I’m a great fan of Barbara Ehrenreich. I loved Nickel and Dimed and enjoyed reading Bait and Switch.
One of my ezine readers sent me a link to Ehrenreich’s blog, which recently discussed the gap within professions: those at the top make mega-bucks, those on the bottom hover at the poverty level. See
the blog entry .
While I applaud Ehrenreich’s attention to these pay discrepancies, let’s face it: salaries are set by the market, not by turf-protecting executives.
For example, Ehrenreich observes that elite-level professors make six-figure salaries, while many adjuncts scrape by on $5000 or less a semester.
True. But what’s the economic reality?
Large numbers of the “best and brightest” graduates are willing (if not eager) to join the ranks of low-paid adjuncts. Therefore supply remains high. As long as universities can fill positions at minimal cost, they will do so.
Meanwhile universities pay star professors handsomely for the same reason CBS offered Katie Couric a few million bucks to read a teleprompter: they believe these individuals will attract revenue in amounts that exceed their salaries. Big Name is perceived an investment. Little Unknown is considered an expense.
You can be forgiven for making bad investments. You’re criticized for running up expenses.
Many low-paid adjunct professors are far less qualified than full-time faculty. The demands on their time make scholarly research impossible. Interaction with students is necessarily limited.
Adjuncts have little incentive to demand high levels of student performance or seek out evidence of plagiarism. They keep their jobs based on student evaluations. As a result, many become “edu-tainers,” a word I learned from a real life adjunct.
Therefore, adding more adjuncts will lower the quality of education for many students. But universities will not feel an economic impact. Students choose to enroll based on reputation, which will enhanced by the stars, not lowered by the adjuncts.
Therefore universities have no financial incentive to change, unless adjuncts decide to become more marketable and/or leave the field, thus cutting off supply. I doubt that we’ll see a major shift in this direction. I’ve met too many adjuncts who have what a friend calls “wife-of” jobs: the spouse earns a good living so the “wife-of” (who can be male or female) becomes an adjunct professor, art museum employee, career volunteer, flight attendant or…you name it.
Incidentally, Gloria Steinem, who I admire immensely, made the same mistake. She was angry because janitors could earn more money than teachers.
Whose fault? Well, I bet most of my readers would rather be teachers than janitors. When X says, “I wouldn’t do that for any amount of money…” you’ll hear Y saying, “Well, for enough money, I will!”
This market principle works in other fields mentioned in Ehrenreich’s blog. College students think, “Lawyers earn big salaries.” So they enter law school in great numbers, creating an available supply of trained labor, willing to work at menial tasks in horrendous conditions just to be able to say, “I’m a lawyer.”
Unless governments move in to subsidize salaries, we’ll continue to experience negative consequences of market forces, just as we see open land turned into factories. In her remarkable memoirs of prison life, former headmistress Jean Harris frequently lamented the discrepancy between salaries of highly-trained teachers and thug-like prison guards. That’s just one example.
You probably have some power over your own career. “Think marketable!” is my rallying cry. Choose a field where you’ll be valued, not where you’re excess baggage, unless you’re willing to accept adverse employment conditions.
It’s what I share with my own clients, although a little more quietly.