What do faculty and Walmart workers have in common?

6 12 2010

On Saturday, I heard Cary Nelson speak at the state AAUP’s annual meeting in Boulder. It was actually the same speech he gave at the shared governance meeting in Washington, D.C., but not exactly the same. Besides, like when you listen to your favorite albums enough, you sometimes hear little things you didn’t pick up the first time around.

What I picked up most this time around was a thought about the relationship between state aid at public universities and tuition. It’s obvious when you think about it: When state aid decreases, the costs of running a college are shifted to students in the form of higher tuition. From the typical administrator’s standpoint, it basically doesn’t matter. If you raise tuition too high, perhaps students will choose a cheaper alternative (like community colleges), but as long as enrollment continues unabated one source of money is as good as another.

The problem with this arrangement from the faculty perspective is that it sets students and faculty off against one another. Want a raise? Tuition is going to have to go up. Of course, there are many other expenses in running a university besides faculty salaries, but I’ve noticed a tendency among administrators everywhere to inflate the relative percentage of the cost of instruction compared to overall budgets and I think this is precisely the reason. Invoking the interests of students to their teachers is a much better argument than saying you can’t have a raise because they need to hire still more administrators or pay the football coach another million dollars per year.

This is what reminds me of Walmart. certainly everyone on the tenure track still has it better than the average Walmart worker, but I’ve been a Walmart blogger for a long, long time and I think I’m starting to see a parallel here. When Walmart is attacked for its poor wages, a certain class of Walmart defenders (many of them in economics departments), make an argument like this:

[Obama] has appointed the 37-year-old Jason Furman, one of Wal-Mart’s most prominent defenders, to head his economic team. On the campaign trail, Obama blasted Clinton for sitting on the Wal-Mart board and pledged: “I won’t shop there.” For Furman, however, Wal-Mart’s critics are the real threat: the “efforts to get Wal-Mart to raise its wages and benefits” are creating “collateral damage” that is “way too enormous and damaging to working people and the economy … for me to sit by idly and sing Kum Ba Ya in the interests of progressive harmony”.

That collateral damage is, of course, higher prices for cheap plastic crap. In our case, it’s higher tuition – probably for the same class of students that feel the need to shop at Walmart.

Obviously I’m sympathetic to people at the bottom of the power equation in both these relationships, but those in academia can at least take the argument in another direction by invoking the effect of budgetary decisions on the quality of instruction. As I put it after the first time I heard Cary Nelson give this speech:

Our first inclination is to thank our administrators for not furloughing us (and if we are furloughed, to thank them for not firing us) when we should be asking, “What can we do together to make sure that the education we’re providing doesn’t suffer?”

We work at universities, not Walmart. If the quality of instruction isn’t someone’s first priority, then that person might want to consider employment in Walmart’s management team rather than higher education administration.


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