Friday, January 30, 2015

Rocking the Economic Boats of Higher Education

In his essay "Why the Rich are Getting Richer and the Poor, Poorer," Robert B. Reich discusses the changing composition of the American workforce, groups it into three categories--routine producers, in-person servers, and symbolic analysts--and describes their past and possibly future trajectories as three boats; the first two categories are falling and the third rising.  It is within this essay that he visits the decline of unions and the subsequent rise of executive salaries. These factors are not unrelated and I believe the second labor uprising in America may be the only way to overturn the boats of Reich's apt metaphor and construct a new and better way forward.

Reich reports the steady decline in union membership by young working men without college degrees from "more than 40%" in the 1950s to "less than 20%" by the end of the 1980s.  More recently, according to The Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the rate of union membership in 2013 was 11.3%.  This total includes workers regardless of gender while Reich's data is for males only.  However, even with the added boost of all workers counted the percentage still has fallen drastically.  Growing up as a child in West Virginia and listening to presentations about Mary Harris "Mother" Jones and the dramatic battles to unionize the coal fields, I never dreamed I would live to see these struggles rejoined.  Jobs disappear, salaries dwindle, and American workers either suffer from underpayment or unemployment.

Now we witness the corporatization of nearly every institution in America.  (For a multi-decade breakdown of the economic and political assault on American higher education, check out this fine post from The Homeless Adjunct:  "How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps.")  Instead of seeing college and university students as, well, students, they are being considered, marketed to and sometimes referred to as consumers.  Colleges and universities pay big bucks to develop a marketable "brand" that can be easily packaged and sold at recruitment fairs to the eager high school seniors and their families, as well as non-traditional students via on-line, streaming, and even television ads.  Higher education administrators schmooze like corporate CEOs.  Amenities get top billing along with sometimes faked diversity in mailers.  Where does education and the working conditions of faculty providing the educational product fall in the budget?  Where do the people who keep those glossy magazine spaces glowing and livable get allotted a place? I'm afraid we've fallen out of contention.  We are not, for the most part, trendy and ad-worthy.  We are, however, all key factors in why students stay.  The kind custodian who cleaned my freshman dorm floor had far more interaction with me and much more impact on my living conditions, checking on my friends and I, striking up conversations, than any administrator.  Plus she cleaned the toilets.  I do not mean that derogatorily.  She was a more highly visible face of the institution than a president I saw only at formal functions, photo ops, and in the school paper.  The professors who called me when I suddenly disappeared from class during a sudden and vile bout of flu didn't just teach me English and music history, but that I was a person who mattered to them.  Were any of us visible to those at the higher echelons other than as props to marketability and good PR when we achieved sports, artistic, or academic accolades worth headlines?

Reich returns to the history of industry and compensation:  "At midcentury, the compensation awarded to top executives and advisers of the largest of America's core corporations could not be grossly out of proportion to that of low-level production workers.  It would be unseemly for executives who engaged in highly visible rounds of bargaining with labor unions, and who routinely responded to government requests to moderate prices, to take home wages and benefits wildly in excess of what other Americans earned." While his essay is written specifically about industry, it can be applied also to higher education.  How many college and university presidents walk the halls and sidewalks of their campuses, getting to know the students, staff, and faculty who comprise their domain?  How many students would recognize their administrators?  These mythical folk seem to move in a sphere beyond the average campus citizen.  Once I received an invitation for the Homecoming Ball.  The ticket price was $100+ --I laughed and tossed it in the recycle bin.  Who sends their alumni and adjuncts mailers like that in this economy? One example of being completely out of touch.  When the people in charge have little to no idea of the day-to-day reality of those working for them, when they do not have to deal with all those groups face-to-face on a regular basis, these people, WE, become objects, mere factors in a budget to be treated as numbers to tug and arrange.  We cease to be people with lives, families, and futures.  This is what, I feel, Reich was getting at in the previous quote:  without a constant reminder of how a CEO's life and salary compares to and affects those under them, the distortion becomes not only possible, but highly likely.

Reich closes the essay with the following statement - "The salaries and benefits of America's top executives, and many of their advisers and consultants, have soared to what years before would have been unimaginable heights, even as those of other Americans have declined."  We now live this reality.
This chart, produced from a survey by The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources in 2012-13 shows the incredible MEDIAN amounts for administrative salaries in American higher education:  "Administrators in Higher Education Salaries."  The highest median salary, with a PhD is for a CEO with $431,575 per year.  While the Adjunct Project shows a wide range of salaries based on location and degree, the median per class is $2, 987.  Multiply this by the number of courses taught and it would take roughly ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-FOUR, that's 144, classes to equal the median pay of the highest administrator.  Four to five classes, if combined across schools is a lot of work for one term!  I taught six in the fall for two schools.  I have five now because some did not run and were cancelled.  To be slightly more realistic, approximately thirteen courses per year would give an adjunct a $40,000 income IF that adjunct could secure the median adjunct rate of $2,987.

This is where we have come to in most of American higher education.  Across the country, interest in unions surges among adjuncts.  We have no other recourse on our own. Alone we are expendable, vulnerable.  Together we can stand up to this tide of disparity.  We can begin the wave that upsets the boats.  We can create an alternative to the untenable future before us, and if we can do it, this can spread to other fields and professions.  We can create a new metaphor for work, perhaps a sustainable one that considers quality of life for everyone, not just those at the top.

Maxine Salary matters

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