Monday, February 10, 2014

Who pays?

[This is a post I generated for my other blog Payperazzi, for which it's admittedly better suited, but I'm cross-posting it here in the hopes of hearing as many different stories as I can.]

It's been my experience, and it's also perfectly natural, that the majority of students who trek through a MFA in creative writing program--along with several students who study creative writing as undergraduates--hope to someday, in some capacity, work in higher education, preferably teaching writing and preferably full-time.  This isn't surprising, and I can tell them that on the whole I've been rather happy with my choice of profession.  Indeed, knowing myself, and looking back over my job history, it's hard for me to imagine I would have stayed satisified in the different careers I tried when I was younger.  That said, there are all sorts of practical details of a full-time higher education job that no one considers when they are in graduate school but probably they should be warned about.  For instance, there's that messy little business of job-mandated dinner appointments, appointments for which one is rarely if ever reimbursed.  All things considered this is a minor matter in one's life as a college professor, but it's a matter that comes up time and again, year after year, like a pebble buried in the heal of one's running shoe, as job candidate after job candidate comes to your university and you are simply required to pay up, out of your own pocket, in order to host them.

Sometimes one willingly and eagerly pays to help host a visitor.  For instance, when the creative writers  at my school invite a writer to campus I am often so happy to have the chance to break bread with the writer that I don't mind paying for the privilege.  Such meals aren't burdens but opportunities, opportunities that we creative writers gave ourselves when we decided to invite those specific people to our school.  But some dinner appointments are much less interesting while at the same time mandated.  This is typically the case when a job applicant come to town for an interview and you are on the hiring committee that reviewed his or her folder.  I understand that a school must feed a person who's on campus for a job interview.  What I don't understand is legislating that the meal is the only way the committee gets to interact with the job candidate (this does happen), meaning that not a soul on the committee has the option to skip the meal, even if his or her bank account has no funds with which to pay for it.   I don't imagine that when managers at Wal*Mart or IBM or Exxon or _______ (insert name of familiar corporation here) take a job candidate to dinner, those managers are paying for their own meals.  Perhaps they do, but I'd be surprised.  In higher education, faculty are required to do this all the time.

And one dirty little secret of academia is that there are drastic discrepancies in faculty pay.  I don't just mean from region to region, state to state, and university to university.  Those can almost be anticipated.  (And they make meaningless any figure cited as a "national average" for college professors.) But even within a given university, faculty of equal rank, seniority, and accomplishment often receive vastly different salaries.  By "vast" I mean vast.  By the way, did I say that discrepencies are vast?  They are.  They're vast.  This has nothing to do with the amount of hours one logs on the job, how well one is teaching one's students, what service work one is performing for one's college, how much one is publishing, or whether or not one has a national reputation in one's field.  It simply has to do with what discipline you're lucky, or unlucky, enough to excel at, and how highly the university regards that discipline.  In certain disciplines you're driving sports cars; in other disciplines you're wondering how you are going to make it to the end of the week.  But no matter what the discipline, if you're on a hiring committee you're expected to take the candidate to dinner and pay for your dinner yourself.

Like I said when I opened this post, this is a relatively minor aspect of one's day-to-day life as a higher education professional.  It's one of the down sides to a career choice that has many ups.  But it does grate.  It just seems to me that if the university is mandating that one attend a given dinner for the sake of university business, the university should foot the bill.  Obviously, a person who is not on the hiring committee, and therefore does not have to attend the dinner, should pay his or her own way if he or she chooses to dine.  But if you're made to be there, the body that is making you owes it to you to cover your expense.   This strikes me as only commonsensical.  But it's just another example of an unfortunate phenomenon I've noted in recent years.  Universities will often hail the virtues of the "corporate model" if doing so means they can spend less on and for faculty.  But those same universities will ignore the corporate model in situations where corporations are actually more generous  toward their employees than the university wants to be.  In certain universities one has the uncomfortable feeling that the administration would prefer to actually spend nothing at all on faculty, despite the obvious fact that gathering students and teaching them is the entire point of higher education.  It's the reason why the university exists at all.  It's why those pretty brick buildings were built.  It's why administrators have the jobs they do.

Oh well, if I get started down that road I could go on forever.  So, tell me, who pays at your university for mandated dinners?  Am I wrong about the corporate world?  Does anyone have a better system and a happier story?


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