“1, 2, 3, 4…Can I have a little more?”

17 01 2012

Why do business professors generally make more money than history professors? The answer, trying to be fair about it, is that business professors have non-academic alternatives. That means that universities have to compete with marketers in order to hire a marketing professor, accounting firms to hire an accounting professor, etc. History professors…well I guess we have Plan B, which hasn’t really been worked out yet.

Yet this whole line of argument assumes that the academic labor market is, in fact, free: that there are a number of options out there for people seeking better employment, that they are well-informed of all those options and that they won’t be afraid to risk moving. But what if the academic labor market isn’t free after all? There’s an article in the new Harper’s (so new that it’s not even on the web site as I write this) about monopoly employers, who (if I remember my economics right) are actually monopsonists – One buyer of labor and many sellers. It mostly covers workers in the computer industry and the chicken industry, but a description of a free (labor) market there, provided as contrast, doesn’t apply much to academia either.

I’ll take each trait one at a time:

“Most important is an equality between the seller and the buyer, achieved by ensuring that that there are many buyers as well as sellers.

The deliberate restructuring of demand has eliminated that possibility.

Second is transparency. Everyone sees the quantity and the quality of the product on offer, and the price at which each deal is done.

Those of us in state schools can usually find out everyone else’s salary without too much trouble. But do you know their courseload? Do you know their perks? Are you rude enough to ask?

A third characteristic is a tendency to deliver egalitarian outcomes.

I probably make about $35,000/year less than the average business professor at my university and I have a higher courseload. But then again, tell that to our adjuncts.

Adjunct faculty in the humanities make less than well-supported graduate students at most universities, yet they carry most of the teaching load in many places. And don’t tell me that’s because they don’t do research, because today’s adjunct faculty are just as capable of putting out books as anyone who’s lucky enough to have the time to write when not teaching just two or three classes each semester.

A free labor market would create something akin to equal pay for equal work. Since academia is nothing like it, there must be some reason why the academic labor market isn’t free. The New Faculty Majority blog posts this part of an article on art that suggests a parallel to academia:

Classical economic models assume that suppliers don’t have any particular emotional attachment to what they’re supplying; all they really want to do is to make money. As a result, if they’re not making money, they’ll exit the industry, leaving more to go around for everyone else. As we see from Kirk Lynn’s contribution to the discussion, however, many artists (especially artist-entrepreneurs) have far too much passion for their work to consider exiting solely for financial reasons. The result of this lack of exit is a surfeit of fantastic art that few aside from its creators have time to take in.

Perhaps then they exploit us (to differing degrees) because we care. Since you’ll take less to do the work which you find meaning in and enjoy, then we’ll pay you less. I know we’re always free to quit, but what do you do if you actually believe in what you’re doing and want to try to make academia better? I guess we could all try to become Blue Meanies administrators, but what if you want to be able to look at yourself in the mirror each morning?

You could always start a blog! Or maybe not. This is from Reason #76 over at a blog that you really should be reading already:

Why? Why are academics—of all people—afraid of writing (and speaking) honestly about their profession? Why do so many of those who do express themselves feel compelled to do so anonymously? The answer lies in the staggering power imbalance between academics and the people who employ them. That imbalance is so great because of the crippling realities of the academic job market. The consequences of offending your colleagues and superiors in any way can be dire, because until you have tenure (see Reason 71) your employment is insecure; you are easily replaced.

But if we just worked all together now…




4 responses

18 01 2012
Music for Deckchairs

This post has stayed with me all day, and I’ve discussed it with a few people. The question on my mind is why we don’t work together more effectively. One answer is that we’re segregated into different systems. Within every institution there are divisions between different staff (academic, professional, service staff, administration, management, whatever you call it — HE institutions are really diverse employment communities that seem to favour both vertical and horizontal segregation by rank and trade, and this often brings more than one labor union onto campus).

But things get worse as you try to scale up. Australia, like the US, has a complex higher education sector involving both state university and “technical and further education” providers, and an increasing number of private degree-awarding providers. Within each stream there are different experiences of security and precarity, and little encouragement to collaborate.

So we are not good at working together within national systems; and worse at working together across them. And we’re really not always good at working together with students.

But I feel that the evidence of the broad social media narratives beginning to unite higher education workers and students across the global system show us to be perfectly capable of working together — even those of us who disagree on one or two things.

So, what would it take to do this well, I wonder? Just curious. I’m starting to hanker for a badge for blogs that says “Working Together For Higher Education” if only because WTFHE? is a thought we all have most days.

18 01 2012
Jonathan Rees


It’s funny. When you tweeted this post it seemed like you thought I was talking about administrators too as part of the “all” in the all together now. i wasn’t. This was intended as a class thing. But now that you write this, I’m thinking maybe I should have been with you all along.

Not every administrator is a Blue Meany (that is the singular of Blue Meanies, right?). Some of them are undoubtedly willing to work with faculty if we reach out to them. The problem is that it’s hard to tell who’s willing to treat faculty as partners and who’s not. To avoid that problem, I’m afraid most faculty just sit on the sidelines and gripe to themselves or anonymously over the Internet.

18 01 2012
Music for Deckchairs


I think in the end we can’t guess who will treat us as partners; we can only decide to treat them as our partners.

Someone has to go first. Might as well be those of us in the middle: with tenure, not at the highest level of executive responsibility (where hands are tied by all sorts of other constraints), not precariously employed, not students.

There’s a reason to for us to collaborate, including on noticing and valuing wherever working together works, partly because the culture of griping from the sidelines is really harmful for the gripers, and the griped-at are protected from it in any case.

So yes, it’s a class thing, but not along the obvious lines, and to an extent it’s already happening — a generalised collaboration among those who work with, for, and in spite of higher education.

WTFHE? — I’m telling you, I’m already seeing a t-shirt!

19 01 2012
What are we, chopped liver? « More or Less Bunk

[…] to work for them anytime as a consultant as my kingdom’s revenues are nothing like those of the business professors a few kingdoms over from me and I’m too much of a pacifist to ever declare war. Share […]

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