Monday, March 26, 2012

How About Them Teachers? Ripping Us All Off, From Primary School To Universities!

An opinion column in the Washington Post argues that professors don't work enough:

Through the first half of the 20th century, faculties in academic institutions were generally underpaid relative to other comparably educated members of the workforce. Teaching was viewed as a “calling” in the tradition of tweed jackets, pipe tobacco and avuncular campus life. Trade-offs for modest salaries were found in the relaxed atmospheres of academic communities, often retreats from the pressures of the real world, and reflected in such benefits as tenure, light teaching loads, long vacations and sabbaticals.
With the 1970s advent of collective bargaining in higher education, this began to change. The result has been more equitable circumstances for college faculty, who deserve salaries comparable to those of other educated professionals. Happily, senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000, roughly in line with the average incomes of others with advanced degrees.
Not changed, however, are the accommodations designed to compensate for low pay in earlier times. Though faculty salaries now mirror those of most upper-middle-class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks, they continue to pay for teaching time of nine to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks, making possible a month-long winter break, a week off in the spring and a summer vacation from mid-May until September.
Such a schedule may be appropriate in research universities where standards for faculty employment are exceptionally high — and are based on the premise that critically important work, along with research-driven teaching, can best be performed outside the classroom. The faculties of research universities are at the center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules. In fact, they often work hours well beyond those of average non-academic professionals.
What's the writers' real point? This:
I take no issue with faculty at teaching-oriented institutions focusing on instructional skills rather than research and receiving a fair, upper-middle-class wage. Like good teachers everywhere, they are dedicated professionals with high levels of education and deserve salaries commensurate with their hard-earned credentials. But we all should object when they receive these salaries for working less than half the time of their non-academic peers.
The cost for such sinecures is particularly galling when it is passed on to the rest of the middle class and to taxpayers in states that are struggling to support higher education. Since faculty salaries make up the largest single cost in virtually all college and university budgets (39 percent at Montgomery College), think what it would mean if the public got full value for these dollars.
This is part of the war against any public sector worker and any teachers. The newest trend in the conservative "don't look at the man behind the curtain" tactics. As income inequality increases and one percent of the top one percent gets almost all of the recent gains ordinary people are asked to turn their inchoate feelings of unfairness and their bitterness against someone else.

In this case that "someone else" is the second rung of the academia, the rung on which, by the way, the vast majority of female faculty members may be found. It is those people who work too few hours and have too long vacations. Well, according to this opinion writer (who runs a competing type of educational institution).

So does such faculty work too little for too much money? That is, after all, the argument in this opinion column. Professors should be made to teach much more and have less time off, without any change in their overall pay. Oh, with the exception of the superstars, naturally!

Let's have a thought experiment on all this! Let's consider someone who has the talents and desire to become either a professor in, say, chemistry or biology or to go to medical school. The training in either field takes about the same number of extra years and will leave the person with roughly the same debt.

But the two jobs now offer different packages of hours of work and other conditions. The medical option offers potentially very high pay with high hours of work, the professorial option offers much, much lower pay but with more freedom as to when to work and perhaps how many hours to work altogether.

Now remove the freedom of hours from the professorial option, leave everything else the same and what do you get! Presto! Many fewer entrants into university teaching.

My point is a simple one: Those who believe in the power of markets never seem to believe in that power in the labor markets. If a job is made much less desirable as a package, fewer people will choose to train for that job.

One aspect of teaching receiving much criticism from mostly the conservatives has to do with vacation time. If most Americans, for some weird reason, are not allowed to have time off, how come do teachers get it? This is unfair.

But note the whole package (hours and pay): Even a cursory look at the academic degrees which teaching requires suggests that they are fairly poorly paid, in comparison to the alternatives. Indeed, the pay in those fields matches pay in fields which do not require as much education.

And those vacation times are partly what makes people accept lower pay packages. This is especially true for women who are the main caregivers for their children. Teaching is one of the few fields which allows the kind of work/life balance which only women are supposed to worry about. If that aspect of the jobs is removed what do you think will happen? The pay really is pretty crummy.

That brings me to the real problem in the opinion column: If we wish to determine whether professors are overpaid for their work load, we need to compare like with like and we need to define work properly. Class time is not a good measure for actual work hours unless we decide that actors only work when on stage, performing in front of a live audience.

And it's not correct to compare professors with people who don't have to have doctorate degrees to enter the field. That degree takes time and money and the pay must be enough to compensate for it.

This post is not really about whether people get the right amount of pay for the right amount of compensation, though I do think that people working 80 hours a week are mostly being just placeholders at the end of such weeks and that we should stop thinking that such hours are admirable and not a sign of some pathology or exploitation.

Nope. It's to point out that people react to incentives. If you change the incentives by demanding many more hours of very high-level teaching, you are going to get lower-quality teaching and you are going to get fewer entrants to teaching in general. Academics is not the only game in town for even those with newly minted doctoral degrees, and it has many rivals when we look at the question whether a person enters graduate studies or not.

What happens in the next round if this opinion writer has his way about increasing the teaching loads without any increase in pay?

After some years, colleges and universities cannot find sufficient numbers of qualified applicants for teaching jobs. Either they must raise the salary offer or....? Reduce the teaching load.

Now it could be that the labor markets for academic jobs are malfunctioning or the feudal system might advance to a point where this response would not be forthcoming. But I doubt that. I think people enter the academic occupations fully aware of the fact that the pay is not what they could earn elsewhere. It is the other aspects of the package that attract them. If you change those aspects you change the desirability of the jobs.

Which means that the tax payers might not get away with squeezing more and more teaching from a captive labor force without paying more for it.
Recommended extra reading: Robert Farley's take.