Monday, March 23, 2015

Lazy Prof Redux

Tom Peace beat me to the punch. I wanted to write a blog on why academics -- like myself -- are not lazy overpaid ivory tower idiots who ignore their students. If you are interested in this topic, I'd recommend Tom's piece because he makes the points I was going to make in a more thoughtful, articulate, and evidence-based way. I've also tried in this blog to correct some of the odd stereotypes that float around about profs by detailing what I actually do for a living and where the pressure to change -- say, to spend more time on research -- is coming from. Before getting back into that subject, though, I should say that I have not a little embarrassment in blogging on this subject. Why? Because I sound defensive and I don't like that. I don't think sounding defensive is a particularly good way to have a reasoned discussion of the importance of post-secondary education and the work those of us who teach at this level do.

What can, after all, say that does not sound defensive? I could argue "I work hard" (and I do) but that sounds ... well ... defensive. I can talk about who much time I spend with my students (not this year because I'm on sabbatical but ... I do), but that sounds defensive. I can talk about how I try to contribute to scholarship because that is my job (which, it is) but ... well ... you get the point. I could also talk about how much I am paid. And, I will, but might not be the issue, or it might be. But, I don't think so for reasons that Tom has already intimated and so I won't repeat.

The reason I wanted to write these things was yet another editorial suggesting that academics (people like me) are a lazy bunch who are overpaid and don't really do very much teaching. The result, according to at least some editorialists, is that most courses are taught by underpaid temporary (contract or part-time) academics and students are being ripped off. The reason I wanted to blog on this subject was this editorial, which also intimates that I am somehow blocking the way with my overpay and underwork approach to my job for vibrant young scholars who would work and teach and so nifty things but for me. The author is angry ... and I am not certain I don't blame him. The problem is that he has misdiagnosed the problem and the solutions. Here is a relevant passage where sums up both the problems and the solutions:

"Universities should be privatized. They should have to compete for students and their fees. And professors should have to compete for work based on performance … just like everybody outside government.

Instead academe resembles a John Kenneth Galbraith parody of capitalism, with a pampered elite doing little work, cutting themselves great, rich slices of pie and complacently ignoring the toiling masses on whose backs they prosper. And if it were anyone else, the typical humanities professor would be up in arms at the lack of social justice."

What I'd like to do is look at what he is suggesting and argue through it -- debate it, as it were -- to see what its problems are.

First, the idea that privatizing universities will create more jobs is simply wrong. In fact, it might do the opposite. Universities already compete for students -- so the idea that they "should have to" is inaccurate -- and they compete intensely. Much of the increase in administrative costs where I work and at other smaller eastern Canadian universities has gone into this competition. We have more recruiters, spend more time on publicity, visit more schools, etc. In other words, the competition is on and has been on for some time. I don't actually know why anyone who has worked in a university would not recognize this but ... talk to people involved in recruiting and they will let you know that the competition is intense. Privatizing the university will not improve competition, in other words, and hence won't offer students more choices.

Second, it might actually cause a de facto restriction of choices. The United States has many many private universities. Most of these charge fees that make attending these schools just about impossible for the average middle-class, let alone working-class, kid. Privatizing in the US, in other words, has not reduced costs but increased them. Why? Because only someone who knows very little about how markets work would suggest that privatization brings prices down. In fact, one of the key reasons we have government involvement in post-secondary education is to keep prices reasonable (you can debate whether or not you think they are reasonable). Thus, removing this restriction, it stands to reason, will have the opposite effect.

Let's do some math. If I run a private corporation, my objective is to maximize profits. Exactly, a proponent of privatization might say, and so you will want to attract more students. This makes intuitive sense, but it does not make market sense. If I can increase profits but lowering the number of students ... that will be what I will do (again, remember, I am running a private corporation; not a part of an educational system with a public mandate). For instance, imagine that I need $2000.00 to run my university. Right now that I charge $100.00 for tuition and have 10 students. That gives me a revenue of $1000.00 and the government makes up the difference by giving me another $1000.00. I have a balanced budget and no wasted money. My costs and revenue align exactly.

Now, imagine that I have no government funding ... what do I do? I instantly, need to increase revenue, so at the very least I need to jump my tuition to $200.00 but it gets worse that than. Let's imagine that I discover that there are people willing to pay a lot of money for a degree. I jump my tuition to $500.00. But, at this price, I start to lose students because some can't afford. If I run a private corporation, my response is "so what?" All I need to find is five students willing to pay $500.00 and I'm in the black. What I have done, through privatization, is to actually restrict the number of students who will attend my school.

But, it could get even worse that that. We have some recent disturbing reports from the US about student athletes -- who get scholarships because they make the university a lot of money. Recent reports suggest that a significant percentage of these students are reading below a high school level. At one school -- a name brand school at that -- over 18% of student athletes (mostly in big money sports like basketball and football) had a reading capacity below that of my high school-aged daughter. If you privatize, in other words, the result is not expanded access but exploitation of students so that money is made off them. Admission standards, in these cases, are ignored because the money is there. One student I read about had not attended class, but simply practiced his sport. At the end of his time, he did not make the pros (which was his hope) because only a fraction do and the university was done with him. He was out but left without his degree and with a skill basis below that of a grade 11 students.

This would never happen in Canada, some people might say. And, you might be right although I suspect big schools -- if they were privatized -- would quickly join American college leagues and enter into that fray simply because the money is there. But, even if this were not true, we actually have examples of the crass exploitation of students by private educational corporations that are in it for the money. Here is the URL

Will privatization get more people jobs? It is doubtful. We can't know for sure. I suspect instead that what will happen is that we'll see a wage decrease. People like me will see their wages go down but so will contract and p/t faculty. If tenure track faculty do more teaching, there will actually be fewer, not more, jobs for people like the editorial writer. In other words, the answer that he has to offer may be one that ends up costing him his job.

Do I think he should have a better job. Yes. Do I think he should have job security. Yes. Do I think he should be paid more. Yes. The problem is that I don't hire him. The problem is that the people who pay him decided to pay him a lot less than he thinks he's worth and I feel bad about that. But, it wasn't me. In fact, the people who made that decision are administrators who are paid, quite frankly, a heck of a lot more than I am paid. Thus, lowering my pay will not create another job for him or a better one.

Third, am I a member of a "pampered elite." This is an odd stereotype and I have to confess that I don't know where it came from. Here I start to sound defensive. I go to work each day, strike to work 9 to 5 while on sabbatical, and much more when I am not. Like most employees, I do what my bosses tell me to do. Do I spend to much time on my research and not enough time on my teaching. I don't think so, but the people who run my school keep telling me to spend more time on my research. Indeed, my union fought a labour action last year to maintain our focus on education. It was opposed by people above my pay grade who want more time put into research and publication because, they have said in our university Senate, that is where the money is. In other words, I focus more time on research not because I'm a member of a pampered elite but because I'm an employee and I am doing what I am told.

Am I under-evaluated? I don't know. I'm evaluated all the time. There is an evaluation for each course I teach, pre-tenure there is an evaluation every year. Post-tenure every second year. There is an evaluation after every sabbatical. In other words, I am evaluated regularly.  In fact, I'd guess that there is more evaluation than in the private sector. Why? Because we are interested in quality teaching. The private second, again, is not. It is interested in profit. It is what the private sectors does. (You can think that is good or bad. That is up to you).

Am I overpaid? I'm paid well, but I'm a middle-aged man. My youngest child is in grade 10 and I've been doing this for a long time. When I started, I was not paid well at all. Over time, my wages have rises and I now have a comfortable income. I take a vacation each year, have a house (still paying the mortgage) and a car (one more month and I own it). I don't go hungry. I go to restaurants and movies a couple of times a month. I am not certain that this makes me dramatically different from other middle class Canadians, in other words.

What can we learn from this discussion. I'll say again that the myth of the pampered esoteric prof is just that: a myth. Most of us are just trying to do our job and following the lead of our employers in terms of how we divide our time. We are frequently evaluated and take those evaluations seriously. I'm paid a good rate but I have a middle-class living and nothing more. But, most importantly, privatization is not a solution to the current problems of university. In fact, on a number of levels (accessibility, allocation of resources), they might make things worse.
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