Department Of Economics III: The Latest On Salaries And Benefits

October 28, 2010, 7:18 pm

We at Tenured Radical are starting to collate some interesting information from this week’s posts on faculty salaries.  Crunch the data yourself, but a few facts are revealing themselves:

The phrase “academic job market” does not describe an actual market.  Rather, it describes a frozen employment sector where a fair number of people who are fully employed are hanging on for dear life.  Only one commenter, Squadratomagico (who in addition to being a college professor also performs in a small circus, which I have always thought was interesting), is unperturbed by this situation.  You can read about her reasons, many of which I respect, particularly since she really doesn’t seem to care about money. The only point in this post that I disagree with completely is that paying faculty a low wage is alright because “Higher education is a not-for-profit enterprise.”  Such logic suggests that no wage is too low (the U.S. Army, for example, pays infantrymen less than $1500 a month; I’m not sure what nuns and priests earn.)  Does non-profit status give private institutions and legislatures the right to drive our salaries down, and require more work from us as they do?  Because honestly, no one said that in my job interview, and no Zenith administrator has used that as a reason for squeezin’ us the last couple years.  The other reason I would disagree with the non-profit rationale is that, while this is not the case for colleges the size of Zenith, large universities are increasingly for profit enterprises that copyright the work of their scientists, profit from media contracts for the big business of sports, sell vast amounts of booster gear, and employ lobbyists. Furthermore, explicitly for profit institutions pay their faculty even less than the annual salaries many of my readers reported.

Vast numbers of us are very, very, ill-paid.  The magic number that pops us most frequently is $57K, which I think is interesting:  it is as if some Karl Rove employed in higher ed figured out that $57K is the absolute minimum wage at which you can flat line salaries and still expect your faculty to come to work at all.

Being in a union doesn’t always help.  As several commenters have pointed out, it doesn’t hurt either, but many of the campuses from which we are getting reports of flat salaries and escalating benefits costs are union campuses.

Consciously or unconsciously, a great many people idealize teaching in ways that do not correspond to the actual pleasures and discomforts of our labor, causing them at times to confuse college teachers with missionaries.  I was variously told that I should feel “lucky;” be “grateful” for my job; and that it is “such a privilege” to teach the young I should not ever imply that injustice touches my life or that there is any wage too low to sell my labor for.  Ever.  Good fortune is mine, and when I am not openly articulating my guilt for the privilege that is mine, I should just shut up. Well, that’s not going to happen, but it’s peculiar that teachers draw this “oh how sharper than a serpent’s tooth” attitude (from other teachers, no less) when they try to adjust their working conditions and salary.  Anyone who has an analysis of this phenomenon is invited to contribute it in the comments section.

And finally:  As if it had been sent from the Goddess, yesterday featured a dramatic turn of events in the economics department.  Many of us at Zenith were stunned when our administrative staff received an e-mail from Human Resources telling them that the cost of their health insurance is going up dramatically:  our Admin expects to pay twice what she paid last fiscal year.  As their Union Steward wrote, less than a week before the election,  “I was informed today by (Big HR Dude) about the Health Insurance Premiums for 2011. As you know, in our contract, our insurance is scheduled to go up 18.5% to be at a level playing field with Administration which pays 33% of the premium. BHRD informed me that the increase for the Health Insurance Premium (that goes up every year around 3-5%) will be going up 14% mostly due to the Obama Health Care Reform Act. Therefore, we will not just have an increase of 18.5% but an additional 14% increase which will be rounded off to a total of 33% increase starting January 1, 2011.”

As we know, the actual name of the bill is the Affordable Care Act, and the “Obama Health Care Reform Act” is a phrase disseminated by right-wingers who spread untruths about the bill to try to make vulnerable people afraid of liberal reform agendas.  Having been called on this by a storm of angry emails by staff and faculty, a message arrived today saying that this was a mistake made by the Union Steward (who, as of this morning, was not responding to emails.)  Big HR Dude is shocked, shocked! by this misunderstanding, and writes, “The Healthcare Reform Act”  (still not the right name!) “is a factor in the cost, but a very small one. Our open enrollment information references some minor adjustments to our plan to conform to the legislation’s requirements. The increase in this year’s rates is overwhelmingly due to a very high experience rating in our university-wide claims….And of course the last thing I ever intended was a political statement of any kind.”  No data as to these excessive claims has been provided.

Perhaps it is so that this is all one big miscommunication, despite the Tea Party-ish stink.  And yet the lack of awareness of the timing, the language used, and the failure of HR to communicate directly with employees is worrisome, to say the least. And imagine how distressing to it must be to HR that those of us who pay for health insurance actually use it to pay for our health care.  No wonder they are frazzled.

On a lighter note, here’s a cheerful cartoon sent to me by a grad student who has the heart, intelligence and wit of one twice her age:  it is a student requesting a recommendation for graduate school in English.  Enjoy.

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