Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Do Faculty Have A 'Sweet Racket? Or Do They Work 60 Hours/Week For Less Pay Than They Could Get Elsewhere?

Wall Street Journal op-ed:  Who’ll Take a Pay Cut for Free College?, by Joseph Epstein (Northwestern):

Democratic candidates for president, in their impressive expansiveness, are promising free college. ... If government is going to pay for college, at least it ought to try to bring down the cost. I taught at a university for 30 years and have a few suggestions. Start at the top: I would reduce the salaries of university presidents by, say, 90%. ...

Which brings us to the faculty.  Faculty jobs in American universities have risen well in excess of any visible improvement in the quality of university teachers: $200,000-a-year-or-more professorships are now not uncommon. When I began teaching in my mid-30s, an older friend, long resident at the same university, said to me, “Welcome to the racket.” What he meant is that I would be getting a full-time salary for what was essentially a six-month job, and without ever having to put in an eight-hour day. At the tonier universities, professors in the humanities and social sciences might teach as few as three or four courses a year, the remainder of their time supposedly devoted to research. Like the man said, a sweet racket.

Under free higher education, perhaps it would make sense to pay university teachers by the hour, with raises in the wage awarded by seniority. Surely they could not complain. After all, the two most common comments (some would say the two biggest lies) about university teaching are, “I learn so much from my students” and “It’s so inspiring, I’d do it for nothing.” A strict hourly wage for teachers, as free university education may require, would nicely test the validity of that second proposition.

Inside Higher Ed, ‘A Sweet Racket’? Yeah, Right:

Hearing politicians mischaracterize and discredit faculty work is par for the course in academe. It’s much more surprising to hear someone with actual teaching experience do it. So professors shared a collective "WTF?" moment last week when Joseph Epstein, writer and emeritus lecturer of English at Northwestern University, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal stating that it’s not uncommon to make $200,000 per year for “essentially a six-month job, and without ever having to put in an eight-hour day.” ... Quoting an unnamed former colleague, Epstein calls faculty work a "racket." He himself later calls it a "sweet racket." ...

Among other things, Epstein’s essay ignores the structural shifts that have occurred since he began teaching -- most significantly the transition to majority-non-tenure-track work force. This means that many professors don’t make a salary at all, but are paid on per-course basis. ...

The essay also ignores the fact that the vast majority of even full-time professors don’t teach at “tonier” colleges and universities. And while it’s true that college costs continue to outpace inflation, professors’ salaries have stayed relatively flat.  ...

But then there are the facts about how much full-time professors are actually paid, and how much work they do. ... How much do academics actually work? It varies. And it’s fair to say that academic life entails more flexibility than some other fields. But 50 to 60 hours a week is a good estimate. ... The 60-hour workweek also got a boost last year during a Twitter debate about faculty work.

Legal Ed News, Legal Education | Permalink


"Other people who are good at reading and writing, like say lawyers, earn almost twice as much, and that's not even counting law firm partners."

Excluding the plurality of the profession who are solo practitioners making an average of but $49k, I think you meant to say. And let's not forget about the 33% to 45% of law school grads each year who are locked out of the legal profession and therefore do not have salaries captured by the BLS data on lawyers. 2008 was a very, very long time ago now. Time for new material.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Aug 20, 2019 7:04:34 AM

I think the article was meant more to show that, if college is "free" the value of the services a professor will provide will, by necessity, be devalued. There is only so much money taxpayers are willing to put into the pot for education, as we can see with primary education today. The same will happen in our colleges and universities if they're supported by public money.

Posted by: bflat879 | Aug 14, 2019 4:31:43 AM

I calculated how much I earn per hour as a law professor. $39 per hour (before taxes of course). On that, I support a family of 6. I am earning 10% (or even less) of what I'd be earning in private practice. It is a great job for many reasons, but not because of the money (!) or schedule. Yes, we don't teach 40 hours a week. But the work never stops - researching, writing, meeting with students, various committee responsibilities, prep, grading, etc. It's a great job. It is NOT a "racket." And we worked very hard to be here (in academia), studied for years and worked hard for years. And for the record, I'd LOVE for someone to pay me $200,000 (!). That isn't even in the ballpark! (And I'm a full, tenured professor).

Posted by: Andrea Boyack | Aug 13, 2019 7:40:34 PM

I do not know any public school faculty that get free tuition for their kids. One of the greatest accomplishments of our Faculty Senate here at Texas Tech was getting the administration to give a $600 tuition credit for any faculty child who is enrolled in a degree program but only at TTU. Hey! Better than a sharp stick! I know some private schools give much larger support for college costs, but again, I am not aware of any public schools that do that, certainly not here in Texas.

Posted by: bryan | Aug 13, 2019 7:07:55 PM

This fellow Epstein has a very peculiar hatred of charity, physical fitness, safe sex, architecture, and computer literacy.

"I would reduce the salaries of university presidents by, say, 90%... The contemporary university president... chiefly occupied with fundraising...perhaps they could be paid a small commission ... excepting that on money used to erect ... buildings filled with treadmills, computers and condom machines. . .. Young men and women do not need reinforcement in their already mistaken belief [about] sexuality. . . .
Another place serious money could be saved is college athletics."

He comes across as rather unhinged.

Posted by: hinge | Aug 13, 2019 6:20:26 PM

Epstein, an English professor, thinks lots of other English professors are making $200,000 per year.

According to the BLS OES, which reports data provided by *employers* (i.e., colleges and universities), 90% of English professors make less than $135,000 per year and the median english professor makes only $67,000 per year.

A little basic fact checking might be nice, WSJ.

Other people who are good at reading and writing, like say lawyers, earn almost twice as much, and that's not even counting law firm partners.

Mr. Epstein's greatest qualification to opine on higher education issues seems to be a willingness to say what the WSJ wants to hear

Posted by: Facts | Aug 13, 2019 5:57:49 PM

Much of what tenured faculty do is voluntary. Many faculty work long hard hours, by choice and that's great, but others rest on bygone laurels. Out here, one must generally maintain a compulsory level of productivity or lose their job. That's the difference, and why those of us out here are filled with envy.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 13, 2019 3:25:24 PM

spent half a century teaching at state university flagship campuses. wish i had known how little Northwestern University worked. or maybe not -- 50 years is a long time to be pissed off.

Posted by: mike | Aug 13, 2019 10:50:13 AM

Maybe just as an experiment, I'd like to see faculty keep timesheets, such that their "clients" could see & review how they spend their time, similar to billable hours.

Posted by: Tu Phat | Aug 13, 2019 10:02:44 AM

Somewhere between those two pieces is the sweet spot of reality for many tenured faculty at the overwhelming share of institutions that aren't in the elite circle: We get to do rewarding work, we work hard, and we're compensated respectably.

David Yamada
Suffolk Law

Posted by: David Yamada | Aug 13, 2019 7:24:43 AM

Both! As Professor Venkatesh explained in his "Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang" a.k.a. "Why Drug Dealers Live With Their Moms"...with better externalities to the careers, and - arguably - to the loyalties involved.

Posted by: Anand Desai | Aug 13, 2019 5:58:58 AM