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.
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.
According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, Harvard, donating 4 to 1 in favor of Democrats in 2008, was one of the more politically diverse major American universities. Ninety-two percent of employees at the University of Chicago donated to Democrats. The University of California favored Democrats over Republicans, 90 percent to 10 percent. And William and Mary employees preferred Democrats to the GOP by a margin of 99 percent to 1 percent. Neil Gross of Harvard found that 87.6 percent of social scientists voted for Kerry, 6.2 percent for Bush. Gross also found that 25 percent of sociologists characterize themselves as Marxists, likely a higher percentage than members of the Chinese Communist party. I would guess that if Lenin were around today he would be teaching sociology and seeking grants to fund the revolution.
The research requirements to achieve tenure and promotion are rigorous. The top journals reject as much as 90 percent of the work submitted, so accumulating the half-dozen or so articles usually required to be tenured took sustained effort.
But it is not clear what value this work has to those who pay the salaries. As Thomas Sowell has argued, building a scholarly reputation requires finding a niche that no one else has explored—often for good reason. I am hard pressed to explain why sometimes exquisitely esoteric interests should be supported by taxpayers: This expertise certainly does not match the educational needs of students. (Full disclosure: The book that established my scholarly reputation is titled Marx and Wittgenstein: Social Science and Social Praxis.)
The work done by most of my colleagues did bear on issues of wider relevance and not all of it was so ideologically compromised as to be useless. But the readership of academic journals is tiny, and most of this work had no impact beyond a small circle of interested academics—for understandable reasons. Philip Tetlock, a research psychologist at Berkeley, tested the accuracy of 82,361 predictions made by 284 experts including psychologists, economists, political scientists, and area and foreign policy specialists, 96 percent with post-graduate training. He found that their prognostications did not beat chance. The increasingly ideological nature of social science will not improve this record.
To be sure, some of my colleagues were prodigious researchers, devoted teachers, and outstanding departmental, university, and professional citizens. But sociologists like to talk about what they call the “structural” constraints on behavior. While character and professional ethics can withstand the incentives to coast, the privileged position of a tenured professor guarantees that there will be slackers.
An argument can be made that, compared with professionals in the private sector, college professors are underpaid, though according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “by rank, the average [salary] was $108,749 for full professors.” It is difficult to compare the overall goodness of different lives, but there is a back of the envelope shortcut. In my 34 years, just one professor in the sociology department resigned to take a nonacademic job. For open positions, there were always over 100 applicants, several of them outstanding. The rarity of quits and the abundance of applications is good evidence that the life of the college professor is indeed enviable.
The life of a professor is far more attractive than that of most government employees, but elements of professorial privilege can be found in the lives of other public sector workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the quit rate for government workers is less than one-third that of the private sector. Applications for federal jobs exceed those for the private sector by at least 25 percent, and when workers move from private to federal employment their earnings, according to Princeton’s Alan Krueger, increase by 12 percent.
And then there are the public schools. Because K-12 education is local, generalizations are difficult. But there are many egregious cases. Less than 2 percent of teachers in Los Angeles are denied tenure. In the last decade, according to LA Weekly, the city “spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district’s 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance.” Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, liberal, and former union organizer, described union leadership as an “unwavering roadblock to reform.” Teachers in Florida gain tenure after three years of “satisfactory” evaluations and, in 2009, 99.7 percent received this evaluation. Michelle Rhee said that when she took over the D.C. school system in 2007, 95 percent of the teachers were rated excellent and none was terminated. Just 0.1 percent of Chicago teachers were fired for poor performance between 2005 and 2008.
This circumstance has attracted the attention of public officials. Illinois, with the support of some prominent Democrats, is desperate to cut back a public employee pension system that, even with recent reforms, will go broke within 10 years. John Kasich, Republican governor of Ohio, has proposed that the teaching load of college professors be increased by one course every two years.
Such efforts at restraint are routinely met with Wisconsin-like howls of outrage. One of my colleagues, whose retirement benefits exceed the $77,900 household income average for retired government employees in Illinois, was indignant that the state had managed to require an additional $17 a month for his dental insurance. How dare they!
Protests against efforts to reform pay scales, teaching loads, and retirement benefits employ a “solidarity forever, the union makes us strong” rhetoric. What these professors and other government workers do not understand is that they are not demanding a share of the profits from the fat-cat bourgeoisie. They are squeezing taxpayers—for whom the professors purport to advocate—whose lives are in most cases far harsher than their own.
David Rubinstein is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.