Tuesday, May 29, 2012
I'm stepping aside from the usual theme today to discuss a subject close to the heart of any writer who works in the academy--and that's many of us, including those of us who love to read and write historical fiction. So maybe it's not off subject at all. My subject today: the actual business of professorship. Why write about this now? Well, the immediate cause is three news items that appeared in recent weeks on the front page of our local newspaper, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. But the truer, abiding cause is a long held frustration at certain notions about my job that are as deeply seated in the American consciousness as they are fallacious. It's commonly expressed among professionals who work in higher education, especially professionals who teach writing, that no one understands what we do. Certainly, no one gets how hard work it is. There's the age old cliche of the college professor: the bearded, avuncular man in the tweed coat with elbow patches who smokes his fragrant pipe while whiling away lazy hours talking philosophy and encouragement to his circle of dewy-eyed young charges. Essays have been written about how this cliche has been fostered--and is still incredibly maintained--by a host of mostly bad and even occasionally decent movies. Whatever the motivations of those who invented and insist on still fostering this cliche--and I suspect it was derived from a certain fond nostalgia toward old professors they admired but never actually knew--I'm afraid that the impression that finally lingers in the minds of generation of viewers isn't Oh, how valuable and influential is this professor, but Man, this guy doesn't really work, does he?
Back to the newspaper articles. The first article was a report from my own university, The University of Central Arkansas, where for the sixth year out of the last seven, our board of trustees has voted for no pay adjustment for faculty even while giving the president of the university a raise. By "no pay adjustment," I mean exactly that: no change in pay whatsoever. Not even a cost of living adjustment. For the record, UCA faculty would have been ecstatic to get a cost of living adjustment. All we actually asked for was a 1.5% increase, which doesn't even keep up with the cost of living but would put us not quite so far behind come fall, when the increase would have gone into effect. Oh, and that one year when we did receive a pay increase? Well, that was a big whopping 2.5%. Long story short, to work at the University of Central Arkansas is to live on a fixed income, with all the problems that entails. And keep in mind that employees at universities are not senior citizens whose birds have all left the nest, but are often young parents trying to support growing families with expanding needs. And one more thing: Public school teachers--along with every other employee of the state--receive regular COLAs and pay increases, by law. Why not faculty in higher education, you say? I'm curious about that too.
The other two news items were as follows: a notice that the governor of Arkansas--who I actually once voted for (but only once)--forbade public universities across the state from giving one-time pay bonuses to their faculties. Even if the boards that control those universities decided bonuses were deserved and economically feasible, they were forbidden from giving them by governmental decree. Can you imagine if the company you worked for decided it wanted to give you a raise--and could afford to give you a raise--but then at the last minute the governor of your state stepped in and said, Whoa, not so fast there. Nothing doing. A little frustrating, huh? Now add to this scenario the background situation of no pay adjustment for six out of the past seven years. A tad more frustrating, isn't it? Now add a few more background facts: Your region ranks last in the United States in pay for public university faculty. Your state ranks last in its region. Your university ranks last in your state. And your college--the College of Fine Arts and Communication (CFAC)--ranks last at your university. So as UCA CFAC faculty you are the lowest paid public university faculty in the entire country. The other relevant news item described pay raises to be enacted at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville come fall. The raises aren't that big, and that's not really the news. The news is that UAF faculty, like UCA's, went so long without one. So long the school was losing good faculty and having a hard time attracting good new faculty. (I'm quite familiar with this phenomenon.) The crux of the matter to me is: Why is this allowed to go on year after year, even at the state's flagship university?
The answer can be found in my first paragraph. The public does not believe that university faculty actually work, a fallacy and a prejudice that appears to be shared by many legislators and even the governor of my state. It's a shameful fact that only a minority of the population of Arkansas has earned a college degree. What that unfortunately translates to in the running of the state's business is a lack of respect for higher education and a lack of understanding for what it can do, for how vital it can be to one's improvement, to remaking and resetting one's life. Too, unfortunately, it translates into a lack of respect for, and a lack of understanding of, the work done day in and day out by faculty at colleges and universities. Clearly, the governor believes there is no political fallout coming to him by denying the bonuses. (And he's a Democrat!) Indeed, I have to think the governor believes it is a popular political play to deny bonuses to supposedly pampered, supposedly whiny university faculty. (This is not the first time, by the way, our governor has gotten in the way of pay adjustments for public university faculty.) Otherwise, why would the governor of Arkansas--a completely political animal--do it?
Finally, the matter should and must come down to this: If the above image of university faculty is fallacious, what's the reality that's suffering beneath the lie? This post has gone on too long already, so that's a question I'll have to answer next time.