Turning on the Faculty

Professors at public universities worry that a combination of economic anxiety, anti-union sentiment and frustration over rising college costs will make them and their institutions targets for populist anger.
January 21, 2011

When the world teetered on the brink of economic collapse, blame centered on rapacious mortgage lenders, Wall Street executives and designers of exotic financial instruments, as well as feckless borrowers who took on more debt than they could repay. Now, as joblessness persists and as states struggle to balance their budgets by cutting services, public employees -- including many faculty members -- are becoming objects of contempt.

"The amount of populist resentment against public employees has magnified unbelievably in the last few years," said Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors. While resentment has focused more on public employees as a general group than on faculty specifically, the situation has become sufficiently alarming that members of the AAUP, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, California Faculty Association, City University of New York's Professional Staff Congress, and faculty unions from 19 other states are planning to gather this weekend in what is being called the first joint meeting of these unions. The goal is to test the waters to see how they might work together to combat the prevailing national dialogue; they also will review a draft of the CFA's discussion document, "Quality Higher Education for the 21st Century," which articulates a set of principles on how to safeguard academic quality in an era of restructuring.

Much of the prevailing national dialogue in recent months has cast public employees as overpaid elites. Republican governors from Chris Christie of New Jersey to Mitch Daniels of Indiana have fixed blame for their states' budget woes on purportedly handsomely paid public employees and their unions. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota (whose term just ended) described unionized public employees as overpaid "exploiters" who engineered a "silent coup" that has allowed them to feast on state-supported salary and benefits packages, all while enjoying job security far surpassing what exists in the private sector.

Public perception does not always walk in lockstep with reality. But observers argue that the current state of dialogue about public employees has become especially distorted. Public employees are not likely to live the cosseted Life of Riley that critics suggest. In fact, public sector employees are likely to be underpaid, argued Jeffrey Keefe, associate professor at Rutgers University's School of Management and Labor Relations, in his paper, "Debunking the Myth of the Overcompensated Public Employee." The pay disparity is particularly large among those who hold a Ph.D. When controlling for levels of education, years of experience, size of organization and other factors, public sector employees with doctorates earn over $31,000 less in total annual wages and benefits as compared to their private sector counterparts (the gap for those with professional degrees was even larger).

While the popular discourse about higher education faculty has yet to reach the level of opprobrium aimed at public employees more generally, many academics -- who are accustomed to being cast as the most elite of the elite -- see ample reason for worry. "It is clear that professors and universities are now part of the political rhetoric, volleyed back and forth between the ideological [agendas] of the extreme conservative and extreme liberal factions in society," Michael Caldwell, chair of the music department and academic senate at California State University at Fresno, said in an e-mail. "We have moved on from the banking industry, mortgage industry [and] legislators," he continued. "I guess now it is our turn to be blamed for all of the problems in society."

Such blame has a well-established narrative. Critics have long branded faculty members as overpaid, underworked and too liberal, said Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project and of the National Association of System Heads. But such generalizations are unfair; in most public institutions, faculty workloads are high, the teaching challenges are enormous, and salaries are in keeping with the qualifications required, she said. In addition, salaries for faculty of all ranks at public institutions now lag far behind those of their private college counterparts -- by an average of $26,000, according to recent data collected by the AAUP. The gap is particularly large for full professors at doctoral-granting public universities; their annual salaries trail those of their private college peers by more than $36,000. And yet, these critiques that have lingered in the background now seem ascendant. "There’s always been a strong anti-tax, anti-government group in the U.S.," said Wellman, "and it’s getting louder with the Tea Party activists."

Anti-union sentiment also tends to run high during times of economic strife and joblessness, as the Center for American Progress suggests. Others see such blame-casting as a cynical diversion. Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, argued that resentment has been manipulated as part of a "big lie" to scapegoat workers instead of trying to find solutions. "States have serious economic woes and, rather than be transparent and honest with their constituents," she said. "They’re taking the politically expedient route by blaming it on public employees and their unions."

The tensions are perhaps most acute in California, where Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown recently proposed a budget that would cut $1.4 billion for higher education. Sympathy for those who work in higher education seems to be in short supply: The Sacramento Bee labeled professors who protested furloughs as "spectacularly dumb," and later blamed "administrative bloat" for the escalating cost of college. More recently, a group of 36 University of California employees, including highly compensated administrators and deans of some of its most prestigious graduate schools, were ripped for appearing to be tone deaf to wider economic troubles when they drafted a letter pressing the state to honor its promise to pay higher pension benefits to them. Though the group included administrators rather than rank-and-file faculty, many fear that such distinctions matter little to outside observers and that the outrage gives cover to legislators to cut funding for colleges more broadly.

"Across the country, public education is under siege," Lisa Vollendorf, chair of the Romance, German and Russian languages and literatures department and of the academic senate at California State University at Long Beach, said in an e-mail, summing up the sense of acute concern felt by many faculty members in her state and elsewhere. "At a time when the global economy depends on brains and not brawn, public support for education is at an all-time low."

But, here again, perception does not fully comport with reality -- at least in a way that has been widely documented. Recent public opinion polls show solid support for higher education, albeit with some caveats. More than half of the respondents to a poll conducted for Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education that was released last year said they see higher education as essential to achieving success. But there are also signs of discontent: six in 10 respondents think colleges and universities are more focused on bottom-line concerns than on the educational experience of students. The same number believes colleges can simultaneously admit far more students, hold down costs, and still produce solid results. This apparent dissonance is also expressed in voting patterns. While voters often voice their support for higher education and contribute to their alma maters, they also elect governors and legislators who place a high priority on minimizing spending for higher education.

Faculty members at public institutions -- who describe feeling beleaguered and overworked already -- worry that much of the pressure to teach more students with fewer resources will fall on them. In sum, they fear they will be asked to take on more work and responsibility, get paid less in return for their labor, and bear the brunt of the blame if it doesn't work out. To complain about the direction of higher education or to ask for better wages in the current climate is to risk public vitriol. "Public employees are becoming the welfare queens of the 2010s," said Carla Hesse, a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, at a session titled, fittingly, "The Crisis in Public Higher Education" at the American Historical Association's annual meeting.

But Neil Gross, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia who has analyzed public opinion research about the academy that was conducted for the AAUP, said fears that such negative opinions will cement themselves to higher education are "more than a little overblown." His 2006 analysis found that an overwhelming majority of Americans (90 percent) were confident in their institutions of higher education. And he has seen little to suggest a large-scale change in attitude. If anything, surging college enrollments support the notion that esteem for higher education continues. “The best evidence we have for that is what people are doing with their feet,” he said. In addition, the fact that people make the choice to attend college and come into contact with faculty, as opposed to, say, employees of the Department of Motor Vehicles, also insulates faculty from the kind of rhetoric aimed at public employees more generally, Gross said.

If disenchantment with higher education becomes widespread, public opinion research suggests that it will derive from something more specific: the increasing cost of college. Public anxiety about such services as education or health care tends to increase when these services are seen as being either of poor quality or insufficiently available, said John Immerwahr, a philosophy professor at Villanova University who co-authored the research by Public Agenda. Americans still seem to believe that the nation's institutions of higher education are of high quality (it is probably too soon to tell whether a new book, which found that more than a third of college students failed to demonstrate significant improvements in learning in four years, will change that positive opinion). But members of the public are growing increasingly worried about how the escalating cost is making college unavailable. "The conditions are there so that people are feeling, gosh, it is slipping out of grasp for middle-class people," said Immerwahr. "Generally speaking, when that happens people look for someone to blame."

Even so, generalized discontent alone will not be enough to spark a popular groundswell against higher education, said Immerwahr, citing the observations of Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist who founded Public Agenda. A symbolic moment or person typically must emerge around which such discontent can crystallize. "The conditions are there, but the catalytic event or charismatic leader ... has not happened or is not in place," said Immerwahr.

At the root of concerns about cost is the question of what has been driving up the price of college. It seems difficult to argue that the money has gone to faculty members when about 70 percent of their ranks are composed of adjunct or contingent members, according to Weingarten of the AFT. "No college is going broke over faculty salaries," she said.

"We can’t lay the blame for rising college tuitions on increased spending for faculty," said Wellman, whose Delta Project analyzed a decade's worth of data from more than 2,000 institutions. Delta found that public institutions have shifted money away from academics and into administration and student services. The cost of health care is particularly damaging, said Wellman, who cited this cost as the biggest reason state funding for colleges is declining. "The states are having to pay more for health care, and it’s eating up a bigger proportion of the institutional spending," she said. "At the same time, subsidies from state and local governments have stagnated or decreased." Money from tuition has helped cover the balance. Many faculty members and observers note the bitter irony of legislative calls for accountability and cost control in higher education growing loudest at the same time that public financial support has become stingy.

Another danger is the changing perception of colleges as institutions, said Immerwahr. Even as the public and policy makers have demanded that colleges be run as budget-minded businesses, these institutions will be criticized when they do so, the research suggests. When Immerwahr started analyzing public opinion in 1993, colleges were viewed as benign nonprofits. Since then, potential students and their families have been inundated with slick ads for higher education institutions. "It’s a big business," he said. "They no longer see it as altruistic." Instead, he continued, members of the public say, "We increasingly see you as one more person competing for our money."


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