Home > Employment, Graduate Schools, Undergraduate education > Academia is nothing like a drug cartel

Academia is nothing like a drug cartel

It’s been awhile since I wanted to rant. Since the last post, really. Well, I was busy. But the time has come to write several posts.

This post is about a number of recent articles lamenting the prevalence of low paid adjuncts in many universities. To sensationalize the matter, comparisons were made with drug cartels and Ponzi schemes. Allegedly, this inequality is causing poverty and even homelessness and death. I imagine reading these articles can be depressing, but it’s all a sham. Knowingly or not, the journalists are perpetuating false stereotypes of what professors really do. These journalists seem to be doing their usual lazy work and preying on reader’s compassion and profound misunderstanding of the matter.

Now, if you are reading this blog, I am assuming you know exactly what professors do (Hint: not just teaching). But if you don’t, start with this outline by my old friend Daniel Liberzon, and proceed to review any or all of these links: one, two, three, four. When you are done, we can begin to answer our main semi-serious question:

What is academia, really, if it’s not a drug cartel or a Ponzi scheme?

I can’t believe this trivial question is difficult to some people, and needs a lengthy answer, but here it is anyway.

Academia rewards industriousness and creativity

This might seem obvious – of course it does!  These are the main qualities needed to achieve success doing research. But reading the above news reports it might seem that Ph.D. is like a lottery ticket – the winnings are rare and random. What I am trying to say is that academia can be compared with other professions which involve both qualities. To make a point, take sculpture.

There are thousands of professional sculptors in the United States. The figures vary greatly, but same also holds for the number of mathematicians, so we leave it aside. The average salary of sculptors seems to be within reach from average salary in the US, definitely below that of an average person with bachelor degree. On the other hand, top sculptors are all multimillionaires. For example, recently a sculpture by Jeff Koons sold for $58.4 million. But at least it looked nice. I will never understand the success of Richard Serra, whose work is just dreadful. You can see some of his work at UCLA (picture), or at LACMA (picture).  Or take a celebrated and much despised 10 million dollar man Dale Chihuly, who shows what he calls “art” just about everywhere…  But reasonable people can disagree on this, and who am I to judge anyway?  My opinion does not matter, nor is that of almost anyone.  What’s important, is that some people with expertise value these creative works enough to pay a lot of money for them.  These sculptors’ talent is clearly recognized.

Now, should we believe on the basis of the salary disparity that the sculpture is a Ponzi scheme, with top earners basically robbing all the other sculptors of good living?  That would be preposterous, of course.  Same with most professors.  Just because the general public cannot understand and evaluate their research work and creativity, does not mean it’s not there and should not be valued accordingly.

Academia is a large apprenticeship program

Think of graduate students who are traditionally overworked and underpaid. Some make it to graduate with a Ph.D. and eventually become tenured professors. Many, perhaps most, do not. Sounds like a drug cartel to you? Nonsense! This is exactly how apprenticeships works, and how it’s been working for centuries in every guild.  In fact, some modern day guilds don’t pay anything at all.

Students enter the apprenticeship/graduate program in hopes to learn from the teacher/professor and succeed in their studies. The very best do succeed. For example, this list of Rembrant‘s pupils/assistants reads somewhat similar to this list of Hilbert‘s students. Unsurprisingly, some are world famous, while others are completely forgotten. So it’s not about cheap labor as in drug cartels – this is how apprenticeships normally work.

Academia is a big business

Think of any large corporation.  The are many levels of management: low, mid, and top-level.  Arguably, all tenured and tenure-track faculty are low level managers, chairs and other department officers (DGS, DUS, etc.) are mid-level, while deans, provosts and presidents/chancellors are top-level managers.  In the US, there is also a legal precedent supporting qualifying professors as management (e.g. professors are not allowed to unionize, in contrast with the adjunct faculty).  And deservingly so.  Professors hire TA’s, graders, adjuncts, support stuff, choose curriculum, responsible for all grades, run research labs, serve as PI’s on federal grants, and elect mid-level management.

So, why many levels?  Take UCLA.  According to 2012 annual report, we operate on 419 acres, have about 40 thousand students, 30 thousand full time employees (this includes UCLA hospitals), have $4.6 billion in operating revenue (of which tuition is only $580 million), but only about 2 thousand ladder (tenure and tenure-track) faculty.  For comparison, a beloved but highly secretive Trader Joe’s company has about $8 billion in revenue, over 20 thousand employees, and about 370 stores, each with 50+ employees and its own mid and low-level management.

Now that you are conditioned to think of universities as businesses and professors as managers, is it really all that surprising that regular employees like adjuncts get paid much less?  This works the same way as for McDonalds store managers, who get paid about 3 times as much as regular employees.

Higher echelons of academia is a research factory with a side teaching business

Note that there is a reason students want to study at research universities rather than at community colleges.  It’s because these universities offer many other more advanced classes, research oriented labs, seminars, field works, etc.  In fact, research and research oriented teaching is really the main business rather than service teaching.

Think revenue.  For example, UCLA derives 50% more revenue from research grants than from tuition.  Places like MIT are giving out so many scholarships, they are loosing money on teaching (see this breakdown).  American universities cannot quit the undergraduate education, of course, but they are making a rational decision to outsource the low level service teaching to outsiders, who can do the same work but cheaper.  For example, I took English in Moscow, ESL at a community college in Brooklyn, French at Harvard, and Hebrew at University of Minnesota.  While some instructors were better than others, there was no clear winner as experience was about the same.

So not only the adjunct salaries are low for a reason, keeping them low is critical to avoid hiring more regular faculty and preventing further tuition inflation.  The next time you read about adjuncts barely making a living wage, compare this to notorious Bangalore call centers and how much people make over there (between $100 and $250 a month).

Academia is a paradise of equality

College professors are different from drug gangsters not only in the level of violence, but also in a remarkable degree of equality between universities (but not between fields!)  Consider for example this table of average full professor salaries at the top universities.  The near $200,000 a year may seem high, but note that this is only twice that of average faculty at an average college.  Given that most of these top universities are located in the uber-expensive metropolitan areas (NYC, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc.), the effect is even further diminished. 

Compare this with other professions.  Forget the sculptors mentioned above whose pay ratios can go into thousands, let’s take a relatively obscure profession of an opera singer (check how many do you know from this list).  Like academia and unlike sculpture, the operas are greatly subsidized by the governments and large corporations.  Still, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a much greater inequality than in academia.  While some popular singers like Dmitri Hvorostovsky make over $3 million a year, the average salary is about $100,000 a year, giving a ratio of 30+.

In other words, given that some professors are much better than others when it comes to research (not me!), one can argue that they are being underpaid to subsidize the lackluster efforts of others.  No wonder the top academics suffer from the status-income disequilibrium.  This is the opposite of the “winner takes all” behavior argued by the journalists in an effort to explain adjuncts’ plight.

Academia is an experience

People come to universities to spend years studying, and they want to enjoy those years.  They want to hear famous authors and thinkers, learn basic skills and life changing stories, make lasting friendships, play sports and simply have fun.  Sometimes this does not work out, but we are good at what we do (colleges have been perfecting their craft for hundreds of years).  Indeed, many students take away with them a unique deeply personal experience.  Take my story.  While at Moscow University, I heard lectures by Vladimir Arnold, attended Gelfand’s Seminar, and even went to a public lecture by President Roh Tae-woo.  It was fun.  While at Harvard, I took courses of Raoul Bott and Gian-Carlo Rota (at MIT), audited courses of such non-math luminaries as Stephan Thernstrom and William Mills Todd, III, and went to public lectures by people like Tim Berners-Lee, all unforgettable.

So this is my big NO to those who want to replace tenured faculty with adjuncts, leveling the academic salaries, and commodifying the education.  This just would not work; it is akin to calls for abolition of haute cuisine in favor of more fast food.  In fact, nobody really wants to do either of these.  The inexpensive education is already readily available in the form of community colleges.  In fact, students apply in large numbers trying to get to a place like UCLA, which offers a wide range of programs and courses.  And it’s definitely not because of our celebrity adjuncts.

In conclusion

Academia is many things to many people.  There are many important reasons why the ladder faculty are paid substantially better than TA’s and adjuncts, reasons both substantive and economical.  But at no point does the academia resemble the Ponzi schemes and drug cartels, which are famous for creating the economic devastation and inequality (and, um, illegal).  If anything, the academia is the opposite, as it creates economic opportunities and evens the playing field.   And to those educational reformers who think they know better: remember, we heard it all before

  1. December 3, 2013 at 4:32 am

    Please note the deliberate word choice of ‘virtue’ rather than ‘merit’ or ‘ability’.

    I don’t think these kinds of articles are really about academia at all. Rather, I think they are expressions of anxiety about the changing (or perhaps already changed) state of American society, with academia being used as somewhat of a poor example.

    Traditionally, the American view is that success should be linked to virtue. (I won’t discuss the links to Wesleyan/Arminian theology.) The idea is that if you work hard, don’t do evil, play nice, respect your boss, and try your best to take care of your family, then you will be successful. The archetype is the children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where the nice, polite, obedient, hard-working, but poor kid Charlie, whose father industriously screws toothpaste caps onto toothpaste tubes at the toothpaste factory (and is probably a bit mentally retarded), ends up inheriting Willie Wonka’s factory and becoming fantastically wealthy because he is nice, polite, obedient, and hard-working (and has been raised by his family to be so).

    For much of American history, there was plenty of land out West, and 19th century farming required mostly hard work rather than any specific talent. In the 20th century, the unionized factory provided a good living to the workers who industriously toiled at them.

    In recent years there has been a shift everywhere in American society. Virtue, while still mostly necessary, is no longer sufficient for success. Much more important than virtue in the current economy is exceptional talent. (Part of this is due to technology, since a car manufacturing robot is far more industrious (virtuous in that sense) than any worker.) The people who are successful are those that are exceptionally talented at something, whether this something is writing computer software, sculpture, mathematics, or playing the stock market. Even a job at a car factory requires handling complex automated machinery, a task requiring a good deal more intelligence than working at a car factory required 50 years ago.

    If you are virtuous but untalented, the best you can do now is become the shift manager at McDonald’s. You won’t starve, but unlike the factory worker 50 years ago, you’ll probably never be able to afford your own house or a new car.

    It’s hard to trace the complex workings of the economy that leads to this shift, but academia is an excellent, well-contained, simple example of this phenomenon. Many students work very hard, studying (and teaching) for many years to earn a Ph.D. Almost all students are upright citizens of their communities. None of them is unusually stupid enough to be thought of as a rare exception to a general rule. At the end, however, hard work is not enough to get a good tenure-track job. It turns out that you need, not just to be better than most people in society (which is pretty much a given after many years of studying), but fairly exceptionally talent in your field.

    American society has been built on the idea that success follows virtue, which is viewed as being mostly within each individual’s control. This means failure can be written off as a result of vice, and failures deserve what they get. In many ways, the country is built on the idea that success comes from virtue rather than birth. Society seems to be reverting to one where birth (now in the form of inborn talent rather than family wealth and connections, as in 18th century Europe) plays a large role.

    Traditionally, a society where success does not follow from virtue has been viewed it as unfair and corrupt in America. The sharp distinction between virtue and merit is rather new for us also. We don’t know how to deal with this change in circumstances and are rather anxious about it. Many would like to go back to the past, but that is manifestly not possible.

    Hence, “academia is like a drug cartel”, as a microcosm for “our society is now like a drug cartel”.

  2. December 3, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    This is a very interesting comment which deserves a good answer. Even though I largely agree, I do dispute in one major point. Let me try to explain.

    Yes, the *virtue* cultural tradition does explain a lot, and can probably be trace back to Puritans’ value system. There is however another strain in the American culture: the carpe diem, free spirit risk-taking do-it-yourself attitude, also often portrayed in the movies from classical westerns to “Pirates of Silicon Valley”, “There will be blood” or even “Duck Dynasty”. This celebration of entrepreneurship has deep historical roots and cuts across all classes and ethnic groups in America. In fact, one can view the act of immigration to the US and such an act, a major life gamble. Other such mass gambles include the Oklahoma sooners, the California gold rush, etc.

    Now, what you are suggesting, roughly, is that it’s painful for many to realize that the clue to success is “merit” = hard work + talent, rather than “virtue*” = hard work + high moral. Perhaps. But this oversimplifies things and misses the fact that *pure talent* is very rarely the key to success in almost any profession, including the academia.

    This might seem counter intuitive given the safety afforded by academia, but I view mathematical research as fundamentally entrepreneurial activity. We all know that you can’t stare at the ceiling and “magically” solve a problem; it just doesn’t work that way. What we really do is get together with a colleague and say “There is this important problem. I have this strange idea, which may or may not work. Let’s try to resolve it in such-and-such special case, and see what comes out.” Sometimes this works, and you start looking at patterns. Sometimes it doesn’t and you have a choice to either continue the explorations or quit. Sometimes you conclude that you need results in neighboring area. Again, you either choose to spend weeks study that area, or look for an expert in that field trying to convince to help you. The more audacious is the idea, the higher is the risk that you spend a lot of time and effort with nothing to show for it. Few people ever discuss their failures; only very occasionally one can read about “How NOT to prove the XYZ conjecture”. We mostly see the successes, creating a perception of ingenuity or clairvoyance of the authors.

    I will give you one example from my own work. At some point, I wanted to learn about partition bijections, but quickly realized there is no good source on that, only small bits and pieces across the vast literature. So I decided to write a comprehensive survey. This was a large gamble; it was unclear if anyone can survey the whole area. After spending the whole Summer in the basement of the Harvard Science Library, I typed up my notes. The gamble paid out – it was accepted for publication and is now my highest cited paper, but truth be told – anyone could have done that given time.

    In summary, I agree with the virtue argument. But it is unfortunate that the view of academic research is shifting towards the “exceptional talent”, to use your words. A much better way to view it as an adventure, a small, safe and nerdy version of the Lewis and Clark expedition or Magellan voyage, which can take a lot of time and effort, can lead with nowhere with very good probability, but occasionally can give some interesting discoveries.

  3. December 15, 2013 at 10:31 am

    It’s great to see that you’re writing again!

    I was wondering what you think about a claim that I sometimes hear in this context – that one of the problems is that universities train too many Ph.D. students. That with a smaller number of math Ph.D. students the above will be less of a problem, and also that this way there will be a smaller number of people dealing with less “serious/important” topics (whatever this means exactly).


  4. December 15, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    I think you are either overestimating the average math PhD or underestimating the difficulty of what you did with partition bijections.

    It takes a good deal of ability to read all those papers, make sense of them, unify their notation, and so forth.

    Could the average graduate student at UCLA do this? Probably. But UCLA graduate students are pretty good. I can assure you, however, that many PhDs from less well-regarded programs would need help understanding some of those papers you read.

  5. December 19, 2013 at 12:59 am

    @Adam – I wrote a long post replying to you here: http://wp.me/p211iQ-eQ

  6. December 19, 2013 at 1:04 am

    @quasihumanist – Um, maybe. You are right – I wasn’t very specific in “anyone could have done that given time.” In fact, I do not recommend graduate students do this much library work as I did – their time is better spent doing research. But as an Assistant Professor I felt I had plenty of time…

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