Friday, June 03, 2011

Fat City: Thank you, Illinois taxpayers, for my cushy life

By David Rubinstein, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago

After 34 years of teaching sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I recently retired at age 64 at 80 percent of my pay for life. This calculation was based on a salary spiked by summer teaching, and since I no longer pay into the retirement fund, I now receive significantly more than when I “worked.” 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.

Having overinvested in my retirement annuity, I received a fat refund and—when it rains, it pours—another for unused sick leave. I was also offered the opportunity to teach as an emeritus for three years, receiving $8,000 per course, double the pay for adjuncts, which works out to over $200 an hour. Another going-away present was summer pay, one ninth of my salary, with no teaching obligation.

Easy Street

I haven’t done the math but I suspect that, given a normal life span, these benefits nearly doubled my salary. And in Illinois these benefits are constitutionally guaranteed, up there with freedom of religion and speech.

Why do I put “worked” in quotation marks? Because my main task as a university professor was self-cultivation: reading and writing about topics that interested me. Maybe this counts as work. But here I am today—like many of my retired colleagues—doing pretty much what I have done since the day I began graduate school, albeit with less intensity.

Before retiring, I carried a teaching load of two courses per semester: six hours of lecture a week. I usually scheduled classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays: The rest of the week was mine. Colleagues who pursued grants taught less, some rarely seeing a classroom. The gaps this left in the department’s course offerings were filled by adjuncts, hired with little scrutiny and subject to little supervision, and paid little.

Sometimes my teaching began at 9:30 a.m., but this was hardship duty. A night owl, I preferred to start my courses at 11 or 12. With an hour or so in my office to see an occasional student, I was at the (free) gym by 4 p.m. Department heads sometimes pleaded with faculty to alter their schedules to suit departmental needs, but rarely. Because most professors insist on selected hours, to avoid rush hour and to retain days at home, universities must build extra classroom space that stands empty much of the day.

The occasional seminars were opportunities for professors to kick back and let graduate students do the talking. Committee meetings were tedious but, except for the few good departmental citizens, most of us were able to avoid undue burdens.

Another perquisite of the job was a remarkable degree of personal freedom. Some professors came to class unshaven, wearing T-shirts and jeans. One of the deans scolded the faculty for looking like urban guerrillas. He was ridiculed as an authoritarian prig.

This schedule held for 30 weeks of the year, leaving free three months in summer, a month in December, and a week in spring, plus all the usual holidays. Every six years, there was sabbatical leave: a semester off at full pay to do research, which sometimes actually got done.

Most faculty attended academic conferences at taxpayer expense. Some of these were serious events, but always allowed ample time for schmoozing and sightseeing. A group of professors who shared my interests applied for a grant to fund a conference at Lake Como. It was denied because we had failed to include any women and so we settled for an all-expenses-paid week at Cambridge, England.

The grandest prize of all is, of course, tenure. The tenured live in a different world than ordinary mortals, a world in which fears of unemployment are banished, futures can be confidently planned, and retirement is secure.

All of this at a university without union representation!

To be fair, the first years of a newly hired assistant professor can be harrowing. 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.

My colleagues, to their credit, promoted me to full professor knowing my ideological heterodoxy. I fear that a young Ph.D. looking for work today who challenged the increasingly rigid political orthodoxies would have a hard time. But the discipline of sociology is so ideologically homogenous—a herd, as Harold Rosenberg put it, of independent minds—that this problem is rare. Universities cherish diversity in everything except where it counts most: ideas.

According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, Harvard, donating 4 to 1 in favor of Democrats in 2008, was one of the more politically diverse major American universities. Ninety-two percent of employees at the University of Chicago donated to Democrats. The University of California favored Democrats over Republicans, 90 percent to 10 percent. And William and Mary employees preferred Democrats to the GOP by a margin of 99 percent to 1 percent. Neil Gross of Harvard found that 87.6 percent of social scientists voted for Kerry, 6.2 percent for Bush.

Gross also found that 25 percent of sociologists characterize themselves as Marxists, likely a higher percentage than members of the Chinese Communist party. I would guess that if Lenin were around today he would be teaching sociology and seeking grants to fund the revolution.

The research requirements to achieve tenure and promotion are rigorous. The top journals reject as much as 90 percent of the work submitted, so accumulating the half-dozen or so articles usually required to be tenured took sustained effort.

But it is not clear what value this work has to those who pay the salaries. As Thomas Sowell has argued, building a scholarly reputation requires finding a niche that no one else has explored—often for good reason. I am hard pressed to explain why sometimes exquisitely esoteric interests should be supported by taxpayers: This expertise certainly does not match the educational needs of students. (Full disclosure: The book that established my scholarly reputation is titled Marx and Wittgenstein: Social Science and Social Praxis.)

The work done by most of my colleagues did bear on issues of wider relevance and not all of it was so ideologically compromised as to be useless. But the readership of academic journals is tiny, and most of this work had no impact beyond a small circle of interested academics—for understandable reasons. Philip Tetlock, a research psychologist at Berkeley, tested the accuracy of 82,361 predictions made by 284 experts including psychologists, economists, political scientists, and area and foreign policy specialists, 96 percent with post-graduate training. He found that their prognostications did not beat chance. The increasingly ideological nature of social science will not improve this record.

To be sure, some of my colleagues were prodigious researchers, devoted teachers, and outstanding departmental, university, and professional citizens. But sociologists like to talk about what they call the “structural” constraints on behavior. While character and professional ethics can withstand the incentives to coast, the privileged position of a tenured professor guarantees that there will be slackers.

An argument can be made that, compared with professionals in the private sector, college professors are underpaid, though according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “by rank, the average [salary] was $108,749 for full professors.” It is difficult to compare the overall goodness of different lives, but there is a back of the envelope shortcut. 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.

The life of a professor is far more attractive than that of most government employees, but elements of professorial privilege can be found in the lives of other public sector workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the quit rate for government workers is less than one-third that of the private sector. Applications for federal jobs exceed those for the private sector by at least 25 percent, and when workers move from private to federal employment their earnings, according to Princeton’s Alan Krueger, increase by 12 percent.

And then there are the public schools. Because K-12 education is local, generalizations are difficult. But there are many egregious cases. Less than 2 percent of teachers in Los Angeles are denied tenure. In the last decade, according to LA Weekly, the city “spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district’s 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance.” Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, liberal, and former union organizer, described union leadership as an “unwavering roadblock to reform.” Teachers in Florida gain tenure after three years of “satisfactory” evaluations and, in 2009, 99.7 percent received this evaluation. Michelle Rhee said that when she took over the D.C. school system in 2007, 95 percent of the teachers were rated excellent and none was terminated. Just 0.1 percent of Chicago teachers were fired for poor performance between 2005 and 2008.

This circumstance has attracted the attention of public officials. Illinois, with the support of some prominent Democrats, is desperate to cut back a public employee pension system that, even with recent reforms, will go broke within 10 years. John Kasich, Republican governor of Ohio, has proposed that the teaching load of college professors be increased by one course every two years.

Such efforts at restraint are routinely met with Wisconsin-like howls of outrage. One of my colleagues, whose retirement benefits exceed the $77,900 household income average for retired government employees in Illinois, was indignant that the state had managed to require an additional $17 a month for his dental insurance. How dare they!

Protests against efforts to reform pay scales, teaching loads, and retirement benefits employ a “solidarity forever, the union makes us strong” rhetoric. What these professors and other government workers do not understand is that they are not demanding a share of the profits from the fat-cat bourgeoisie. They are squeezing taxpayers—for whom the professors purport to advocate—whose lives are in most cases far harsher than their own.


There is a grumpy but shallow reply to Rubinstein by philoophy professor Roderick T. Long here. My own experience (tenured) teaching Sociology for 12 years in a major Australian university was very similar to what Rubenstein reports. The major difference is that I always speed-read student assignments so spent little time on it. My marking was not degraded by that however. Colleagues even congratulated me on how good I was at marking!

I also did what academics are supposed to do: Spend heaps of time on research. But, judging by their output and other things that I saw, I was very much the exception in that regard among my colleagues. There were many periods when I was the only academic in the Department who was actually in his office -- usually poring over computer printouts or hammering away on my old Olivetti typewriter. I also used to spend half a day a week in the "current journals" section of the library -- but I doubt if I ever saw a Sociology colleague there -- JR

Indian-American girl scoops $40,000 spelling-bee prize with 'cymotrichous'

Ms. Roy is the ninth Indian-American in the last 13 years to win. How come such a tiny minority is so outstanding -- even when many would come from homes where English is not the first language? No mystery really. Indians are extremely verbal. Talk is one of India's major exports. When you call the call-centre of a large organization, your query will often be routed through to India

Sukanya Roy, a 14-year-old girl from Pennsylvania, wins the 2011 US National Spelling Bee by spelling the word 'cymotrichous'.

Miss Roy took top prize in the 84th annual US National Spelling Bee after she saw off her competitors over 20 rounds of on-the-spot spelling at the final in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

After winning, the teenager, who was competing in her third championships, was shaking with excitement.

"My heart started pounding, I guess. I couldn't believe it," Miss Roy told broadcaster ESPN, immediately after receiving her trophy.

The finals have been screened live on US television since 2006 and drew and audience of over one million last year.

The winning word, cymotrichous, is an adjective relating to having wavy hair. Miss Roy, who also speaks fluent Bengali, said she knew the word immediately. "I just wanted to spell it right," she said. "I really didn't want to get it wrong."

Besides the trophy, the newly-crowned champion speller took home a $30,000 cash prize, a $2,500 US savings bond, a complete reference library, a $5,000 scholarship, $2,600 in reference works and other prizes.


18 Signs That Life In U.S. Public Schools Is Now Essentially Equivalent To Life In U.S. Prisons

In the United States today, our public schools are not very good at educating our students, but they sure are great training grounds for learning how to live in a Big Brother police state control grid. Sadly, life in many U.S. public schools is now essentially equivalent to life in U.S. prisons.

Most parents don't realize this, but our students have very few rights when they are in school. Our public school students are being watched, tracked, recorded, searched and controlled like never before. Back when I was in high school, it was unheard of for a police officer to come to school, but today our public school students are being handcuffed and arrested in staggering numbers. When I was young we would joke that going to school was like going to prison, but today that is actually true.

The following are 18 signs that life in our public schools is now very similar to life in our prisons....

#1 Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has announced that school officials can search the cell phones and laptops of public school students if there are "reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school."

#2 It came out in court that one school district in Pennsylvania secretly recorded more than 66,000 images of students using webcams that were embedded in school-issued laptops that the students were using at home.

#3 If you can believe it, a "certified TSA official" was recently brought in to oversee student searches at the Santa Fe High School prom.

#4 A few years ago a class of 3rd grade students at one Kentucky elementary school were searched by a group of teachers after 5 dollars went missing. During the search the students were actually required to remove their shoes and their socks.

#5 At one public school in the Chicago area, children have been banned from bringing their lunches from home. Yes, you read that correctly. Students at that particular school are absolutely prohibited from bringing lunches from home. Instead, it is mandatory that they eat the food that the school cafeteria serves.

#6 The U.S. Department of Agriculture is spending huge amounts of money to install surveillance cameras in the cafeterias of public schools so that government control freaks can closely monitor what our children are eating.

#7 A teenager in suburban Dallas was recently forced to take on a part-time job after being ticketed for using bad language in one high school classroom. The original ticket was for $340, but additional fees have raised the total bill to $637.

#8 It is not just high school kids that are being ticketed by police. In Texas the crackdown extends all the way down to elementary school students. In fact, it has been reported that Texas police gave "1,000 tickets" to elementary school kids over a recent six year period.

#9 A few months ago, a 17 year-old honor student in North Carolina named Ashley Smithwick accidentally took her father's lunch with her to school. It contained a small paring knife which he would use to slice up apples. So what happened to this standout student when the school discovered this? The school suspended her for the rest of the year and the police charged her with a misdemeanor.

#10 A little over a year ago, a 6 year old girl in Florida was handcuffed and sent to a mental facility after throwing temper tantrums at her elementary school.

#11 In early 2010, a 12 year old girl in New York was arrested by police and marched out of her school in handcuffs just because she doodled on her desk. "I love my friends Abby and Faith" was what she reportedly wrote on her desk.

#12 There are actually some public schools in the United States that are so paranoid that they have actually installed cameras in student bathrooms.

#13 Down in Florida, students have actually been arrested by police for bringing a plastic butter knife to school, for throwing an eraser, and for drawing a picture of a gun.

#14 The Florida State Department of Juvenile Justice has announced that it will begin using analysis software to predict crime by young delinquents and will place "potential offenders" in specific prevention and education programs.

#15 A group of high school students made national headlines a while back when they revealed that they were ordered by a security guard to stop singing the national anthem during a visit to the Lincoln Memorial.

#16 In some U.S. schools, armed cops accompanied by police dogs actually conduct surprise raids with their guns drawn. In this video, you can actually see police officers aiming their guns at school children as the students are lined up facing the wall.

#17 Back in 2009, one 8 year old boy in Massachusetts was sent home from school and was forced to undergo a psychological evaluation because he drew a picture of Jesus on the cross.

#18 This year, 13 parents in Duncan, South Carolina were actually arrested for cheering during a high school graduation.


No comments: