Thursday, April 30, 2020

Academic pay cuts vs job cuts

Hopefully the financial situation for universities next year will turn out to be less dire than many fear. And hopefully what cost-cutting measures are needed can largely be achieved by cutting down on non-academic "bloat" together with temporary reductions to discretionary budgets (turning research "travel" virtual, etc.).  But suppose that this isn't enough, and your department needs to spend less on academic salaries.  How should this be done, to minimize harm?

Most universities appear to have already implemented a "hiring freeze" as a first step.  Contingent faculty may be the next to go.  This is all incredibly damaging, both for the individuals directly affected and for our academic disciplines more broadly.  It would seem far less damaging, and much more efficient, to look first for savings from the "haves" rather than the "have-nots".

Immense gains are possible from encouraging retirement, as the most senior professors may earn several times what their more junior counterparts do (let alone contingent faculty).  But a hiring freeze is a major obstacle to this, at least if departments aren't assured that the tenure line will be promptly returned to them once the present crisis is past.

My previous post set out the general case for beneficent retirement (with replacement). The strength of this general argument is magnified immensely in a financial crisis.  Next year is expected to have approximately zero academic jobs available.  The potential loss of philosophical talent for our discipline is heartbreaking (as will be the personal circumstances for many of those job-seekers). But, to put a slightly mercenary spin on it, this tragedy presents an incredible opportunity for some forward-looking university to invest in hiring their "pick of the crop".

By offering 'academic successorships' in exchange for immediate retirements, universities would save far more money than they would with a hiring freeze, help to (slightly) alleviate the upcoming "extra-brutal" job market, and the newly-emeritus professor is honoured by all for the essential role they played in enabling it all.  Win-win?

(Of course, this only applies in contexts where the university has good reason to want to sustain the present size of a department into the longer term.  If they have independent grounds to want to shrink or restructure a bloated department, then a temporary (e.g. post-doc) successor position may be the best that can be hoped for.)

So that strikes me as the morally (and institutionally) best "first step", instead of a hiring freeze.  Layoffs of early-career academics (including contingent faculty) should be the absolute last resort, since in the present job climate that is effectively a career-ending move.  Before such drastic harms are imposed on anyone, we should be much more willing to consider (temporary) salary reductions for better-off academics.

Extravagantly well-paid senior professors (and even we merely-comfortably-salaried tenure-track faculty) might not exactly like to have their pay cut, but it's unlikely to cause any real hardship, especially if (as Helen suggested to me) the cost-sharing is sensibly implemented with a progressive structure, like the tax code.  Perhaps everyone's first $50k in salary remains untouched, with an 10% reduction from the next $50k, 20% from the next, and so on.  Adjust the numbers as needed.

I understand that institutions usually try to avoid nominal pay cuts to avoid causing resentment or otherwise damaging workplace morale.  But in a genuine financial emergency, the move might meet with more understanding (if it's clear that other measures have been taken first, and that senior administrators are sacrificing at least as much).  I would certainly much rather take a moderate pay cut than have any non-trivial risk of losing my academic job in the present circumstances, and I'd expect other academics (if they're being honest) to feel similarly.


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