Thursday, June 2, 2011

University Professor Compensation

Andrew Gelman links to college professor David Rubinstein who makes a number of inflammatory comments under a headline that includes "Thank you, Illinois taxpayers, for my cushy life":

After 34 years of teaching sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I [Rubinstein] recently retired at age 64 at 80 percent of my pay for life. . . . But that's not all: There's a generous health insurance plan, a guaranteed 3 percent annual cost of living increase, and a few other perquisites.

In my 34 years, just one professor in the sociology department resigned to take a nonacademic job. For open positions, there were always over 100 applicants, several of them outstanding. The rarity of quits and the abundance of applications is good evidence that the life of the college professor is indeed enviable.

Protests against efforts to reform pay scales, teaching loads, and retirement benefits employ a “solidarity forever, the union makes us strong” rhetoric. What these professors and other government workers do not understand is that they are not demanding a share of the profits from the fat-cat bourgeoisie. They are squeezing taxpayers—for whom the professors purport to advocate—whose lives are in most cases far harsher than their own.

I have a few comments to make about this particular issue. First of all, I notice that the professor in question is happy to brag about his success but is not proposing, for example, to stop accepting his pension. I am not sure why it makes sense to mock the people who support one's financial position. Is it considered good sense to mock customers in business?

Second, there are a lot of people in all fields of endeavor who do not earn their salary. What is it about academics that makes people think it might make sense to brag about being a poor performer?

Third, why is the focus on the cost to the taxpayer for academic pensions a focus? We subsidize a lot of activity -- for example, we tax hedge fund managers at captial gains tax rates. This is a very important subsidy on that activity but we do not hear comments about how hard it is for people in the working class to subsidize multi-billion dollar incomes.

I think Andrew Gelman makes the winning point here:

David Rubinstein appears to be somewhat of an extreme case of the underworked and overpaid professor: he taught at a low-ranked but high-paying institution, he got his Ph.D. at a time where they were giving out tenure-track slots like candy canes at Christmas, he (by his own admission) spends a total of less than one hour per week on class preparation, grading, and advising combined, and he got a contract in an era with generous retirement benefits.

It is unclear to me what action makes sense here, given these issues. Clearly, attacking current new professors does not seem to address the core issues (that David Rubinstein was hired in an exceptional era). It can only hurt people who have had to struggle up under much more difficult circumstances than he has. Which seems to be identical to his critique of academics in general (that they are priviledged and don't care about people who have had to deal with more difficult life circumstances).

I do know that my own experience of university life is completely different. I am in a resaerch position and I still spend a lot more time on teaching then he does, not to mention leading student research groups. My pension is defined contribution and my pay has just been cut as part of a state-wide austerity movement (after 1 year, that time when compounding means cuts hurt the most). It's hard work but I like the job. I do know that when I worked in industry, pay was higher and life was a lot less stressful.

It is a very odd article.

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