University executives’ pay and “fat cat” faculty

July 21, 2018

The Chronicle of Higher Ed’s yearly “Executive Compensation and Private and Public Colleges” is making the rounds again on Facebook, which got me thinking about some of the problems faculty face in using information like this.

Asking why executives deserve so much money invites bad actors to answer “You’re right. Let’s not pay anybody well!” Every time I see a list like this, I immediately want to demand that, like faculty, management justify their pay according to the value they bring their institutions. Put another way–while James Ramsey was president of the University of Louisville (which he was when this survey was published), what on Earth did he to earn this kind of money?

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To be fair, the base salary is only (!) about $330K; let’s work with the figure of $330K.

The Louisville Business Journal compiled a database of U of L and UK employees (using 2016 salary figures). I generated a list of English Department faculty at U of L (I’m not going to name any names here). The highest paid faculty member in English makes over half the president’s base; the next highest about half; the third highest about 40%. Most faculty in the department make less than 1/3 the president’s base salary, and eight of the forty-four listed faculty earn roughly 10%.

In case the point isn’t clear:

What actual work justifies such a massive pay differential between him and the faculty who do the teaching and research that comprise the function of a university? I’m not arguing that he doesn’t “do anything.” Part of me thinks he needs to answer for how much state money he’s pocketing–not just relative to his own job description, but also relative to what other people at his institution earn for labor that, frankly, the university could do without less than they could do without his. (If that’s not true, then the proof is exactly what I’m asking for.)

The problem making this argument to decision-makers is that challenging the value of somebody else’s labor is unlikely to increase anyone’s perception of the value of yours. So my gut reaction to want to demand it is probably not tactically very sound.

Misunderstandings about university work allows purse-string-yankers to conflate…a whole bunch of things…

Given the inconsistent terminology for positions even within academic circles, why would I expect my neighbor to know or care a whole lot about what an Associate Vice President for University Advancement and Director of Sponsored Research? At the same time, a curious neighbor can look at a list like the Louisville Business Journal’s (or similar projects) and see that lots of people who work at Nearby University are making well into six figures in base salary. If you see those numbers and don’t really know/care how those titles differ from “Professor,” it’s easy to believe that most people at the university (except people serving food and cleaning, but who thinks about them?) are making lofty sums.

The consequences of the problem aren’t clear until the (mis)information gets to people who want to undercut faculty and/or public institutions. Too often they get away with claims like “Look at how much those people are getting paid” without acknowledging (although they know) that we aren’t all the same people. Because neither their handlers nor their constituents have much reason to care about the difference between an Assistant Vice Provost and Director of [insert office here] and an Associate Professor and Director of [insert program here], the fact that one probably makes three times the salary of the other doesn’t register. Worse even: the Assistant Professor of Practice and Associate Director of the University Writing Center (NTT) whose salary is probably one sixth (if that) the Assistant Vice Provost, but the title is just as oblique!

Because most voters and handlers of legislators don’t have a stake in pushing back against this conflation, faculty are largely left to our own devices–and it’s hard to do without sounding defensive, self-aggrandizing, or both.

As management becomes more populated by people without academic credentials/experience, and by people who are friends with those same people who already don’t like us, it makes the reach of that mis/dis-information campaign even longer.

Even bracketing off malice as a motive for letting this situation get so toxic, it’s become easier for university upper-management and state-level decision-makers to be too cozy as their backgrounds have become less distinct–or sometimes (e.g., Mitch Daniels at Purdue; John Thrasher at Florida State) literally indistinct. Or like Bruce Harreld (forgot about him, hadn’t you?) at the University of Iowa: a corporation-friendly governor installs a big-businessman as president, thus ensuring the circular logic necessary to (self-)justify that move.

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The university needs to be run like a business. Why? Because we needed a businessman to run it. How do we know he’s doing well? Because he says so. How do we know how well he ought to be compensated? Because we believe businessmen. Neat.

So what’s the point here?

This problem has been building for years, and faculty haven’t handled it well. We’ve allowed powerful people with bad (ranging from malicious to selfish) motives to mix misleading data with misunderstood university structures to produce a public impression of faculty as a bunch of overpaid [choose your own slur].

Responding well is complicated. Once something is as entrenched in public discourse as the overpaid-faculty meme, it’s hard to dislodge–just like any meme. In this case, it’s also hard because what it means to “win” the argument isn’t obvious.

But a couple of things I think are probably true about our approach.

1. I don’t think highlighting pay disparity helps–certainly not as the central argument. It’s especially problematic when people making comfortable middle-class salaries are the ones doing it.

2. This is not an argument (as if it were just one) to make in “the public sphere” (as if there were such a thing) with the expectation that “winning” it would change anything. A bunch of newspaper op-eds explaining what faculty “really do” isn’t the answer. It’s not harmful (done carefully), but there’s no reason to expect it to accomplish much.

3. The heart of the argument (I’m hardly the first person to say this) is that students and faculty come first because we’re the reason universities (colleges, community colleges, all of us) exist.

OK, this has gone on long enough. I’ll revive a question I’ve asked before as a way of hitting the brakes.

Who does it help:

To pay a university president $330,000?

To insult faculty work ethic?

To pretend damaging public institutions is about helping students?



The bigger picture about Vermont Law School’s tenure-stripping

July 16, 2018

If you follow academic labor news, you probably know that on July 1, 14 of 19 faculty at the Vermont Law School were stripped of tenure via the school’s claims of financial exigency.

It’s one thing (and not wrong) to react to this story by defending tenure, as I’ve seen many friends in social media do. I have tenure and am not in giant hurry to give it up, so yes, I think it’s worth defending.

That said, take a minute (really just one, or two if you really feel like working hard) to think what you’re mad about, and maybe what you should be mad about.

It’s vile that these faculty have been de-tenured. It’s vile not just because it harms them personally, but because it exposes them to what tens of thousands of non-tenure-track faculty face every day. It makes their employment unstable at best; it challenges their academic freedom; it makes them at-will employees of incompetent and capricious management.

Or put another way: why does the Vermont Law School want this? Because it makes the faculty easier to exploit, abuse, and erase. Just like our adjunct/NTT colleagues have been explaining to us for years.

If you haven’t heard it when they said it, maybe you’ll hear it when (formerly) tenured people say it. And if you’re angry about this now (and I hope you are), I also hope you’ll be angry on behalf of people who have never been tenured and never will, not just people who were lucky enough to have it in the first place.

Open Letter to Ball State University re: Papa John Schnatter

July 14, 2018

I’ve just mailed this to the President of Ball State University. I added the link to the actual newspaper story in the text of the letter.

President Mearns:

I’m a faculty member at West Chester University of PA, with friends among BSU faculty (current and former) and your university’s alumni network. I’m not claiming to represent my university or my state university system.

I read with some dismay a story dated July 12 in your local newspaper indicating that the university feels it’s “premature” to respond to the explicitly racist language of Papa John Schnatter reported widely in national news outlets over the last week.

Given Schnatter’s own admission that he said it and (weak but ostensibly sincere) attempt to take responsibility for his own actions, I can’t imagine for the life of me what else BSU expects to find out about what happened before issuing a strong reaction.

Especially frustrating is that I suspect the reality is mentioned in passing about halfway through the same news story: his major financial contribution, along with the Koch Foundation, to the academic unit that now bears his name. I can appreciate that it would look really bad for BSU to have to acknowledge publicly that the person you honored so proudly has turned out to be so… problematic. I can also appreciate that as a public institution in a state with little interest in supporting public anything, the risk of alienating such a generous donor is significant.

I hope you recognize in return that simply sitting on this and hoping people forget that you’re shielding a confessed racist isn’t a good look for the university either. More substantively, as the leader of a respected academic institution like Ball State, surely you understand that the people you lead (and their colleagues out here around the country, like me) expect you to be the face of what universities do: make and share knowledge avidly, and understand how to act on it ethically and effectively.

Acting like you don’t know who John Schnatter really is and how poorly he reflects on Ball State cuts against both of those responsibilities. Be courageous because of what you know to be true, and tell Schnatter to take his bigotry and his checkbook elsewhere.

At a time when academic institutions are under attack from every direction, this event provides a powerful opportunity to do the right thing and earn back the trust of at least constituency who matters a great deal: those of us who put fighting racism ahead of financial problems that are solvable in other ways than ignoring racism.

In hopes that Ball State will do the right thing, I’ll say thanks in advance.


Seth Kahn, PhD
Professor of English
West Chester University of PA


Good riddance to fair share?

June 28, 2018

[I’m writing this on my personal blog rather than on our union chapter blog; this is not intended to represent the position of APSCUF.]

Like most advocates of unions and unionism, I’m appalled at the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v AFSCME, issued June 27, 2018. It’s a naked attack on union power. By the logic [sic] of the wealthy, greedy people who propagated this nonsense through the court system, taking agency fees/fair share payments (click if you need a primer) out of the mix means that public employee unions have less money with which to protect workers, lobby for better funding for public institutions, and campaign for labor-friendly candidates. Those are all true–we will have less money to do those things–if nothing else changes about how our unions conceive of and activate our membership.

I’m hardly the only person making a version of the argument I’m about to make. In the wake of Janus, unions need to be a lot better about making sure our members don’t want to leave, and making sure potential members become actual members. Maybe my favorite of the bunch is Dave Kamper’s “How to Defeat the Post-Janus Union Attacks,” which published within minutes of the decision. I especially appreciate one of Kamper’s claims that felt really counter-intuitive at first, which I want to take even further than he did.

One of the implications of this decision is that it recreates the free-rider problem; that is, bargaining-unit workers who choose not to join and pay dues are still entitled to its services, including grievance and workplace protections. Those services are expensive in terms of time and money, and demanding in terms of intellectual and even emotional energy (just ask anyone who’s done grievance work). I served as chair of my union local’s grievance committee for years, and I get the urge to tell free-riders to bugger off.

Here’s the guts of Kamper’s response to that position:

[T]he “free-rider” rhetoric makes unions’ duty to represent all workers sound like something to be resented — a drag on the organization — rather than an ideal to aspire to. The more unions pursue this line of messaging, the more they’ll weaken the concept of “solidarity” — the idea that in the fight against the boss, workers rise or fall together — within the rank and file. In the long run, this will weaken members’ commitment to the union more than anything else.

Solidarity sometimes means we have to take care of people we might think–as individuals–don’t deserve our energy. Sometimes we have to give more than we get. Some relations of equality are more equal than others.

Kamper ends by making the point that the only way to beat back attacks on solidarity is to stand in solidarity:

The whole thrust of the Right’s political message for the past several decades has been to atomize workers — to get us to embrace only our own personal needs and to regard collective action as a surrender of power to those less special or talented. Unions are the living answer to that argument. So long as we are here and we are strong, we refute the lie that we’re better off on our own. That is the core of unionism, and only by embracing that core can we survive the coming opt-out attack.

With Kamper, I’m issuing a call to union leaders and members here. Our commitment to solidarity demands that sometimes we act in solidarity with people who aren’t committed to us. Why? One version of the response is his: we all rise or fall together. I agree. Another version (not that much different but worth saying anyway): solidarity literally cannot happen in an environment where we’re the ones denying it. And another: if we tell people who opt out that they’re never welcome, we lose any chance at getting them to opt in.

Look–I get it. It feels obvious that people who don’t do their part, who opt out of contributing to solidarity, ought to have to contribute something to the structures our solidarity provides for them. But I think that’s a reflex response, and as organizer/comrade Alyssa Picard of AFT put it yesterday:

[R]eflexes are no substitute for values, and we are in a time when it pays to slow down and discern them from one another.


The right has been horribly incivil for years, so why the f— do they deserve even a semblance of politeness now?

June 25, 2018

[For now I’m setting aside critiques of the civility trope articulated so well by scholars lots of smart people over the last 10-15 years.]

First things first–not all forms of public confrontation are created equal, even from opponents of Trump/Trumpism/right-wingnuttery. Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen, by all accounts handled the situation with Sarah Huckabee Sanders very politely. It’s well within her rights legally to deny service to somebody she believes is responsible for terrible things, and she did. That’s different from shouting Kirstjen Nielsen out of a Mexican restaurant, or protesting at her home. I’m not making an argument about the relative legitimacy of those examples, only the point that they function differently as forms of resistance.

Now to the real heart of what I want to talk about: any response right wing horribleness is long overdue. I just wrote in a Facebook post that for me, although this started earlier, 2008/9 is a decisive moment at which the GOP gave up any right even to beg for, much less demand, that people treat their leadership nicely. Do the people who propagated the uber-racism of birtherism really think that the rest of us should just write that off as a political tactic? Have the people who organized and trained the proto-Tea Party to shout down anyone who disagreed with them at Town Hall meetings about healthcare in 2009 forgotten how rude and disrespectful, how uncivil, their people were? [UPDATED: And five words–Sarah Palin for Vice President]

You gotta be kidding me. Of course they haven’t. They just don’t like it when people confront them.

I could trace this back as early as 2005, when I wrote about the second GWBush inauguration in an op-ed for Philly Inquirer. In that piece, I bemoaned how horrible people (including myself) were to each other that day, yelling profanities and accusations of treason at total strangers on street corners. I also got handwritten anonymous death threats mailed to home for saying it.

Or 2006, when a group of rightwingers started showing up our local peace group’s weekly vigils; for a few weeks until the police orchestrated an arrangement to keep us physically separated, the crowds mixed and there was a lot of ugliness–instigated entirely by the right wing folks (they, of course, will argue that we started all of it; I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole just now). They said vile homophobic things to one of our members; one of their leaders provoked a Vietnam vet, one of the Winter Soldiers, to push a camera out of his face and he was arrested for assault. Two of their members got right behind me one day, nudged me towards a curb, and said loud enough for me to hear, “I wonder what would happen if we pushed one of these fucking hippies out into traffic.” They called us traitors, vandalized our group’s founder’s home, picked a flame war with me in the early days of this blog–they weren’t very civil.

In about 2012 (I think), a group of Tea Partiers showed up a West Chester Area School Board meeting knowing that somebody was going to advocate for a school tax increase of about 10 cents a month. The Tea Partiers decided that the appropriate response was to bring rolls of dimes and throw them at the speaker. Civil!

This list could go on and on. The point is, in the not-too-distant past, the right wing decided that rules of functional deliberation don’t apply to them, and now screech indignantly when anyone responds at all, much less in kind. I think the rest of us made a terrible mistake by not understanding sooner that we needed to shut that down. We’re dealing now with the festering mess of letting them get away with it. The Trump administration is what happened when that festering mess trickled up into the top levels of our government.

So, to the people confronting Trump administration officials who are the public faces of explicitly racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic, and other hate-based policies, I say “Sorry the rest of us took too so long.” To say, collectively and loudly, “You don’t get to do that anymore” is the least we can do.


As I keep seeing this discussion all over my Facebook feed, what distresses me most of all is how badly we’re missing a simple point. By making the debate about the opponents of Trump and Trumpism, we’ve already conceded the single most important point there is–that every single thing those bigots are doing is an atrocity or atrocity-in-waiting. We’re doing their work for them by arguing about Stephanie Wilkinson or whoever and their individual decisions. We need to be praising and supporting every single person who stands up to them. If you need to take this opportunity to think about what you would do, that’s your call, but that’s about you.


Against “adjunctification” AND against casualization

April 17, 2018

A recent message from AAUP reminded me that I meant to make this point back in January and it got lost along the way somewhere.

The AAUP message is about current legislative efforts in several states to attack higher ed by making specious arguments about free speech. Along the way, they point out that such specious debates deflect attention from the real problems facing higher ed: defunding (yes!), student debt (yes!), and “the adjunctification of the faculty.”

For a couple of years I’ve had a nagging, vaguely negative reaction the word “adjunctification” even though I’ve almost certainly used it as a shorthand reference to the increasing precarity of the academic workforce. So this isn’t about contending there’s no problem. It wasn’t until the MLA panel I was on this past January that I figured out why it bothers me.

By naming the pathology adjunctification, we’re reinforcing adjunct faculty as the problem. But adjuncts aren’t the problem. The problem is the casualization of the profession, which has enabled if not caused the proliferation of exploitable, abusable positions. I’m skipping past any conversation about the causes/sources of such casualization because I don’t want to lose the thread here.

In short: we need to name the structural problem directly rather than inscribing our colleagues into it (as if they weren’t implicated in it enough already). So I think we need to move away from the word “adjunctification” as a description of our profession’s labor crisis.


“Why are all the jobs NTT?”

April 11, 2018

The title is lifted from the subject line of a post to the WPA-l yesterday, which has prompted a thread that’s simultaneously fascinating and repetitive….. This is the most direct answer I can muster to the original question.

The shift to NTT positions, even the best ones, is about maintaining staffing flexibility. It also has some other advantages in some cases–saving money, making faculty precarious such that participation in shared governance is less active than it should be, but in every case: flexibility.

Management wouldn’t prefer those positions if the positions didn’t benefit management in some way.

Last semester, I learned the phrase “tenure saturation” to describe a problem in another department on my campus. That department had converted several long-term NTT faculty into tenure-eligible faculty via a provision of our union contract. Then enrollment dropped, and the department doesn’t have enough sections to fill out the workload of all the faculty who they contractually owe full-time work to.

[Except that they do; they’ve had to run some very small courses and several they’d otherwise like to have canceled for under-enrollment, but that didn’t stop gravity from working…. ]

Multi-year term positions, if the workload is guaranteed through the length of the contract, put units on the hook for having to provide work in short and medium terms, but it still offers management more flexibility over the long term. Based on union contracts I’ve seen (and I suspect this is true for non-union NTT faculty too, maybe even more so), “automatic” rollovers at the ends of employment periods are automatic only as long as there’s need for the position to continue. That is, it’s still easier to disappear a longterm NTT faculty member than a tenured faculty member, even if management can’t do it during a contract term without cause.

In best cases** where those rollovers are guaranteed, and the positions provide the faculty with fair compensation, job security, due process protections, etc, then whether we call that tenure or not is beside the point. Echoing Michael McCamley’s call to check assumptions about NTT faculty (which I take to heart), I’d ask us to do the same about what we think tenure is and does. In the world of the PA State System, what tenure does is very simple–

1. It slows our evaluation cycle from every year to every five years on the grounds that we’ve demonstrated our ability to perform the job.

2. It slows down (but does NOT stop) the process by which somebody could lose a tenured position if they don’t fully meet professional expectations; in that slow-down, it also requires management to apportion discipline progressively instead of leaping to the worst possible punishment and it enables improvement programs that have enough time to work before anyone decides whether they were successful.

The difference, then, between me as a tenured full-professor and a theoretical 5-year-term NTT colleague is in what happens at the ends of those terms if there are performance or enrollment problems. Tenure does two things for me. It means that I get a lot more latitude to fix performance problems, and it means that if management has to eliminate my position (what we call retrenchment), I get protections that NTT faculty don’t, including a protocol that invokes several ways to find continued employment on our campus or in our system before I actually lose the job.

Tenure does not provide me due process or academic freedom protections that NTT faculty don’t have; our NTT faculty have those too, at least in theory. But it does provide padding against really-bad-if-not-quite-worst-case scenarios that could cost NTT faculty their positions without much notice.

I’ve said this before, but…  I’m going to push against contingency as long as its deployment is putting people’s livelihoods at risk to solve accounting problems.

**More common are situations where faculty can simply be non-renewed at the ends of their terms without any cause or even explanation. So the job is better for them while it exists, but there’s no protection against at-will ejection.