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Fat City

Thank you, Illinois taxpayers, for my cushy life.

May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By DAVID RUBINSTEIN
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After 34 years of teaching sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I recently retired at age 64 at 80 percent of my pay for life. This calculation was based on a salary spiked by summer teaching, and since I no longer pay into the retirement fund, I now receive significantly more than when I “worked.” But that’s not all: There’s a generous health insurance plan, a guaranteed 3 percent annual cost of living increase, and a few other perquisites. Having overinvested in my retirement annuity, I received a fat refund and—when it rains, it pours—another for unused sick leave. I was also offered the opportunity to teach as an emeritus for three years, receiving $8,000 per course, double the pay for adjuncts, which works out to over $200 an hour. Another going-away present was summer pay, one ninth of my salary, with no teaching obligation.

Easy Street

I haven’t done the math but I suspect that, given a normal life span, these benefits nearly doubled my salary. And in Illinois these benefits are constitutionally guaranteed, up there with freedom of religion and speech.

Why do I put “worked” in quotation marks? Because my main task as a university professor was self-cultivation: reading and writing about topics that interested me. Maybe this counts as work. But here I am today—like many of my retired colleagues—doing pretty much what I have done since the day I began graduate school, albeit with less intensity.

Before retiring, I carried a teaching load of two courses per semester: six hours of lecture a week. I usually scheduled classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays: The rest of the week was mine. Colleagues who pursued grants taught less, some rarely seeing a classroom. The gaps this left in the department’s course offerings were filled by adjuncts, hired with little scrutiny and subject to little supervision, and paid little.

Sometimes my teaching began at 9:30 a.m., but this was hardship duty. A night owl, I preferred to start my courses at 11 or 12. With an hour or so in my office to see an occasional student, I was at the (free) gym by 4 p.m. Department heads sometimes pleaded with faculty to alter their schedules to suit departmental needs, but rarely. Because most professors insist on selected hours, to avoid rush hour and to retain days at home, universities must build extra classroom space that stands empty much of the day.

The occasional seminars were opportunities for professors to kick back and let graduate students do the talking. Committee meetings were tedious but, except for the few good departmental citizens, most of us were able to avoid undue burdens.

Another perquisite of the job was a remarkable degree of personal freedom. Some professors came to class unshaven, wearing T-shirts and jeans. One of the deans scolded the faculty for looking like urban guerrillas. He was ridiculed as an authoritarian prig.

This schedule held for 30 weeks of the year, leaving free three months in summer, a month in December, and a week in spring, plus all the usual holidays. Every six years, there was sabbatical leave: a semester off at full pay to do research, which sometimes actually got done.

Most faculty attended academic conferences at taxpayer expense. Some of these were serious events, but always allowed ample time for schmoozing and sightseeing. A group of professors who shared my interests applied for a grant to fund a conference at Lake Como. It was denied because we had failed to include any women and so we settled for an all-expenses-paid week at Cambridge, England.

The grandest prize of all is, of course, tenure. The tenured live in a different world than ordinary mortals, a world in which fears of unemployment are banished, futures can be confidently planned, and retirement is secure. 

All of this at a university without union representation!

To be fair, the first years of a newly hired assistant professor can be harrowing. Writing lecture notes to cover a semester takes effort. But soon I had abundant material which could be reused indefinitely and took maybe 20 minutes of review before class. Adding new material required hardly more effort than the time to read what I would have read anyway.

The only really arduous part of teaching was grading exams and papers. But for most of my classes I had teaching assistants to do this, graduate students who usually knew little more about the topic than the undergraduates.

My colleagues, to their credit, promoted me to full professor knowing my ideological heterodoxy. I fear that a young Ph.D. looking for work today who challenged the increasingly rigid political orthodoxies would have a hard time. But the discipline of sociology is so ideologically homogenous—a herd, as Harold Rosenberg put it, of independent minds—that this problem is rare. Universities cherish diversity in everything except where it counts most: ideas.

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