accolades) for less and less and less (students, teaching, other responsibilities). But most professors work at underfunded, tuition-reliant institutions that cannot afford to pay professors a fraction of what the Golden Dozen and a handfull of others pay.
And besides, what is wrong with the pay a professor earns? As I have written elsewhere, professors face a huge unpaid/low-pay training period as compared to other professions. We go to school for ten years. While our friends who got out of school after their undergrads have paid off their student loans, begun buying houses and moving up the professional ladder, we’re stuck doing low-paying postdocs or adjuncting. We start our careers in our thirties, a full ten to fifteen years after our undergraduate cohorts do. Not to mention the loans we still haven’t paid off and the loads of credit card debt we’ve accumulated in the meantime.
The authors give an example of the pay and benefits of a professor at Stanford (pay, health, housing/mortgage credit, free tuition for kids, etc). For those living in an area where the cost of living is low, then this amount (high six figures, all things included) sounds obscene. But, having lived in California, what Stanford is paying is about what a person would need in order to live in or around Stanford. Northern California is expensive. Housing is expensive. Food is expensive. Heck, California taxes are expensive. A person living on that salary in Northern California is just hanging on to what we might consider the middle class. The offered tax credit in order to buy a better house should be telling. In other words, on this salary alone, you can’t afford to live in a neighborhood that has good schools and is safe for your family. It might also say, you can live with the other white people, but that is a different discussion about the hypocrisy of higher ed.
Or is it? Early in the chapter, the authors refer to the old practice of placing universities away from the cities, to keep the professors and students “pure” and, one would imagine, away from distractions. If you point to the Stanford benefits package, why not point to the hypocrisy of being able to buy a better house to a class of people who increasingly identify themselves as being inclusive and tolerant?
The authors also do nothing to indicate what would be fair work and fair pay for professors. Later on in the book they (quite rightly) attack the obscene pay of university presidents and other administrators, saying that they should view their role as a public service and accept less pay as a result. What other sacrefices do they authors expect professors to make, already having forgone up to fifteen years or more of earning power (opportunity costs) in order to become a professor to begin with? We might have jobs that others would be envious of. But to paint us all as six-figure earning, student-hating (or at least avoiding), greedy, myopic relics of a time past isn’t fair to the thousands of professors struggling to make ends meet, even on a six-figure salary.