The “Cushy” Life of a Professor

I recently read an article by retired college professor David Rubinstein who argues that college professors are underworked and overpaid:

After 34 years of teaching sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I [Rubinstein] recently retired at age 64 at 80 percent of my pay for life. . . . 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. . . . I was also offered the opportunity to teach as an emeritus for three years, receiving $8,000 per course . . . which works out to over $200 an hour. . . .

You will perhaps not be surprised to hear that I had two immediate and opposite reactions to this:

1. Hey—somebody wants to cut professors’ salaries. Stop him!

2. Hey—this guy’s making big bucks and doesn’t do any work—that’s not fair! (I went online to find David Rubinstein’s salary but it didn’t appear in the database. So I did the next best thing and looked up the salaries of full professors in the UIC sociology department. The salaries ranged from 90K to 135K. That really is higher than I expected, given that (a) sociology does not have a reputation as being a high-paying field, and (b) UIC is OK but it’s not generally considered a top university.

Having these two conflicting reactions made me want to think about this further.

First, the specifics on that $8000 course. 8000/200 = 40. Rubinstein’s planning to spend only 40 hours teaching a course? I’m assuming it’s a 1-semester course, if it’s 13 weeks at 3 classroom hours per week, that’s 39 hours already. So he’s planning to spend 1 hour during the entire semester for class preparation, meetings with students, grading papers, and everything else. And, indeed, Rubinstein writes:

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.

Ouch! I guess he wasn’t kidding about that $200/hour thing.

Too cushy and too well-paid

Rubinstein’s fundamental criticism of the system, though, is not that he’s a slacker but that the college-professor job is too good. Some jobs are easy and some jobs are well-paid but it seems wrong for a job to be both. And a bit of evidence in favor of the “prof jobs are too cushy” argument is that nobody ever seems to quit:

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.

To me it comes down to the question: does the University of Illinois want to compete for top professors? Rubinstein writes as if it’s surprising and wrong that high pay, good benefits, generous retirement, job security, and an easy workload go together. But from an economic point of view, this makes sense: all these can be considered as different forms of compensation. If you want to get the best people, you need to compete, and the college-professor job is desirable in several dimensions.

Another positive feature of teaching, which Rubinstein could’ve mentioned but didn’t, is that your dollar goes further in a college setting. Princeton and Stanford aside, college towns tend to be not too expensive to life in, and you’re implicitly comparing your living standards to students. I imagine that people working for big companies and living in fancy suburbs feel more pressure to keep up with the Joneses. A $5 coffee at the local college-town Starbucks might seem like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to the cost of a McMansion or an SUV.

The life of the college processor is indeed enviable (even though I don’t really envy Rubinstein’s own work life, as he seems to have focused too much on reducing his workload rather than on actually enjoying his job). Some of this must be simple market forces—if you make the job less desirable, you won’t get the top candidates—and I think some must be from historical contingency. Profs traditionally got summers off and flexible hours but low salaries, then when money flowed into the system, salaries went up. The system has a lot of inertia: except in exceptional economic times, you never seem to hear of professors getting salary cuts, even if they’ve been sitting around doing nothing for 20 years.

Rubinstein writes:

The research requirements to achieve tenure and promotion are rigorous. . . . But it is not clear what value this work has to those who pay the salaries. . . . This expertise certainly does not match the educational needs of students. (Full disclosure: The book that established my [Rubenstein’s] scholarly reputation is titled Marx and Wittgenstein: Social Science and Social Praxis.)

His basic argument, I think, is that it would be ok for universities to save some money and pay their faculty less (either in salary or in reduced benefits). But the U.S. university system is decentralized, so if one university decides to cut back and not compete for the best faculty, it will lose in reputation, have more difficulty getting top students, etc. The most that Rubinstein can probably realistically hope for is a gradual ratcheting down of standards and working conditions. It’s certainly possible: we all know how tenure-track faculty are being replaced with adjuncts, and in Europe even many tenured faculty at top universities have salaries and working conditions that are much worse than even low-ranked universities in the United States.

P.S. See Russell’s comment below. David Rubinstein appears to be somewhat of an extreme case of the underworked and overpaid professor: he taught at a low-ranked but high-paying institution, he got his Ph.D. at a time where they were giving out tenure-track slots like candy canes at Christmas, he (by his own admission) spends a total of less than one hour per week on class preparation, grading, and advising combined, and he got a contract in an era with generous retirement benefits.

[Cross-posted at the Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.