Are Professors Laborers?
Members of many professions like to hold to a certain image of their profession. In some cases this is a mere illusion or even a delusion. In the case of professors, we often like to think of ourselves as more than just paid laborers but rather as important members of a learning community. Administrators and others often like to cultivate this view (or delusion). After all, members of a learning community will do unpaid work for “the good of the community” while a smart laborer never works for free.
On one hand, a professor is clearly a paid worker. Professors get a salary and benefits (if they are lucky) in return for doing work for the school. While professors typically do not punch the clock or record the hours (or minutes) of their work, they are still expected to earn their pay. As such, professors can be seen as any other worker or laborer.
On the other hand, professors (as noted above) are also often seen as being members of a learning community. While they are paid for the work, they are also expected by tradition (and often by assignment of responsibilities) to engage in various unpaid endeavors such as publishing articles, doing community service, doing professional service, assisting student clubs, and so on. These activities are seen as being valuable, but they also generate value for the professor in that s/he is adding to the community-a contributor to the general good.
Like many professors, I was very much of the “good of the community” sort of professor in the days of my youth. I made my work on fallacies freely available, accepted all invitations to speak (for free), helped students prepare for graduate school, wrote letters for students who had graduated long ago, and did a multitude of other extra (and unpaid) things. While none of this was required or had any impact on my pay, I regarded all of it as part of the “good of the community” duties of a professor.
In recent years I noticed the increasing tendency to look at the academy as a business and to approach it using certain business models. While I am all for greater efficiency and a smooth running business aspect of the university, I did look upon the expansion of this model with some concern.
One effect of this view is what seems to be an obsession with assessment and metrics. Professors are finding that they need to quantify their activities in ways set by administrators or the state. While I do agree that professors should be accountable, one unfortunate aspect of this approach is that often little (or no) value is placed on the unpaid “community good” work of professors (or the unpaid work is simply rolled into the paid work but the pay is not increased).
Also, casting professors as workers to be carefully monitored can have a negative impact on the “community good” aspects of being a professor. One reason for this lies in the difference between the reasonable attitude of a paid laborer and a member of a community.
If I am a member of a learning community, then I have a stake in the general good of that community and part of my compensation and motivation can be that I am contributing to that good. After all, as a member of the community, I have a stake in the good of that community and thus it is worth my while to contribute to that good. The analogy to a family or group of friends is obvious. As such, this view can incline professors to do unpaid work for the “good of the community.” Of course, for professors to justly believe they are a part of a community, there must actually be such a community-rather than a mere business.
However, if I am simply a worker in the education business and the quality and extent of my efforts are disconnected from reward (at many schools, merit pay is a thing of the distant past and bonuses apparently only go to top administrators), then it would seem I have little economic incentive to do more than what is required to keep my job.
Even if my efforts did yield economic rewards, I would only have an incentive to go above and beyond the basic level in regards to things that would yield economic results for me. Obviously, merely being good for the community would hardly provide a suitable motivation to do anything extra.
After all, if the goal of a business is to get maximum revenue for minimum expenditure , the goal of a worker would seem to be a comparable sort of thing: to get the maximum pay for the minimal effort. If doing the job with greater quality or doing more work yields no economic benefit, then there would seem to be no incentive to work beyond what is required to simply stay employed (unless, of course, one is looking to move to a better job with another job creator.
Employers can, of course, counter this by compelling workers to work more or do higher quality work through the threat of unemployment. The worse the economy, the bigger the stick that employers wield and these days, employers can swing a rather big stick. However, compelled employees tend to be demoralized employees and threatening people in order to achieve excellence generally does not have a great level of success. Also, CEOs and their supporters argue that quality work must be duly compensated, but perhaps that only applies to the top executives and not mere workers.
It can be argued that professors have had it too easy over the years and that it is time that they be locked into the same sort of business reality that almost everyone else is compelled to endure. While this might make some gray haired folks cry out as their ivory towers are stripped and sold on the free market, this is the new economic reality: universities are not learning communities-they are businesses that deal in the commodity of education (and sports, merchandise, etc.). Professors will need to awaken from their delusional dreams and accept that they are workers in this education factory. True, some of these education workers might deserve some additional compensation for improving the product, offering quality customer service or otherwise aiding the business. Naturally, they cannot expect too much-as always, the lion’s share of compensation belongs not to the mere employees, but to the top executives.