Money pit

When a university faculty union distributes the salary list, public record becomes private hell.

Topics: Academia, College, Books,

It comes in a white business envelope, no mark but my name and department
on a computer-generated mailing label. Sometimes the address is written in
with a blue ink pen. It’s that time of year when our association of university
professionals distributes “the list”: salaries of all faculty and
academic staff.

It’s worse than the computer software commercial where a hacker e-mails the
salaries of upper management to the entire company. On prime time TV,
shared wages are the core of bad feelings, snide jokes, office wars,
mutiny. Wages are something to be kept hidden, a private matter like
marital problems or a case of hemorrhoids — real and pertinent to our everyday lives, but not something we talk about in the coffee lounge.

By all accounts I’m a short timer, someone with a fixed-term contract that
promises a full-time job with one stipulation: “This appointment is
contingent upon grant funding.” In many ways that one line is my
motivator. I research, I publish, I present, I write grants. I want
another year. I’ve accepted that I’m at the bottom of the university food
chain, an
academic staff member with no Ph.D. in hand, not even close to my
fingertips. I know the pecking order that exists among university
personnel on this campus and certainly others:
administrators, faculty, teaching academic staff, academic staff. But when
the list comes out, for all to see, the pecking order emerges in startling
black and white.

Our culture has conditioned us to accept that our identity is tied to our
jobs, of course, but there’s more. We are what we earn, our body and
spiritual worth equivalent to our gross net. I don’t like to believe it.
After all, I am a sometimes poet, unused to getting paid for my life’s
work. But what of the others? I imagine my tenured colleagues
sitting with their office doors
closed, checking the raises of friends and
foes, tennis partners and neighbors, new chairs and former deans. They
hover over their calculators figuring out who received extra
merit pay or that excellence in teaching award or both. One teacher
admitted that as a junior faculty member he computed the dollar amount of
his students per head, comparing the number of students in his survey
courses to the number of students in his tenured colleagues’ graduate
courses. This same faculty member commented that though the salary list
portrays “public” worth, it does not reflect “private” reputations: The
professor who wears bad plaid or the one who hasn’t changed his syllabus in 15 years; the professor whose students routinely leave her
office weeping or the one who hasn’t read a book in a decade.

I’m reminded of what I learned as a student, that for college educators,
more than other professionals, their career is their life. You can see it
in their cluttered offices, a definition of self lost among their
obsessions with books or baseball, “Star Trek” or frogs, passions in place
for the duration, a haven where personal and professional are inseparable.
I recognize now that tenure is as much “occupation” as “occupancy,” as much
“term of office” as “possession.” They are lifers.

Though I am outside of that loop, the salary list still bothers me. For
days after reading it I felt a need to renew my inner
dialogue, a little self-talk to make me feel better. You learn all of
your students’ names the first week, I tell myself. You bring
colleaguing to a new level: You even found a date for a physics professor.
You read the course catalog. You teach in a circle. You write student
references from memory. You display your Phi Kappa Phi sticker in your
office window. You know what GLOBE stands for. You support women’s
athletics. You never park in handicap spots. You recognize the chancellor
off-campus. You know the personnel organizational charts. You can name
five deans without looking. You stopped blowing bubbles at staff meetings
and wearing miniskirts on the days you teach. You cut your hair. You wear
make-up sparingly. You have an eye for details. You nixed your “Gilligan’s
Island” screen saver. You never run with scissors. You served on
committees to create committees. You wrote grants that have brought in
more money over the past four years than your salary. You haven’t lost your spunk. These are intangibles that can’t be reflected in salary recommendations, I remind myself.

But I obsess. I walk through the food court and pass a man I
recognize is two of me, a woman who is three of me, an administrator who is
nearly five of me. No one buys me lunch. I know that a power
structure exists in any career, any job, any office, any factory, yet it is
an impalpable system until we see salaries. New hires start at
$5,000 more than me per academic year for
three months less work. I know, I know, they have terminal degrees. All
the same, I’d rather not have this information.

There are obvious reasons our union distributes the salaries of faculty and
staff. The information is part of “public record,” my union representative
says. Other items of public record are
not released unless asked for, but this list — conveniently arranged by
department for easy comparison — is sent to all union members since it has
become such a common request of faculty and staff. There are also covert
reasons: Historically, faculty and academic staff at public universities
are not
paid as well as their peers in the private sector. Perhaps the plan
is to offset this sense of discrepancy with a hierarchy of our own: We’ll
compare ourselves to our colleagues and feel better or worse. An academic staff university
senator says that the salary list is one way to fight inequity. It is,
after all, more of a struggle to get off the bottom tier than a struggle for the
top. Or perhaps showing untenured professors and fixed-term academic staff
the salaries of their peers will make them work harder, the carrot in front
of us all.

The student newspaper occasionally publishes the salary list, usually when
tuition increases. I am waiting for a student, I imagine an entrepreneur
minor, petitioning to pay half as much tuition to take my class as his core
business courses. It could happen. This is the university.

“It’s like being in a roomful of novelists,” my tenured friend says, “and
you’ve self-published a book of love poems.” He’s telling me to get over it.
I’m trying.

Each fall I sharpen my pencils, arrange my
clean folders and buy a new pair of school shoes. I can’t get past the
old routine — good student. I watch the young men with their fresh haircuts
and new cologne, the young women with their new skirts and book bags. The
truth is I never wanted to graduate and this career allows me to remain a
part of the university. I also never really expected to make this much money, a
salary that was enough for my father to raise eight children with. I know,
as my father knew, who butters my bread and where to go to get sugar. Unlike my father,
I love my job.

The job’s not about money and the list reminds me. I stay for the perks: the
library, the research, the ambience and, let’s face it, the company. I
still believe I was hired for my position because I was the only candidate
to do a joy dance in her living room after reading the want ad, or perhaps
I was the only candidate to admit it in the interview. Either way, I know
I was born to work at a university. Where else could eccentrics and
intellectuals, ex-hippies and ex-reform school students, Oxford scholars
and local graduates find a common haven?

As a student I used to walk across campus
and I’d feel overwhelmed by the profusion of
scholarship, the promise of enlightenment and the potential for insight.
This campus still makes me believe in the possibility of cognition and
awareness for anyone, a place where the children of state representatives
and sanitation workers, neurosurgeons and domestic staff have an equal
chance. Walking across the campus mall to my office each morning, through
the spread of wealth and charm, I know that I am an integral part of
something I bought into as a student, this community of thinkers who may be
smart enough not to compare wages.

Patti See is student services coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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