• September 18, 2014

Eating an Elite Education at McDonald's

Careers Illustration - (Cropped) Fast Food Education

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

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close Careers Illustration - (Cropped) Fast Food Education

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

I'm at a McDonald's, having just received two Big Macs and a large fries. The cardboard boxes plug "Another Golden Opportunity" for me to play McDonald's Monopoly. Each item also has a sticky tab on the front: "1 in 4 Wins." Better yet, the large fries comes with a second tab, emphasizing "Play Again."

For better or worse, I have always been prone to observations, numbers, nonlinear thought, and random escapades. It's been that way since before I remember, so this commentary comes with an apology to leafy, erudite, and politically minded colleagues for my indulgence into blatantly commercial Americana.

My three children and I are sitting down with our burgers for our weekly splurge on a family dinner out. I also have two crumpled letters from the university in my pocket—one praising its ability to maintain faculty salaries, the other asking me to donate to the institution.

I pull the first sticky tab on my burger and obtain "Pennsylvania Avenue." Intrigued, I lift the next three but get"North Carolina Avenue," "Illinois Avenue," and "Baltic Avenue."

And this is where my personality begins to show. I start to wonder, What are the real odds of winning? The odds are clearly stated in fine print, but are they true? I look around. The restaurant is empty of customers except for my three children and me. Leftovers from other customers lie scattered about. Some trays even have remains with unpulled sticky tabs. There are also the garbage bins, wiped clean on the outside. It seems an acceptable repository to go in search of more tabs, as long as our mining doesn't go too deep.

We collect 36. All but three come with messages urging us to "stay in the game." We eventually have a whole neighborhood of avenues, as well as a "Place," if I am reading through smeared ketchup correctly. Alas, and unsurprisingly, we are not winners.

Short of directly contacting McDonald's headquarters—and probably not even then—I have no way of learning the actual odds. It's all a game, one with bold statements, flashy packaging, and a series of quips, some coming with predictable and extraneous exclamation points. And that is how I ended up in McDonald's in the first place, with my crumpled letters full of similarly bold pronouncements.

I'm a professor of earth sciences at an elite private research university—one in the top 15, if you believe the oft-touted rankings pumped into my e-mail from the administration every month.

Now, I am the first to admit that I could save money by cutting costs in my family budget. We didn't need that vacation at a lake last summer, I don't really need to build a hummingbird garden, and my daughter definitely doesn't need advanced dancing classes. We also could scrap our weekly adventures through an array of fine fast-food dining establishments, although an evening at Taco Bell gets close to breaking even, if you swap water for sodas and convince your kids that they really like bean burritos. I also fully appreciate that most people, in the United States and definitely in places abroad, are worse off than we are. I should be grateful, and I am.

As I bite into my first Big Mac, all of that resonates along with some intriguing and basic facts. I can readily obtain the average salaries for academics at public universities across America. I can categorize the salaries by field and university profile. I can understand the metrics for pay in many cases. I can imagine why different academics receive different salaries. I also can read my university's extraordinary goals, lofty visions, and glossy brochures, filled with crisply manufactured blurbs espousing greatness, several with exclamation points. I can pull all the sticky tabs within this framework. I can even dig deep into the garbage for more data.

However, no matter how one minces the patties, my salary is significantly below average compared with those of commensurate positions across public research universities, including in my state. Other than a few good colleagues, who have assured me that they make slightly less or slightly more than me, I have no direct information on how my salary compares with other faculty members' pay at my university or other private universities. What several of us know, however, is that we, at least in earth science, make about 10 to 12 percent less than what's reported for similar positions in our field at public universities.

So, as I begin my second Big Mac, I ask myself: Are we having family night at McDonald's instead of sushi at Miyako's because I haven't published enough highly cited papers, I haven't pulled in sufficient external grants, I haven't taught effectively, I haven't dressed appropriately? Or some combination of those and myriad other reasons? Maybe I am just way below an average full professor. I can accept any of those possibilities, if outlined and explained.

Eventually, though, a basic problem arises: Being at an elite private university, I have no idea why I am paid what I am paid, and whether it is reasonable. I can arrive at a Fermi solution as to what I should receive, but the assumptions involve average salaries at public institutions, generic criteria for merit, and as best as I can figure, some pickles, onions, and sesame-seed buns.

In the end, I have no means to deduce the answer without directly contacting headquarters, upon which I receive, from the president, an emphatic message: "I can say unequivocally that it is not true that as a general matter that we pay faculty much less than other institutions," followed by "of course individual compensation decisions are made by departments and schools." And, from the chair and dean, vanilla-laced responses basically thanking me for expressing my concerns and saying they will look into this issue further.

I have, however, been told multiple times, and at all levels, that if I receive a firm and better offer from somewhere else, then I should bring it to everyone's attention. Wonderfully encouraging advice when you have three kids in school and you actually want to put roots into the ground and make a difference at your university.

I then pull out the crumpled letters and reread. The first, my annual letter of evaluation: "Our success is only made possible by the hard work, high ambitions, and accomplishments of our faculty. While many universities and businesses have been driven to layoffs, furloughs, and pay reductions, we are pleased that our university has been able to maintain salaries." The second letter, from a university committee: "It is time to reflect with pride on all that we have accomplished so far, and look ahead to all that we still hope to achieve. It is a time to pause and focus on this celebration and want to reach out to you once again to ask for your support with a pledge."

I wish, on some level, that I was discriminated against at my university. Forget about lawsuits against McDonald's for coffee that is too hot—there's money ripe for the taking at private universities with enormous endowments and no metrics for how people get paid. No matter how I twist things to search for an adequate explanation, though, I find that the problem is not me, but just a flat-out fail in Management 101. It's a failure that occurs in an academic environment where all becomes business and all revolves around money and image.

Putting down the letters, I glance at the empty Big Mac boxes. I realize that I just ate two, plus a large fries. One side of the box, in small print, kindly lists all the calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates, and sodium I have consumed from a corporation. On the other side, however, lies the iconic Monopoly guy, in a top hat, smiling "Greetings from Anywhere." It would be fantastic to be at a place, avenue, or even boardwalk on the Monopoly board that really wants to chase nutrition and substance.

So, would anyone in the administration at my elite university even comprehend the meaning of two empty Big Mac boxes arriving in the mail as a pledge, each box covered in hyperactive slogans and coated with special-sauce residue? I could even sign my pledge in ketchup. After all, a top goal at my institution is "to make a distinctive impact."

Jerry Dickens is a professor of earth sciences at Rice University.

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