The Deepening Caste System in Higher Education

Many commentators on what is undermining higher education have focused on administrative bloat, on the increasing allocation of revenues to non-instructional or administrative positions.

Some have pointed to the increasing exploitation of adjunct faculty at most institutions, citing the very minimal compensation, the non-existent benefits, the general lack of staff support, and the complete lack of employment security that are characteristic of adjunct positions.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, others have emphasized the ever-increasing expectations of tenured faculty—in their teaching loads, in the number of publications they are expected to produce and the grant dollars they are expected to attract, and in the range and depth of their service responsibilities—expectations that have seem to have risen in proportion to the decline in the percentage of faculty who are tenured and on tenure tracks.

Those concerned about the increasing reliance on adjunct faculty might be inclined to scoff at the concerns of those who focus, instead, on the increasing demands on tenured faculty. And, if simply compared to adjunct faculty, tenured faculty are certainly a much more “privileged” group.

But this sort of debate serves the purposes of no one beyond those who wish to continue to argue, against all evidence, that faculty, and in particular tenured faculty, are the source of everything that ails higher education.

In the deepening “caste system” in higher education, the only “faculty” who are prospering are those who are so atypical as to demand the creation a different classification altogether.

Consider the following news items.

On May 7, 2013, the Chicago Tribune reported provided a progress report of sorts on the return to the faculty ranks of Richard Herman, the former Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Herman resigned following what the newspaper described as a “high-profile admissions scandal.” Actually, the newspaper had been the primary reason that the scandal had come to any public attention. The newspaper’s reporters uncovered evidence that Herman and others in his administration may have interceded to have under-qualified students admitted to the university because of their political connections to the administration and political associates of then Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich, who was himself already at the focus of multiple investigations, had already been forced out of office, and would ultimately be sentenced to a prison term for corruption. The scandal involving Herman had broken in May 2009, and by October 2009, Herman had tendered his resignation.

Herman remained with the university as a professor of education at a salary of $212,000 per year. The normal load for a professor in the College of Education is four courses per year, but Herman’s contract stipulates that he will be expected to teach half of that load, or two courses per year. But the Tribune uncovered evidence that because several of Herman’s courses had been cancelled and he had not been given alternative teaching assignments, he had , in effect, had a one-course teaching load for several successive years. Moreover, he had established a residence in Chicago and was commuting downstate to the Urbana-Champaign campus once each week.

In a much more recent news item, ABC News reported on July 7, 2013, that former general David Petraeus, who was forced to resign as C.I.A. director because he had conducted a clandestine extramarital affair with his biographer, has been hired as an adjunct professor by the City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College. Petraeus will be paid $150,000 for teaching one three-hour seminar, enrolling15 to 20 students, in the fall semester 2013. (Given that CUNY has an enrollment of about 270,000, one wonders why the course isn’t being MOOC’d.) His salary for this one course is 50 times the $3,000 per course that most CUNY adjunct faculty receive, and it is more than three times the average annual salary of $47,500 for non-tenure-eligible full-time faculty at CUNY campuses. As if these elements of Petraeus’ contract were not outrageous enough, the university has stipulated the following in his contract: “In addition, we will provide the graduate student support mentioned above to assist you with course research, administration, and grading, as well as limited travel funds for professional meetings attended as a CUNY representative.”

Of course, when the news of this appointment broke, the CUNY administration immediately presented three arguments that were so predictable as to be almost laughable: (1) Petraeus has received better offers from other institutions; (2) the money for his compensation has been raised entirely from private sources and designated for that purpose; and (3) Petraeus has designated that a portion of his salary would be donated to veterans groups.

What both of these news items illustrate is, again, the deepening caste system in higher education in which the rules that apply to faculty and the fiscal constraints that affect their compensation and workload do not apply at all to former administrators who “return” to the faculty ranks, even in some disgrace, or to “prestige” hires who provide current administrators with desirable photo-ops and something of “real interest” to talk about in community reports on the state of their institutions.

In both these instances, a sense of privilege and a sense of entitlement have trumped even the business standards to which our increasingly corporatized institutions are ostensibly being held. They demonstrate that universities aren’t really comparable to corporations, and most administrators are not professional managers. The closest business model is, in practice, not the publicly owned and publicly accountable corporation but, instead, the privately owned business in which the owners can, without repercussion, periodically reward their favorites and indulge their more eccentric whims. And that would be okay, except for the fact that both of these situations occurred at publicly funded universities that should be more strictly accountable both to the students paying ever-higher tuition and to the taxpayers providing public subsidies.

6 thoughts on “The Deepening Caste System in Higher Education

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  3. Pingback: The Deepening Caste System in Higher Education, Addendum 2 | Academe Blog

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