The “cushy life” of a University of Illinois sociology professor

Xian points me to an article by retired college professor David Rubinstein who argues that college professors are underworked and overpaid:

After 34 years of teaching sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I [Rubinstein] recently retired at age 64 at 80 percent of my pay for life. . . . 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. . . . I was also offered the opportunity to teach as an emeritus for three years, receiving $8,000 per course . . . which works out to over $200 an hour. . . .

You will perhaps not be surprised to hear that I had two immediate and opposite reactions to this:

1. Hey–somebody wants to cut professors’ salaries. Stop him!

2. Hey–this guy’s making big bucks and doesn’t do any work–that’s not fair! (I went online to find David Rubinstein’s salary but it didn’t appear in the database. So I did the next best thing and looked up the salaries of full professors in the UIC sociology department. The salaries ranged from 90K to 135K. That really is higher than I expected, given that (a) sociology does not have a reputation as being a high-paying field, and (b) UIC is OK but it’s not generally considered a top university.

Having these two conflicting reactions made me want to think about this further.

First, the specifics on that $8000 course. 8000/200 = 40. Rubinstein’s planning to spend only 40 hours teaching a course? I’m assuming it’s a 1-semester course, if it’s 13 weeks at 3 classroom hours per week, that’s 39 hours already. So he’s planning to spend 1 hour during the entire semester for class preparation, meetings with students, grading papers, and everything else. And, indeed, Rubinstein writes:

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.

Ouch! I guess he wasn’t kidding about that $200/hour thing.

Update: See Rubinstein’s comment below. He had 2 classroom hours per week for 15 weeks. He says he still spent less than 40 hours total per semester, so this means he spent less than 1 hour per week on class preparation, office hours, and all other work required for the course. He writes that he is not a “slacker,” which implies, I assume, that this was the typical level of effort of instructors at his university.

Too cushy and too well-paid

Rubinstein’s fundamental criticism of the system, though, is not that he’s a slacker but that the college-professor job is too good. Some jobs are easy and some jobs are well-paid but it seems wrong for a job to be both. And a bit of evidence in favor of the “prof jobs are too cushy” argument is that nobody ever seems to quit:

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.

To me it comes down to the question: does the University of Illinois want to compete for top professors? Rubinstein writes as if it’s surprising and wrong that high pay, good benefits, generous retirement, job security, and an easy workload go together. But from an economic point of view, this makes sense: all these can be considered as different forms of compensation. If you want to get the best people, you need to compete, and the college-professor job is desirable in several dimensions.

Another positive feature of teaching, which Rubinstein could’ve mentioned but didn’t, is that your dollar goes further in a college setting. Princeton and Stanford aside, college towns tend to be not too expensive to life in, and you’re implicitly comparing your living standards to students. I imagine that people working for big companies and living in fancy suburbs feel more pressure to keep up with the Joneses. A $5 coffee at the local college-town Starbucks might seem like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to the cost of a McMansion or an SUV.

The life of the college processor is indeed enviable (even though I don’t really envy Rubinstein’s own work life, as he seems to have focused too much on reducing his workload rather than on actually enjoying his job). Some of this must be simple market forces–if you make the job less desirable, you won’t get the top candidates–and I think some must be from historical contingency. Profs traditionally got summers off and flexible hours but low salaries, then when money flowed into the system, salaries went up. The system has a lot of inertia: except in exceptional economic times, you never seem to hear of professors getting salary cuts, even if they’ve been sitting around doing nothing for 20 years.

Rubinstein writes:

The research requirements to achieve tenure and promotion are rigorous. . . . But it is not clear what value this work has to those who pay the salaries. . . . This expertise certainly does not match the educational needs of students. (Full disclosure: The book that established my [Rubenstein’s] scholarly reputation is titled Marx and Wittgenstein: Social Science and Social Praxis.)

His basic argument, I think, is that it would be ok for universities to save some money and pay their faculty less (either in salary or in reduced benefits). But the U.S. university system is decentralized, so if one university decides to cut back and not compete for the best faculty, it will lose in reputation, have more difficulty getting top students, etc. The most that Rubinstein can probably realistically hope for is a gradual ratcheting down of standards and working conditions. It’s certainly possible: we all know how tenure-track faculty are being replaced with adjuncts, and in Europe even many tenured faculty at top universities have salaries and working conditions that are much worse than even low-ranked universities in the United States.

P.S. See Russell’s comment below. David Rubinstein appears to be somewhat of an extreme case of the underworked and overpaid professor: he taught at a low-ranked but high-paying institution, he got his Ph.D. at a time where they were giving out tenure-track slots like candy canes at Christmas, he (by his own admission) spends a total of less than one hour per week on class preparation, grading, and advising combined, and he got a contract in an era with generous retirement benefits.

30 thoughts on “The “cushy life” of a University of Illinois sociology professor

  1. I am a phd student and nearly all my friends consider academia a place filled with slackers.

    My perspective is somewhat different.

    First of all, I think that I have a good perspective on how much people in corporate life work. My friends are in their twenties and work at FMCG firms (Unilever, P&G, Henkel, …), a few work in the financial industry (Trading at small proprietary traders and some at bulge brackets like GS), others working in production industry etc. My wife works at a consulting firm. I am pretty sure that I am in the top quintile when it comes to hours I put in my job (if obtaining a phd is a job) when I compare myself with my friends. On the other hand I am in the bottom quintile when I compare myself with my peers -and that in Europe. Nowadays I am visiting at a uni in New York ;-) and people seem even more hard working. [Not to proud of my working hours, trying to change that!]

    Young AP's typically put in a lot of hours: publish or perish. Moreover competition in academia has increased tremendously. There is a large supply of phd's and only a few spots in academia. If you are smart enough (or unlucky enough) to have studied physics (just an example), you may well have to enjoy years of a low paid postdoc position.

    I have the strong impression that the slackers at my home institution are typically found among the older professors. The young generation of academics seems to be a lot more hard working. Of course it may be the case that these will become more lazy as they age but I am not sure about that. Even in that case it just seems like frontloading your working life.

    Of course academia can be great. This morning I went for a run, then took the subway across Manhattan while enjoying a book and now I am wasting half an hour posting on this blog wearing shorts and slippers. In a corporate job I would earn nearly twice as much as my stipend, but I wouldn't be contemplating on the joys of job.

    PS: I deliberately did not refer to entrepreneurs. I only compare academics with corporate jobs.

  2. Very few people may leave the professor job because getting a faculty position requires a substantial input of time and effort up front. I am currently a PhD student and I am pretty certain that, if I were not certain in my career interests, I would not be "here" right now. A lot of the weeding can happen in graduate school.

    The abundance of applicants is another issue.

  3. This sentence certainly jumped out at me:

    The most that Rubinstein can probably realistically hope for is a gradual ratcheting down of standards and working conditions.

    Given the considerable success (?) we've had in achieving this result in the rest of the economy, we can be optimistic. Indeed it seems we are well on our way with a cadre of part-time and adjunct faculty.

  4. Speaking as an Illinois taxpayer, it's the pension system that's the problem. As he notes, "since I no longer pay into the retirement fund, I now receive significantly more than when I “worked.”"

    At age 64, it's possible this pension will be collected for another 24 years.

    The question a benefits special would ask — beyond whether the state legislature had oatmeal for brains over the past 30 years — is whether this was a good 'bang for the buck' benefit. In other words, if you are going to spend $1 to attract good faculty, what do you want to spend $1 on, so that it is worth $1.50 to the faculty member, and not $.50? Did faculty at age 35 really appreciate that gigantic pension, or would they rather have had more file space at that moment?

  5. Okay, having moved from industry to academia, I can give you a detailed comparison of the differences.

    1) When I moved from industry to academia I was able to negotiate a salary that was 9/12 of my current salary. Presumably I can get full salary if I can find summer support, but that is uncertain. Otherwise, I get summers off.

    2) Benefits initially were about a wash. This year the state legislature has enacted a 3% benefit cut. It is unclear whether the President will find money from elsewhere (tuition increases) to make up the difference.

    3) People who have been there longer have reported no salary increase in 7 years, where I regularly got raises on the order of 2–4%/year in industry.

    4) Teaching is harder work than the pure research job I had before. Students are more demanding than my bosses ever were. My 4 hour intro stat course takes me about 8 hrs/week in prep time, 1/hr week (average) in face to face meetings with students, 8hr/week in grading (if I delegate this all to the TAs I don't get feedback on how my students are doing). 2–4/hrs per week in coordinating with TAs and other instructors. TAs can't be simply left to do the grading on their own, they need to be carefully supervised to make sure that they are providing correct and useful feedback! I might be able to cut some of that prep time once I get into a better rhythm.

    5) On top of teaching two courses, I am also supervising 6 PhD students. I also need to sit on committees for other peoples students.

    6) On top of that I'm supposed to be spending about 1/2 my time on research, and 5% on other service.

    With all these things taken together, I find myself with less time to spend with my family than before. Note, I have not yet gone through my first summer.

    7) Expenses have not been particularly lower. Food prices are actually slightly higher in FL than in NJ. Although if I owned my home, housing costs would be less (taxes are much lower), I'm currently renting and paying more for rent in a smaller space than I was paying for mortgage+taxes in NJ.

    8) A big advantage for me has been the freedom to pursue my own research project. In industry, my favorite projects were often given low priority by management. On the other hand, if I can't find funding for these, this influence my chance at tenure.

    Personally, I enjoy both teaching and mentoring grad students. I think it is important work. So the upshot for me is that by moving to academia, I'm paid less, working harder, but have more flexibility and am having more fun.

  6. My father & both grandfathers were profs, and back in my teens and twenties I was sure I was going to be one too. In grad school I finally got some real insight into just how hard it was to make it through the academic filtering process, and just how obsessed with their work the successful people have to be. So I used my background with software and quantitative skills to switch to finance. Not very socially redeeming, but it's a living.

    No one goes into academia for the money. And no one outside academia would think 90-135K is major bucks for someone with many years experience in a line of work that requires 5+ years of post-BA school plus years more of postdoc / junior faculty purgatory. Comfortable, perhaps – though perhaps not in a major urban area.

    I have a lot of trouble begrudging successful academics their salaries and pensions.

  7. Some of the "working hard" perception is just that: perception. Someone in academia may well feel he or she doesn't work very hard; someone in the corporate world may well feel that people don't work very hard in academia. However, I suspect that academia has a higher percent of people doing what they *want* to do, and that can make it seem the person isn't really "working".

    Further, Rubinstein is committing just the sort of fallacy that a sociologist should avoid: because *he* doesn't work very hard and is paid well, it's evidence that academics are generally underworked and overpaid as a class. Yes, once tenure is achieved one can do what Rubinstein appears to do: go through the motions, teaching the same material in the same way he's done for years. A further fallacy is his use of applicant/leaving data as evidence for the desirability of the profession using the presumption that the desirability is based on low work level for high pay,. Has he controlled for the factor of desirability based on people *wanting* to teach and research in academia? (disclaimer: maybe he does. I didn't read his actual article.)

    Years and years ago, I did one of those interest surveys that's intended to suggest various careers. I was at the time a double major in Anthropology and Economics. The software came up with Anthro as a suggestion, but not Econ. On the face of it, they're similar fields: raise a question, collect and analyze data, and write up the interpretation and conclusions. It turned out that Econ wasn't suggested because I didn't want to work *too* hard, and Anthropologists think they don't work very hard while Economists think they work very hard indeed.

  8. My impression is that a credit bubble has crept up in education loans, which has allowed institutions to charge more for tuition and in turn bid more for professor's talents. This has resulted in higher salaries for professors and also fewer teaching requirements (hiring more professors for the same number of courses).

    My guess is that while state budgets are breaking and student loans become more expensive that lower ranked schools will have fewer funds available and you'll see higher income inequality between professors of top schools and lower ranked ones.

  9. Since this is a statistics blog, we should debunk his ridiculous logic: "In my 34 years, just one professor in the sociology department resigned to take a nonacademic job."

    1. I'm assuming he means professors who have received tenure (as opposed to junior faculty). You can't ignore the path to get there. There are lots of successful salespeople in industry who scramble to fill their quotas in the first half of the year, and then sit on the beach for the next 6 months. You can't point to those 6 months and ignore the rest.

    2. Self-selection. People who won tenure are those who like the lifestyle/ prestige / whatever that comes with a professor's job and/or are talented enough to hold such jobs. It is natural that there is not much migration mid-career.

    3. Symmetry. In his 34 years, has he seen lots of industry people clamoring to join academia? If not, why is this comparison asymmetric?

    4. Multiple objectives. Is pay to work ratio the only thing everyone cares about in a job?

  10. I quit my job at Carnegie Mellon right after getting tenure. I moved to Bell Labs, where I was paid about 50% more and it felt like a sabbatical all year round compared to working as a teacher, adviser, fundraiser, administrator and researcher. I only had to do research. (You could argue that's all I had to do in academia, too, given how little research universities care about classroom education.)

    Ironically, non-academic friends and family thought I'd finally have to work hard, now that I had a "real job".

    I then moved to a more typical industry position for a couple years, then to a two-person software company. Both of which were far easier than working as a professor, but not a whole lot more lucrative when you consider gains in CS professor pay (one upside of the dot com boom, though it'd have required the standard game of getting competing offers and/or moving to realize the pay raise — academia does a terrible job of providing raises for existing faculty in ordinary circumstances).

    Now I'm back working 4 days/week with Andrew as a "research scientist". It's not permanent, the pay makes it feel like volunteer work, and I have zero say in the department as a whole (which can be a good thing — it means no committee work). So it's definitely a two-tiered caste system. I didn't feel this so heavily when I was in the high caste position.

    There's also a strong headwind of bureaucracy, though that suffuses large companies, as well as academia.

    I also find the intellectual property constraints really off-putting at universities. Columbia owns 100% of the intellectual property despite the fact that my pay and overhead comes from government grants. I'm waiting for the revolution from those paying for the research. Right after we overthrow the non-open-access journals (suggestion: start by refusing to review for them; nothing bad will happen to you, really).

    The only real upside is being able to work on problems I care about and do so with other people interested in those problems. If I only wanted smart colleagues, I could find plenty of those in industry (in my experience, academics seriously underestimate how smart non-academics are).

  11. Foster Boondoggle is correct.

    In the corporate world, not many would consider $90k to $135k a whole lot in a major metro for someone who is highly experienced and highly educated.

    Not sure why that's being depicted as some sort of travesty.

    The travesty, it seems to me after reading the article, is that Rubinstein is essentially admitting to not doing his job because no one can make him — and he thinks it's an indictment of the system and not him.

  12. Russel: having moved from research institute to academia for a one year visit, I can give you a detailed comparison of the differences.

    The visiting position I had was what most would take as their start prior to tenour stream.

    Similar to your situation, drop in pay and huge increase in workload. My hours were Monday – Friday 7 am to 7 pm (ok the last hours on Friday were post seminar wine and cheese) and at least 4 hours on both Saturday and Sunday. My birthday fell on a Saturday – so that day I did not go in. But I really enjoyed it and as I was away from my family – it did not lead to a divorce.

    Times and places change and I do remember "dead wood" faculty when I was a grad student.

    But the above work load seemed the usual amongst tenour streams and in talking to my wife who is a research facilitator who helps tenour stream faculty get their grants – we both are glad our relatives are not currently tenour stream. All and all it's hard to see its worth it – and apparently often the reason given why females just don't take such positions.

    And when one is in academics they don't need to do silly things like sign off with a question mark in their name.

  13. I have mixed feelings on professors salaries and retirement packages. In college many of my professors were extremely involved and took time out of their day to not only help their students, but get to know them.

    Of course you can always spot the bad ones too.

  14. It is well to remember that US universities and colleges are not homogeneous. The great dividers are a) teaching load and b) the availability of markers. Salaries tend to be inverse to the first and proportional to the second.

  15. @ C Ryan King. Yes some of the comments are hilarious. I especially liked the coffee cup thing. I don’t trust students on ratemyprofessors for accurate reporting. (“He said in class that all asians turn red when they drink.” Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.) But repeated comments deserve more consideration. The most frequent word used was “tangent” (as in “Goes on 2 week long tangents about money.”) The overall tenor of the remarks suggests that he failed to reach students and confirms Rubinstein’s assertion that he was overpaid even if other professors were not.

  16. @zbicyclist: Speaking as an Illinois taxpayer and an emeritus professor at UIC, I think you oversimplified the story. The reason the university pension system is in trouble is that for far too many years the state reneged on its obligation to match the employees' contributions to the pension system. [Had a private employer failed to contribute to the Social Security System, which UIC employees do not receive, it would have been in deep doodoo.] Instead the state's politicians used our pension system as their own little cookie jar.

  17. @MikeM: It's a fact that the legislature reneged on its obligation to fund the system (hence "oatmeal for brains" in my post).

    My further point was that the pensions were likely higher than they needed to be to attract/retain employees. The effectiveness of benefit dollars has to be considered. If I, as an employer, am spending $1 on benefits for you, I want to spend it on something you appreciate at least $1 worth. I'm not convinced that young academics are impressed by money they won't see for 30+ years.

  18. I am mindful of an entropic
    1st-world economy and associated employment stresses, as the main source of wealth- industrial production- shifts to poor nations more vulnerable to profitable economic exploitation and domination. Modern economic systems must have their way while there is anything of value on this earth left to leverage into wealth, and even towers of ivory are at peril in this 11th hour.

    No surprise, then, that a hard-to-starboard professor would slice himself a little piece of critical pie, knowing that sticks and stones might hurt his bones but names will never, not ever. And Marx, Wittgenstein?-
    he knew how to play!

  19. Zbicyclist:

    My (uninformed) guess is that the pension problems arise from inappropriate budgeting, that it's perceived as "free" or essentially free to set up costs that won't arise until years in the future. And that's still going on (or, at least until recently), with organizations getting rid of employees via generous early retirement plans so that the costs went off the books in the short term. And some of this was perhaps done on purpose, at least for some companies, on the plan that it would be possible some way or another to get out of paying the promised future retirement benefits.

    I'll promise you a million dollars in 10 years if you give me a thousand dollars now. That works if I don't think it will be me who has to pay you off in 10 years!

  20. As someone who taught at UIC for thirty years, served on many committees and did a good deal of interdisciplinary teaching and research, I was at a loss as to just who David M. Rubinstein was– I had never once served with him, seen his name on administrative, teaching or research documents, or heard of his research. A Google search left me only a little the wiser: his university faculty page did not link to his CV, always a bit suspicious, and the only published scholarship I could find was the publication of a revised version of his dissertation by a then-abstruse English publication house. A check on RateMyProfessor contained an astounding array of negative comments about his teaching. My tentative conclusion is that he received tenure on the strength of his book, early in the era when UIC was moving up from an urban bootstrap commuter campus to a major research 1 institution; that since that time, his description of his workload and his sense of responsibility to his profession was probably an accurate autobiography. As a department Chair, I have only sympathy for his colleagues, who I am sure spent decades wishing there were some way to be rid of him. On the face of it, the case would seem to indict the tenure system, but UIC has also had its share of brilliant but highly controversial faculty members, the most recent being Bill Ayers, once a Weatherman, long a highly respected scholar of public education. While tenure protected him, he did important research and was beloved by his students; when he retired and was nominated for Emeritus status, the Board of Trustees fulminated against his long-ago past and refused him. I am fairly sure that, without tenure to protect him, Ayers would long ago have been an object lesson for some advocacy position, and the university and the educational community would have lost a major voice for school reform and student learning.
    I'll take Rubinstein, apologizing to his students, if Ayers is protected. That's the gamble of tenure.

  21. In my experience, $200/hr is not at all unreasonable as an industrial consulting rate for a junior statistician. Indeed, if you go much below that, the client won't take you seriously.

    Reading Rubinstein's essay, I finally understand what people mean by "tool".

  22. So why would a junior person go through the competitive risk and overload of pre-tenure when the tenure benefits might be drastically reduced in the future?

    I don't see the current generation spending as much money on paying college education for their kids having been burned.

    The competitive job market is also a consequence of overproduction of narrowly trained PhD holders.

    I think very good programs and universities should be fine, but I'd say that a reduction in this sector is pretty much inevitable as the large generations retire and the working-age generations get burdened with the costs of supporting the elderly, increasing competition from other countries, and shrinking younger generations.

  23. Two comments I have not seen made above:

    (1) Being a professor is not a typical job; there is what's called in economics a holdup problem: a sociologist cannot easily find a good job outside of academia. This is true for many, but not all, fields. Academics should be compensated somewhat, implicitly, for taking on this holdup risk.

    (2) To be accurate, and since this is a statistics blog, the true or probabilistic salary of a professor includes the ex ante risk of not being able to get a PhD (wasting 3-4 yrs and going into debt) as well as the ex ante risk of not getting an academic job, and therefore being over-qualified for the job you do get. Thinking about it in terms of statistical expectation, the expected salary of a professor is much lower than the salary received *if* you get the dream job.

    (3) Maybe in sociology nobody resigns and they have to turn away hundreds of good candidates, but in many other fields (business, engineering, maybe CS?) it is difficult for many decent universities to find acceptable candidates and to hold onto them. If anything, this suggests that within the academy, some fields are overpaid and other fields are underpaid. But that's different from saying that *all* professors are overpaid for their work.

    And last, enough about this ''summers off'' rubbish. Summer is when a huge chunk of research, alone or with grad students, gets done, preparing grants, etc.

  24. re gelman's math. the emeritus course was 15 wks w. 2 hrs of lecture = 30. at $8k = $267/hr. the third hr was a discussion section led by tas. they also did the grading & most of the advising. i did spend some time writing exams & advising students & supervising tas. but still $200 is conservative.

    re the 'sacker' canard etc, see the weekly standard site for comments by my former heads & my response to that. i nowhere admit to slacking, except for dodging some dept governing.

  25. In his response (see Fred's link above) to his colleagues' letter, he goes back on his initial article by claiming that he has in fact been doing high-quality research and publishing it in top journals, even post-retirement. Making yourself a straw man for overpaid academia doesn't work so well if you can't resist touting your scholarly output…

    He also makes it pretty clear that his real beef is with the politics of his dept colleagues, and takes it into that always fun debate (and ignoring that natural scientists also skew significantly more liberal than the general populace).

  26. Universities are run by professors. It's only natural that that they make up rules that benefit them most. Self-interest always wins. The excuse for tenure is no longer tenable. Get rid of it and large number of problems in today's educational system will solve themselves.

  27. DK:

    Getting rid of tenure may solve some problems but I don't know if it will help much with the slackers. After all, they already could've disciplined Rubinstein by, for example, decreasing his salary and reducing his office space (perhaps appropriate giving his minimal contributions to teaching, research, and service), but I doubt they did that.

    My guess is that universities might use lack of tenure to fire political nuisances and to lay off huge chunks of people for economic reasons. But I don't see administrators effectively using lack of tenure using as a tool for getting rid of deadwood–given that they have some tools already that they don't seem to use.

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