Filthy Lucre

Terry Caesar reflects on academics' ambivalence and ignorance about money.
June 1, 2005

I know a man who teaches at a branch campus of one of the largest state universities in the country. He hates it. One reason: his colleagues. Not only do many of them lack his professional seriousness or scholarly aspirations. Some have other jobs on the side, in real estate or auto dealerships. He tells of a few people who have worked out deals with the English department to steer students their way who write about difficulties with housing or cars.
Academe, one of thy names is money. Not officially of course. For public consumption, we faculty members -- tenured or adjunct -- accept our salaries in the name of our responsibilities to our students or our dedication to our discipline. Of course we all deserve more money, although not as much as football coaches, who deserve less, and don't get us started on overpaid administrators. But we did not become teachers to make money. We became teachers to profess ideals.

Result? We are baffled with the vulgar particulars of what we do make, ranging from the starting salary we command or the pay raise we receive upon promotion to -- well, to what, exactly? In fact, aside from the special case of merit pay, the only money virtually all of us make is represented by our respective salaries. This is why we are so reluctant to disclose them. This is also why anybody who actually tries to make additional money, much as my above friend's colleagues, makes us so uneasy, to say the least.

Adjuncts can be excused. Everybody knows they are woefully underpaid. So if they do something other than teaching -- I've taught with a man who runs a T-shirt business, another who was a salesperson at a mattress company -- more power to them. 
However, back on the tenure track, even if our contracts do not in theory forbid us from working at something other than teaching, we are effectively enjoined from additional work. That is, unless we are in science or engineering, grant-driven and consultancy-rich fields both, where, if anything,  the opposite might be true.

These significant exceptions, I believe, prove the rule: the closer to business, the more accepting of money. My own experience has been far removed, at an opposite pole, in the humanities, where money is understood to be necessarily distant from the community of learning, the mission statement, the spirit of diversity or any number of other pieties designed (in part) to keep us on track. Not to mention the venerable triad of teaching, scholarship, and service.

Whatever "service" means, come tenure review, it does not mean affordable housing having been brokered by the individual under consideration for selected members of her or his community, or used automobiles having been sold to them at equitable prices. Nor does "research" always translate into consultancies held or grants recieved, much less invited lectures given, or book contracts signed.

But of course the first set of activities is precluded from consideration -- in any field -- because they are too obviously motivated by money. The trick for an academic is to make money without appearing to be doing so, in some way apart from teaching. Granted (if the pun be forgiven), this is easier to accomplish in some fields than in others. But the necessity for it to remain a trick remains, I think, essentially the same.
Let pro athletes yowl about being "disrespected" while demanding more millions or politicians whine about being "smeared" concerning their financial dealings while denouncing their opponent's "tactics." We academics go about our monetary business  differently, beginning with the fact that we disdain the business. If we write an op-ed column, it is because we either are or aspire to write as public intellectuals, not because we crave a quick $500, which buys a lot more groceries that the two free magazine copies or 25 offprints we received for the publication of our last scholarly paper.

Just so, if we publish a book, it is because we are scholars, not because we hope for a big royalty check. The most I have ever received for one of my books was $137, at the end of its first year of publication. It seemed like a fortune! My totals for the three preceding books were: 0, 0, and $12. So it goes with most of us, who, er, count ourselves lucky to publish a book at all. Stephen Greenblatt was rumored to have received a six-figure contract from W.W. Norton for what became his prize-winning book on Shakespeare, Will in the World.

In terms of the academic publishing business as usual, though, one may as well be reading about J.K. Rowling's latest Harry Potter. As usual, consideration of the academic Big Leagues suggests the existence of a whole new ball game. Awhile ago I chanced to learn that the standard lecture fee of one of the Biggest Names in the country was $5,000 -- up front, period, no more, no less. The cost has the immense virtue of being neat and clean; nothing more required of his hosts, thank you, ranging from airport pick-up to hotel reservation or dinner.

How not to swoon that such an assessment represents, in its way, the conduct of a real pro? And yet how to compare such a fee to the salaries of his audience?

Moreover, how not to wonder, well, whether there was more than one previous lecture that this Eminence had given just for the money? And finally, how not to imagine the opportunity without envy? Just as the man had earned his eminence, after all, he had earned its price. If the very nature of a "public intellectual" continues to be disputed, is it not at least partially because the role takes place too intimate with the marketplace, where ideas are customarily converted into cash? Once again, we academics are uncomfortable with money, which becomes, in turn, one measure by which we are uncomfortable with ourselves.
Furthermore, this discomfort (other words could be used) is all of a piece with our constitutive unwillingness merely to utter the very word "money," except perhaps when either a new football coach or a college
president is hired.  Instead, we try to employ a vocabulary scrubbed clean of filthy lucre. A friend tells me, for example, of meetings with a dean to whom as a chair he would regularly conclude something like, "so the problem is money," only to have the dean usually reply, "Yes, Jim is right, we do have a resources issue."

A happier attitude toward money would begin with a better vocabulary, which would grant the element of competition fundamental to any enterprise. Our academic version is not exempt. Competition of course
does not necessarily have to be subject to monetary valuation. (But try writing a grant without it.) Such valuation does not necessarily have to be withheld either, and we all, academics included, live in a culture in which such a withholding is not only almost impossible to perform but even more impossible to perform in good faith.
Instead, what we find throughout academic life concerning just about anything to do with money is bad faith. I find this impossible not to be the case even in science and engineering. Bad faith hurts adjuncts in any field most of all. Adjuncts receive a fee, not a salary. They are obliged to writhe in the coils of such dressed-up ideals as "respect" or "security" when what they want most is simply a living wage, expressed in dollars and cents.

Alas, their labor takes place within a system that insists such an expression is vulgar, embarrassing, and alien to academic traditions. Meanwhile, everybody else looks high and low for money, whether in the form of grants and fellowships to pay off research or merely a summer section of one of the department's basic courses in order to pay for the new roof on the house. There need be no scandal in any of this. Or rather, the scandal, it seems to me, is to purport that any consideration of money is on a par with that of the student who protests, "I'm paying for this course," and then solidifies the claim with, "I'm paying for your salary."
The course is not reducible to a commodity. (Nor are we.) However, it can be transformed into one. The conversion cannot be denied out of hand (or out of pocket). Money is a consistent, ineradicable presence
in our values as well as our lives. Until we academics learn to talk about money at once more candidly and more searchingly, we have not earned the right to chortle at those of our colleagues who, like those of my friend back at the branch campus, have other business ventures on the side. Even in their crudity or dishonesty, these ventures illuminate ours. Especially working alongside adjuncts so radically exploited, even the most favored among us can no longer afford to act as if our ideals or our ideas pay for themselves.


Terry Caesar's last column was about the relationship between professors and their former students.


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