AAUP: The Two Cultures of Academe

Huge administrative salaries are bad for morale and for higher education’s image.

Last year, we took a stroll to our university’s library and requested the current salary report on all members of our university’s community. Not a particularly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, for sure. But we suspected something as we pored through notebooks of names, position titles, and salary data—tracing our fingers across computer-generated numbers and jotting down notes. When we started cross-referencing the data with salary budgets for earlier years, we made a troubling discovery.

For the past two years, our salaries as professors had flat lined, not always keeping up with inflation. But the salaries of our university’s top thirty-five administrators—president, provost, a slew of vice presidents, and deans—had grown exponentially. The salaries of the top administrators as a group grew 17 percent, adding nearly $1 million to our university’s salary budget, while salaries of assistant professors grew 2.8 percent during the same two years. As troublesome as we found this large difference in salary increases, the details underlying the 17 percent increase for top administrative positions were simply shocking. The salary of a chief information officer grew by 75 percent, a dean by nearly 49 percent, and a vice president by nearly 48 percent in two years. These positions garnered salaries from $190,000 to more than $220,000. And in our little, sleepy Appalachian town, those dollars go pretty darn far.

We also discovered a “poster child,” so to speak, for the perks that often flowed along with higher salaries. One vice president’s $210,000 position seemed particularly interesting. Not only had this position received a hefty 15 percent pay raise, but the new occupant demanded that his offspring be bumped to the front of a long line of employees’ children waiting for university child care. So professors, secretaries, custodial staff, and middle managers watched as this privileged vice president’s kids hurtled to the front of the line, realizing their own kids would never reach the top of the waiting list. A spokesperson for the child-care facility explained that this sweet little perk would be granted only when “the president or the trustees have a special request.” We discovered this vice president’s special treatment didn’t end with his hefty salary and his children at the front of the child-care queue. The university also plied him with an allowance that subsidized his purchase of a shiny new Lexus. When we discovered these facts, we found ourselves humming the same tune, “Nice work if you can get it.”

After the initial shock wore off, we decided that other faculty should know what we had discovered. When we published the salary data, numerous professors grimaced; some even rose in the faculty senate, calling the news outrageous and insulting. The top administrators who had benefited from insular generosity knew that there was no way to challenge our numbers. So instead, they turned to recently hired staff in their burgeoning public-relations department. They set their dials to “spin mode” and generated a single response to our salary study. We found it ironically on target. The administration’s mantra, repeated in several local newspaper stories, was that we were comparing “apples and oranges.” Alas, they made our point precisely.

A Broader Problem

The kind of disparity we witnessed on our campus was also making news around the country. Not long before our afternoon in the library, Benjamin Ladner, president of American University, had made national headlines for his extravagant compensation. Receiving $633,000 in salary and $181,000 in benefits in 2003–04 proved insufficient for Ladner. He demanded a $1.12- million bonus and $5 million in retirement benefits. This news came before the bulging expense reports emerged. These included hefty price tags for private parties replete with thirteen-course meals, a $22,345 first-class plane ticket to Nigeria, and his wife’s $80,000 salary. Ladner’s case became a national embarrassment, with students and faculty protesting and reporters scurrying after the latest revelations. Even after he was gone from his position, the stories and exposĂ©s about his leadership continued to fill the Washington Post and other national newspapers.

So when we added up our little salary study, the campus response to it, and the national news about the new CEO mentality creating havoc at places like American University, we concluded that two cultures face off against one another at our university and in higher education more generally. The culture occupied by professors and that occupied by high-level administrators grow further and further apart. We shout across the gap only to establish just how wide the gap has become.

We were both reminded of two-time presidential hopeful John Edwards’s slogan: “Two Americas.” We thought perhaps we should create the slogan “Two Academias.” We were also reminded of C. P. Snow, the great twentieth-century physicist and novelist, who developed the concept of “two cultures” in describing the rift between the sciences and humanities. Although those two cultures still remain separated on many college and university campuses (including our own), Snow’s term now more appropriately describes the gulf between senior administration and the rest of us. Corporatization— sometimes a word that remains abstract in contemporary discussions of academe—becomes concrete when applied within the framework of “two cultures.”

Divergence of Cultures

At our university the evidence of two cultures is all around us. For example, where twenty years ago senior administrators rose from the ranks of faculty, often dragged into service kicking and screaming, now a cadre of higher education managers procured by search firms select a few faculty members, at best, acceptable for support positions and window dressing. These professional administrators hold no allegiance to faculty values and, in many cases, have spent few, if any, years in the classroom other than training in higher education administration programs. Their allegiance is not to the institution where they hang their hat temporarily but rather to their own careers, their next positions, and friends and mentors in their mutual admiration club.

Dependence on head-hunters has so infiltrated our campus that today associate vice presidents, deans, and directors are vetted through search firms before selection committees— with minimal and “acceptable” faculty representation—make their recommendations. Similarly, our university has retained a public-relations consultant to sell an image and justify expensive media advertising campaigns; information-technology consultants to expand informationtechnology personnel and salaries and purchase multimillion-dollar software and equipment; and private enrollment-management groups to hone strategies for student admissions. One speech given by our president to the university community about recent controversies, for example, was actually vetted through a public relations consultant hired from outside (with numerous ties to our state’s Republican Party). Not that the assistance necessarily helped the speech.

These trends of corporatization afflict most colleges and universities today, driving up salaries of top administrators, doubling administrative positions, freezing tenured faculty lines, exploiting itinerant faculty, eliminating faculty from decision making, undermining shared governance, and reducing faculty control over the curriculum. The most profound sign of these trends is the growing use of headhunting firms to secure what is now called the university’s chief executive officer. Nothing makes more explicit how corporatization has a direct impact on faculty governance in higher education today: a key decision about leadership has been pulled entirely from the hands of faculty and placed with people who have no connection with the institution for which they now determine executive appointments.

Another quick trip to our library, this time to the microfilm room, established just how extensively universities employ search firms to manage presidential searches, especially since fifteen years ago. A comparison of position announcements published in late spring editions of the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1993 and 2007 illustrated this dramatic shift. In four issues from May and June of 1993, only two of twenty-four Chronicle advertisements (8 percent) indicated any search-firm involvement in searches for presidents or chancellors. In the May and June issues from 2007, however, thirteen of the twenty Chronicle advertisements (65 percent) relied on head-hunters to vet applications and nominations for chief executive officers.

In our examination of back issues, something else leaped out at us: where there was demure typography noting search-firm contacts in two 1993 advertisements, there was now a snazzier presentation of the thirteen position announcements in 2007. Bold logotypes and graphic representations for a plethora of search firms littered the pages of the Chronicle. A quick comparison to the mundane advertisements for faculty positions, in their cramped little boxes full of text written by faculty committees, made clear the cleavage between the two cultures. Staring at those contrasting advertisement styles was like gazing into the growing divide.

Let us return to our original story. When we published the data and faculty grew angry and the administocracy spun worse and worse arguments to justify its pay raises, we asked ourselves what could be done to give voice to faculty frustration. We decided that we should again do something our chapter had done the previous year: an unauthorized, public, and much-resisted evaluation of our university president and provost. It seemed the only way to make faculty dissatisfaction clear and public. We were not surprised when we found that half the faculty completed and returned our evaluation with 77 percent of faculty disagreeing with the statement, “Based on the president’s actions and decisions during the past year, I would give him a vote of confidence.” Our actions were quickly followed by similar actions on the part of undergraduate and graduate students and with similar results. We could draw only one conclusion from the results: there was deep-felt dissatisfaction with our university’s leadership, based largely on its ability to reward itself so lucratively and with little oversight.

The Public’s Perception

So imagine our confusion and surprise when reading in the July–August 2007 issue of Academe several articles that criticized the growing number of votes of no confidence recently handed to many university presidents. The authors sensibly argued that votes of no confidence back administrators into corners and create a bad atmosphere on campus. That’s certainly true, but what these articles seemed to miss was the problem of the two cultures and what it really means not just for universities, but also for the public’s perception of universities. Both of us remember administrators approaching us and saying that by publishing our numbers we would set a bad tone at our university. To which our response was, well, we didn’t give ourselves hefty pay raises and expect everyone to accept them, now, did we? Indeed, it seemed imperative for faculty to provide the oversight—even if it took a harsh pronouncement—that seemed missing from the limited process that we formerly had in place.

It strikes us that faculty must vocalize their frustration with academic leaders who think of themselves as somehow outside the orbit of the rest of the university community. After all, the growth of “two cultures” creates a problem for our institutions and their legitimacy in the eyes of the American public. To be sure, colleges and universities still garner a lot of respect from the public. But that respect has diminished over the years. This loss of respect is partly the result of attacks by the right. But it’s also the result of a perception that colleges spend money on things that don’t pertain to their educational mission. Faculty need to point out how profligate spending and ballooned salaries damage perceptions of academe among those who should be supporting our colleges and universities. Faculty must take the lead lest others enter the picture, those with more sinister plans for higher education.

One final story: just two months after publishing our data and conducting an assessment of our university leadership, we received a mass e-mail from a state-based “progressive” organization. This was an organization with a deep affinity for publicly financed higher education, an organization that normally would advocate for more public dollars for education. It was an organization that would have resisted the push for David Horowitz’s zany “student bill of rights,” which had hit our state three years earlier. And yet, the e-mail began, “Enough already! It’s time for a taxpayer revolt on Higher Ed Monarchs ‘Gone Wild!’” The e-mail—sent out to press outlets throughout the state—documented college presidents taking trips to Belize and spending $1,800 for one night in a hotel, “two retiring Ohio college presidents” each snagging “a quarter-million dollars as a going-away present,” and high salaries for university presidents across the state.

When we saw this, we winced, much like those faculty who winced at our salary study. But we also thought: this is why faculty must take the lead on these issues in the future. In certain ways, we need to protect our leadership from making decisions that diminish our institutions’ standing in the eyes of the public. If we don’t, the criticism— backed with nasty political muscle, perhaps—will likely come in a more pernicious form somewhere down the line. And so, we’ve got our calculators at hand and our fingers ready to trace lines in salary books again. Not because we want to, but because the alternative is far worse.

Reposted from AAUP Website.

Kevin Mattson was president of the Ohio University chapter of the AAUP for two years and is author or editor of several books, including Steal This University: The Rise of the Corporate University and the Academic Labor Movement. Joseph Bernt is secretary of the Ohio University chapter and editor of The Big Chill: Investigative Reporting in the Current Media Environment.

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