Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More Annals of the Great Depression: What Divides Us And Why

At Zenith University, like everywhere else, there are budget cuts. There were cuts last year; there will be more cuts this year; one imagines there will perhaps be more cuts next year. Everyone thinks of us as a rich little school, and compared to some we are: compared to many schools with which we are associated (Amherst, Williams) we are not. What compounds the problem (and I won't bore you with the details) is that up until about a decade ago, the combination of poor investing, insufficient fund-raising and living beyond our means meant that not only did Zenith's endowment not grow, it shrank dramatically from the bountiful era of owning My Weekly Reader, a period which shaped the expectations and thinking of several generations of faculty still working at the university. Assertions that we are very short of cash are met with varying levels of disbelief, even though we all also know that it is true.

To make a long story short (and not be revealing in ways that will make me even more unpopular at Zenith today than I was yesterday) budget talk reveals many things about the normative assumptions of one's organization. Chief among the assumptions under discussion in mine yesterday was that the "normal" Zenith employee has, or wants, children; and that the childless among us benefit in countless ways from their colleagues' desire to have and raise children. Another is the extent to which many of my colleagues believe, despite reassurances to the contrary and the ongoing scrutiny of the budget process by a committee of trustworthy people we elected, that any attempt to curtail faculty benefits and privileges (even those unequally distributed, as I will discuss below) is part of an ongoing conspiracy by the administration to proletarianize the faculty. This conspiracy has been in the works for decades, so its proponents believe, and is now being activated by the global financial crisis, which will allow the Zenith administration to do what they have wanted to do all along: strip us of every last right and privilege.

Loud protests that there is "fat" elsewhere that can be cut rend the land. No one who has made this claim has been specific as to where such cuts might be usefully made, or why, other than the fact that they do not represent direct faculty interests - from what I understand, budgets like financial aid, University Relations and student services are where "fat" can be found. Some colleagues make unproven claims of varying extravagance about how they only came to Zenith in the first place because of the benefit currently under discussion, or that they have turned down attractive offers from other, unnamed, institutions only because of promised benefits that Zenith now threatens to rescind. Still others assert that it is only the excellent benefits that allow people to take moderate-wage academic jobs in the first place, and that benefits cuts will send high quality potential scholars into other fields.

This, of course, ignores the fact that some academics (economists, scientists) are paid dramatically more than others (historians, literature professors); and that there seem to be, depending on the field in question, between ten and fifty well-qualified people for every position at an American college or university. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe all those people teach adjunct because they love the freedom and hate TIAA-CREF.

Of course only in academia would anyone imagine a set of conversations with a dean as a promise, or as some have claimed, a “contract,” to be kept in perpetuity regardless of the financial circumstances of the institution. Even unions have to negotiate their benefits periodically to reflect a new economic climate. In fact, anyone who has had their eyes open lately knows that, except for not getting a raise this year, the faculty has been the last place Zenith has targeted for actual cuts. All the administrative departments are letting people go and not replacing them, and Zenith administrators did receive what amounted to a salary cut last year when their annual performance bonuses were canceled. Offices like Admissions, for example, are doing more with less, processing more paperwork (financial aid requests have grown, as have applications to Zenith) with fewer staff.

So imagine my surprise when, in response to what has been framed as a temporary scaling back in Zenith's tuition benefit (in which the University proposes that it will continue to grow, probably not at the rate tuitions will increase, but constituting tens of thousands of dollars per dependent child) created a storm of unreasoning protest. Of all the benefits we have, this group of faculty declared, this was the one that could not be tampered with. Imagine my further surprise when, in response to a number of us who have no access to this benefit suggesting that we could support a cut in the tuition benefit equal to all other cuts being made, we were roundly scolded for being ignorant, uncaring, unfeeling and deluded.

This is a more civilized critique than those who questioned child-supremacy used to get: the child-free, regardless of why they were in that position, were until recently routinely spoken of as narcissistic, selfish, or child hating. Now we are just patronized because of our failure to understand why a continuing, although smaller, increase in a benefit we do not receive is something we should be willing to fight for while our own paychecks are frozen and our health care costs rise. That we are also appalled, distressed, and alienated at how quickly the child supremacists are willing to throw us under the bus to preserve a large benefit that we do not share; or that our primary human attachments might be to ourselves, or to members of a non-hetero/homonormative social formation, many of them find naive and morally questionable.

I would like to point out that the loose coalition of the willing that does not consider this cut unthinkable is made up of gay people and straight people; the coupled and the uncoupled; the married and the unmarried; those who have dependent (or formerly dependent) children and those who do not. I mention this because one of the first things people make sure to tell me in particular is that they are not homophobic (you know what? If you feel you have to say this, you are homophobic. I didn't bring it up, you did.) Several of the kinder scolds suggested that we who were not with the program would understand this issue better if we actually had children and better understood the sacred bond between parent and child. The most ignorant argued that the childless were not excluded from this benefit, and could access it any time we liked by having, adopting or inheriting children. Of all the unspoken assumptions, perhaps the one best masking itself as intellectual common sense was that we who are childless at Zenith do have a moral and ethical commitment to our colleagues' children, because it is these children who, as adult workers, will earn the professional wages to pay for our government benefits in retirement.

In other words, because I haven't had children, regardless of how much I have paid into Social Security over the years, I will become a welfare queen in old age. And as I sign my government checks over to the BMW dealership and the grog shop, it will not be just any children who support me in the style to which I am now accustomed, but the children of my Zenith colleagues. That I might have ethical obligations to children who are dependent on a network of adults for their education is not even worth arguing to these vigorous proponents of the nuclear family, nor that I might specifically wish to sponge off them in the future, rather than trust that my colleagues' children aren't going to use their fancy liberal arts educations to become itinerant folk singers. That this is a benefit that ought to be extended as part of an equal compensation package granted to every worker for whatever educational purpose s/he chooses (which might require capping the benefit at a certain amount per worker, or per beneficiary) is even more unthinkable to many of those who have Gone Nuclear even though, to date, two of my colleagues who are, I think, heterosexual, have articulated this position. My point is, either we have all earned it, or we all haven't earned it. Pick one, and that's where we can start the process of coming to consensus about this little plum in the budget.

No, they respond: nothing will do but an unlimited benefit reserved exclusively for the children of Zenith.

This ugly, divisive incident has reinforced my belief that one of the major, under-examined flaws of New Deal liberalism has been the extent to which it left intact the assumption that our fate, as human beings, should remain tied to so-called traditional notions of the family and the workplace. This was not, of course, an entirely unexamined assumption. One of the most graphic examples of how this played out was Social Security. Labor historian Alice Kessler-Harris's In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America (2001) has documented the lengths to which framers of the original legislation passed on August 15, 1935 went to limit women's secondary access to funds that were the legal entitlement of a male breadwinner. Kessler-Harris and Linda Gordon, among others, have written about the systematic exclusion of workers, primarily of color, who were specifically written out of Social Security legislation because they were employed in seasonal, at will, or non-organized workplaces.

Although legally these exclusions no longer exist, in fact, they do. Because one’s social security benefits are paid according to the amount and duration of what a worker has paid in, people who enter the workplace late, or work sporadically (often women) have fewer benefits. Because their work takes place in a home or a workplace that is lightly scrutinized by the authorities (a farm, a sweatshop) the immigrants and people of color who do what amounts to day labor often do not have social security contributions made in their names. And we who are prevented from marrying our partners and creating federally recognized families do not inherit a spouse's Social Security benefits, nor can we designate them to anyone who is not a dependent child.

An even knottier issue, from my perspective, is the extent to which New Deal social legislation, and reforms associated with post-war prosperity and the rise of workplace benefits, depended on the private sector to support middle-class expectations of comfort and security. From what I know about the New Deal state, this dependence had two broad origins. The first was ideological: southern Democrats vigorously resisted any shift of power and authority to the federal government that might eventually be used to overturn racial subordination. A more national political problem for the Roosevelt administration was the danger of totalitarianism that was becoming prominent in Europe and Asia in the 1930s, and the fear that New Deal initiatives would be perceived as socialist or fascist.

What has been less written about is the extent to which the New Deal state simply did not have the capacity to run a large social welfare system and turned to Fordism as a solution. An early prototype of national welfare, the Civil War pension system, was notorious for its inefficiencies and corruption, and because it only extended benefits to Union veterans, was never meant to be comprehensive or permanent. By the time the American state did prove itself capable of creating a fully functional national bureaucracy capable of large-scale taxation and disbursement during World War II, the ideological moment for the creation of a social welfare system had both passed and never arrived. I say passed, because the crisis of the Great Depression was finally ended by putting the nation on a war footing for the rest of the century, thus making prosperity the "norm" and effectively re-stigmatizing the poor. I imagine the ideological moment as never having arrived because, as Kessler-Harris and Gordon point out, the notion that what we now call “benefits” were permanently sutured to the notion that the normal condition of individuals was to belong to a patriarchal family living off a family wage that freed women to be full-time mothers and children to be full-time students. Furthermore, Cold War heterosexual parenting was articulated as service to the state, supported by an elaborate series of tax deductions, workplace benefits and enhanced public education designed to help (white) families become and remain middle-class. "Benefits" are part of that structure, even though we have come to think of them as something we are owed, separate from salary, because we so depend on them to remain middle class. They operate in part as an enticement when the labor market is competitive (not a stage of history we are in right now), and they are a way of shielding what are essentially salary bonuses from the Internal Revenue Service.

Whether the United States, as a cultural, political or economic formation, actually values children is debatable. But what remains relevant from my point of view is that little that has changed over the past several decades to alter the basic assumption among many liberals that workers who are married and/or have children actually deserve more benefits from their employer. Gays and lesbians are now included in this ideology because we are no longer always prevented from marrying and having children (even though these are much more difficult hurdles than the vast majority of heterosexual people understand.) I think this is interesting, because certainly at Zenith, years ago when many of us questioned why unmarried workers were not entitled to health insurance for their domestic partners, the very same people would shrug their shoulders and say some version of, "That's the way of the world, I guess," but they also refused the notion that unmarried workers were not being equally compensated. Now that we (the unmarried) actually have such benefits, they forget that they never supported them, or that many of them said openly that the flood of claims from the unmarried would overwhelm the system, causing a reduction in everybody's benefits.

And this is what they believe, but will not say, about the tuition benefit. They believe that if it is extended to every employee, there will not be enough left for them. All the rest of it is just smoke, mirrors and ideology my friends. But it is also pretty insulting, because it expands the dictates of the nuclear family to all of us who, frankly, do not benefit from it at all. Most important, it avoids the main point: the major systems that have made this country one of the most prosperous in the world have always been discriminatory. Now that they are in crisis, this is glaringly obvious, and falling back on families and family wage models to fix that crisis is mere tinkering with a system that was designed to fail in the first place.


Doctor Cleveland said...

Great, thought-provoking post.

Before the vituperation between the child-rearing and and childless begins, let me suggest that the tuition benefit may seem different to your colleagues because it cuts close to the heart academics' values (as opposed to "academic values" per se).

Virtually all of your colleagues, like virtually all of mine, are professors because they love education, and also because they view the opportunity for education as a priceless gift. Few of them would trade their own undergraduate years for anything.

Being sure that they can pass the privilege of education down to their children is hugely important to them, far more than getting their children a car, a bicycle, or an apartment. Providing for their children's education seems to them an absolute and overwhelming obligation: a moral imperative, really. And with neither the tuition benefit nor the kind of salary professionals get outside the university, they're just plain terrified about failing in that obligation.

And you know, to play colleague's advocate, it is too late for them to switch to another career. Perhaps they should have become corporate lawyers and piled up cash rather put their faith in the benefits Zenith offered, but it's too late for them to go back now, any more than those oh-so-expensive retired autoworkers you read about in the WSJ can go back and work for more prudent companies.

JennG said...

I definitely have gotten a new perspective from your post.

I'm a child of an academic who opted not to use the tuition benefit mostly so as not to end up at the same school as my father. He saw that as pretty ironic because it was one reason he had stayed in the tower. My sister did the same, so he was kind of 0 for 2.

I do think one additional point to Doctor Cleveland's comment is that the other thing that all academics do is delay a lot of wealth acquisition while going through grad and post-doc education, and in some cases childbearing as well.

I think that tends to put them behind the eight ball on saving for education and that's probably also why they see that particular benefit as core not only to their values but to their sacrifices.

Of course that doesn't change the issue of equity because non-child rearing colleagues have made the same sacrifices. But I do think it contributes to the emotional tone.

Anonymous said...

The tuition benefit at Zenith is pretty exceptional. I only know of it existing at elite SLACs. I know there's a good bit of competition between elite SLACs and Ivies in the NE (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong), and I've always heard more complaints and comparisons about the various benefits from faculty at those places than faculty at any other institution.
I teach at a big midwestern R1, and we have nothing like that. I really agree with the point of your post - better to reduce that benefit and/or share the wealth.

I agree with the first two posts. This is more than just about children. There's a lot of social anxiety behind the desire to keep the benefit. A very large number of the academics I know went to elite, expensive schools, and chose a profession that keeps them in the same milieu as those who plan for more lucrative careers. How many faculty want to keep the illusion that they're still at the same level of status as their fellow alums (who became lawyers, doctors, bankers, etc.), the students they teach, and the families who can pay for those students to attend? If they can't afford to send their own children to institutions with similar levels of tuition cost and prestige, will they have to admit that they're closer to servants of this privileged class?

Janice said...

Coming at it from a different angle, I work in a country where marriage equality exists but even before then, my institution offered benefits for unmarried partners (and still do for those who choose not to marry). We also offer a spousal tuition benefit (for students who come in with and maintain a good GPA, it's given as a scholarship that reduces the family's tax burden on the benefit) that's widely popular.

Still, in hard times, I could see an argument for cutting this. I could also see roll-backs on our retiree benefits (though I've been championing those since I was hired at 28 years of age, not out of self-interest, but out of a belief that was the equitable act).

One more argument I've heard in terms of retaining the tuition exemption is that it acts as a recruitment/retention tool. Especially in science and engineering, when even the higher salaries offered by the institution don't come close to industry offers, this benefit is cherished by faculty as a payback in both values and value.

That said: all benefits need to be examined for equity and sustainability. In the US, where you deal with the insanity of healthcare plans at the employer level, that's got to be hard. We only have to manage the supplementary costs of prescription, disability, dental and other services when it comes to health costs in the workplace: that's tough enough!

(Full disclosure: I and my sister made use of the tuition benefit from my father's employment to cover our undergraduate tuition. But he worked at a state university and I work at the Canadian equivalent of the same, so the dollar value's not in the same league. My older daughter has been told that's an option for her, but if she does get some sort of scholarship support, we will assist her in paying to study elsewhere. Right now, that's incentive to polish up her HS marks because she's really enchanted by a couple of distant universities.)

Unknown said...

Great post! We have the same benefit, or, I should say, my husband does, since I left my job. We figure the tuition benefit is being looked at closely. It's extended not just to faculty, but staff as well, though, as you say, only for their children. The amount available for general education for the employee themselves? $1000. I was actually part of a group of people who got that raised last year from $500 to $1000. If you're a housekeeper hoping to retrain for any kind of career, $1000 isn't going to get you very far.

I think it'd be great if you could use the tuition benefit for anyone in your family, including yourself. I realize that not officially being a "family" complicates that, but I would hope that partners would be included. They are for other things at our institution.

I think what Doctor Cleveland said is spot on.

dance said...

TR, this is a bit oblique, unless i missed specifics. I am not sure all commenters realize that (I'm guessing, based on my similar alma mater), the tuition benefit is cold hard cash paid to ANY school your child wants to go to. It's not just "children of current employees go HERE for free", which sounds like what JennG is talking about. If I've got that right, it is a *hell* of a perk and a very big financial impact and an emotional situation to see it threatened.

I have no point, but some anecdotes: 1) a prof at such an institution who is deferring her dream job and maintaining a long-distance relationship longer than she'd like to, in great measure because her daughter is about to go to college and there's this tuition benefit, which vague memory suggests is something like 10K or half the cost for ANY school. 2) a prof who left said institution for an Ivy in part because he'd rather have the higher salary than the promise of family benefits he didn't anticipate using.

(Actually, I wonder about that cold hard cash. Maybe Williams, Amherst and Wesleyan have a tution benefit exchange system set up?)

Susan said...

Great post. Some years ago, I tried to use my tuition benefit for my mother. . . it didn't fly. Meanwhile, I had several colleagues who had two or three children go through the program getting Ph.D.s. It annoyed me no end. But our tuition benefit was only good at our employer, not anywhere else.

infanttyrone said...

Pt. I
Especially if there are states we wish we could move to because they are more in line with our beliefs, but even if we think our own state is optimally functioning in terms of social equity, one thing states have in common (to varying degrees, as mores have changed) is the protection, education, and encouragement of children.

Reliable sources are hard to find and probably more difficult to evaluate, but it is possible that even the reviled/pitied government of North Korea treats its kids better than England treated 10 year old chimney-sweeps or Europe in general treated 10 year old serfs.

States find different, occasionally paradoxical, ways to express their concerns, especially protection.

At times the U.S. still tries to re-criminalize abortion, to "protect the unborn".

At times China still tries to criminalize (at least to the point of social ostracizing ginned up by neighborhood activists) pregnancy, to conserve the resources available to the already born.

The most enlightened socialist states (you pick 'em) have an interest in providing for as many children as they can responsibly provide for. Whether they are based on the old Russian mindset of needing them to eventually provide militarily resistance against international counterrevolutionary adversaries or on a modern European mindset of needing an ongoing productive group of workers to provide for the continually replenished group of retired workers, each of those states needs fresh kids...all the time, even China.

Non-socialized states need new humanity too, first as soon-to-be workers, consumers, and supporters of the elderly, eventually as elderly consumers of goods and services.

Obviously, each state tailors the propaganda to suit its internal dynamics. From a strictly scientific, use-of-resources perspective, China needed a large percentage of single-child or childless couples. But, since it was not culturally prepared to advocate same-sex relationships, it resorted to using block-level grandmas to browbeat women who had already had one child and seemed to be thinking about having another.

So, of all the unspoken assumptions you encountered, the one that does make the most sense (to me, the only one that comes close to making *any* sense) is the idea that you have an "moral and ethical commitment" to the generations a comin'. I would substitute "financial" for "moral and ethical" and switch "commitment" to "responsibility", but maybe I'm just finicky.

However little I know about Zenith, and even if it has passed "Nuke Free Zone" or similar memoranda, it hasn't seceded from the United States, and even if you are up there geographically surrounded with Minutemen history, Zenith doesn't have a first-line-of-defense relationship with the Social Security System. So, what you workers (sorry, but the System that your classmates signed up with to get the big bucks to send their kids back to their alma mater with has long since proletarianized the professorship) up there decide about tuition assistance is about as purely local as it could be.

So, even if you're outnumbered (and structurally, whatever battle ratios are arrayed in your favor are as good as they're going to get, kids being what they are and will be), fight on for a personal, proportional share for each faculty member to use/share/bequeath/sell on Ebay and resist the Birth-First! cadre.

It is the fair thing to do, and since you already have at least one historian, if you can recruit an economist or two, maybe even a scientist or mathematician, you may be able to break through most of the non-homophobic, child-bonding propaganda tapes the other folks are mired in and have an intellectual discussion. Who knows, since you're at an institution of ideas and reason, you might just win. But, seriously, stick to your "we all earned it or none of us really earned it" guns. Keeping it simple, rational, and calm (no megaphones...no When do we want it? Now!)...Oh, and persistent...is the only chance you have against such deep-seated programming.

infanttyrone said...

Pt. II

For something related to a-statism and the like ....try


For something specifically about a protoState in the 20th Century...try (look for the comment from Christina)


If you just want the facts (or can't read, or don't have time to) try this link recommended by Christina (it is only the 1st of 9 parts, but worth the investment)


davidjhemmer said...

The scary thing for many faculty is that most of us are overpaid by a tremendous amount, and by overpaid I mean compared to what the market would bear. Wise administrators will be real tightwads in future negotiations with unions. Consider:

*Many of us, by temperament, training, and/or skils are completely unemployable outside of academia (7/11 or Burger King notwithstanding)

*Many of us are completely unable to move to another academic job. We are already tenured or full professors. However as well all know, being hired at a senior rank is much more difficult than being promoted. Many schools never hire at senior ranks, or only hire superstars.

*As TR points out, there are probably 50+ qualified individuals for every spot.

If an administration announced an immediate 30% pay cut for all faculty, most of us would have no choice but to stay in our jobs. If a starting asst. professorship paying $60K gets 400 applicants, the same position with a $35K advertised salary would probably get 200 applicants.

Tenured Radical said...

Thanks for the comments here, everyone. Infantryyone -- *please* stop leaving multiple, lengthy comments only tangentially related to the post. I encourage you to write your won blog if you have so much to say, even to leave a long comment and then just link to the blog you are commenting on. It's too much.

Matt L said...

Right On TR!!!

Ruthibell said...

Having disagreed with you on the previous Great Child Debate, I am with you on this one. Especially the argument that such a benefit "ought to be extended as part of an equal compensation package granted to every worker for whatever educational purpose s/he chooses." I'm in the UK, where I'm relieved to say we neither have tuition fees paid as a benefit for our children, nor (as yet) sky-high tuition fees. As a result we don't have these painful debates either, for which I'm grateful.

Having said that, I think there may be two entangled issues here. It's about where we draw the boundaries of our community. The defenders of the tuition benefit at zenith are drawing the boundary around zenith employees and their children and saying zenith as a community should support the children of its faculty (and staff?). I would disagree with that, but I *would* argue that on a national scale it is right for all adults to support (via taxation) the education and health of all children. I get the feeling that you would agree with this TR--but I'd be interested to hear. Versions of the arguments you made are sometimes used to attack public funding of education and other services that are primarily accessed by children. I've heard people say things like, 'I don't have kids, why should I pay taxes to pay for schools'. To which I would say, not so much that we need to educate those kids to pay for all our retirements, but that children are part of the human community, not possessions of their parents, and we all have a duty towards all of them.

Anyway, thanks for another interesting post.

FrauTech said...

Wow, very interesting discussion. My university just put out a call for people to suggest ways to cut the budget. I'd like to suggest something, because my tuition is already going up by something like 30% next year, but I don't even know what to suggest.

I agree with you completely. A benefit only some employees can use is completely unfair. At the very least they should reduce it so it merely discounts tuition if these people's children go to your university. My private industry experience means I'm only aware of tuition benefits FOR the employee. As someone who uses this, and probably one of the few people who use this, I always keep in mind they could cut it out at any time. Obviously, not every employee would be able to go to school, so even though it's offered to everyone I could see them cutting it if they needed to cut costs. It's not like a 401k match, or healthcare, where each employee can equally participate.

Maybe at least suggest an income cap. It does seem unfair that a long-time tenured and somehow highly compensated professor would get the same benefit as an administrative assistant in some department when only one of them really needs it. Very thoughtful and interesting post though.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, though not very new argument. As I will,hopefully show below, your position had a bit more validty a few years ago.

The crux of the argument is that everyone should have the same benefits. At first blush this sounds obvious, but benefits that are of interest to a sub set of employees are given all the time. Tuition benefits are available to everyone at my place of employment, but are not used by everyone, nor is everyone interested in them.

Aha, you say, but everyone has the opportunity! This is, I think your strongest argument. When gays and lesbians who want children can not have them, then, perhaps tuition benefits can be seen as unfair. However, as impediments to having children fall, then not having them is a choice for gays and lesbians as it is for hetero couples. When being childless is a choice, tuition benefits for children look a lot like tuition benefits for employees. It's there to take advantage of when you want.

So, I think the argument that the policy unfairly discriminates against gays and lesbians has some force, though the force continues to weaken. The other arguments are less powerful.

The social security argument might be great in theory, but we all know that the reality is that we paid for our parents and today's children will pay for us.

The argument that it's unfair because I can't take advantage of the benefit sounds like John Kyl wondering about why ob/gyn should e included in the health care bill, he doesn't use them.

Ultimately, what concerns me the most about this post is that it demonstrates an attitude much morecommon onthe right,I think: if it doesn't benefit me, what's the point.

TR you have no decendents, you will die reletively soon, by your argument you should be opposed to any present cost for a future benefit. Why worry about glo al warming, I'm gonna die.

Any tuition remission whether it is for employees or anyone is an investment in thefuture, whether I'm there or not, I think that I have some responsibility to it.

Thank you

Katrina said...

A fabulous post, TR. The inequity issue in the workplace between parents and the childless/childfree is something I commented on in response to one of your previous posts. I also agree with the first three commenters that tuition, and access to elite education, is seen not so much as a "bonus" but an expectation of academia. Rosmarinaus's point about academics not being able to afford (without tuition assistance) to send their children to the kind of institutions they teach at is an important one.

Ruthibell: The notion of community you raise is why we pay taxes. This issue of tuition benefits is not (theoretically) about the "community" supporting the group's children, but about a specific, personal, employee benefit. People feel that this is something that they have earned. As TR points out, in practice it IS members of the "community" (willingly or not) subsidising the tuition of the children of some members of the group. But people receiving the benefit don't regard it as some sort of payout from a mutual aid society, but rather as another type of employment perk, like a corporate car or an expense account.
The fact that it is a perk not all (supposedly "equal") employees can access is the issue here, not the abstract value of educating society's children. If an employer is handing out a benefit in cash or in kind, it should be available to everyone equally. Those with children (who make use of the tuition aid) are effectively receiving a fat raise over their colleagues who do not receive that benefit.

Anonymous said...

This is a difficult issue, and there are serious equity questions, but I'd like to make 4 points.
1) When you say that "Some colleagues make unproven claims of varying extravagance about how they only came to Zenith in the first place because of the benefit currently under discussion, or that they have turned down attractive offers from other, unnamed, institutions only because of promised benefits that Zenith now threatens to rescind," you're not arguing in a very impressive way. You want people to present documentary proof about the effect tuition benefit had on them? I once left a place that had a tuition benefit for a place that didn't, but only after carefully calculating the value of the benefit and making sure the new job would allow me to put a huge amount of money each month into a college savings plan.
2) I have as chair tried to hire a great person who had a tuition benefit (at a major private university--several of them have this, not just SLACs); he really liked us, but his accountant told him he would be "crazy" to leave his current job before 2014
3) Since this is a benefit that people look forward to having in the future, if you want to change it you need to make it two-tiered: current people keep the benefit they thought they had when they were hired.
4) Isn't your argument the same as Sen. John Kyl made about his not needing maternity care in his insurance? With the answer from Debbie Stabenow?

Anonymous said...

When I was a young professional I was told "Do you want to be a mommy or do you want to be a manager(ie partner)" when I discussed maternity leave. Twenty years later office day care was provided during the busy seasons for professional mommies in order to keep their training and expertise available. This is a benefit available only to mommies (or daddies) and not to childless professionals in the firm. Would you consider this unfair?

Dr. Crazy said...

As an academic who was one of the first in her extended family to attend college at all (and who has cousins younger than her who has many in her extended family, including cousins younger than her, who dropped out of high school), and as an academic with two parents who had no education beyond high school, and who worked her way through college/grad school with low-wage jobs (work study, temping, etc.) and for whom there was NO money saved for college by her parents, I don't really get the perspective that one is owed a tuition benefit for one's children if one chooses an academic career, opportunity cost of academia or not. The reality is that as a recently tenured professor living in a similar cost-of-living area as my mother and my stepfather (an immigrant), I make more than the two of them combined. If I had a child, with my current income and even without a partner, I could afford to save for college for them. Not enough for an elite, private institution, or even enough for an elite, out-of-state institution, but my children wouldn't be denied college because of my career path. But no, they might not go to the "right" college with the money that I could save. I'm ok with that, because I didn't go to the "right" college either.

The fact is, such a belief that the institution "owes" (some of) its employees such a benefit is a very class-dependent one, and, as you noted, a very hetero-/homo-normative one: it assumes that a) all people want/will have children; b) that doing so is a social and moral good; and c) if one had chosen some other career path, that one would have - obviously - been racking up a hefty college fund for one's children, one that would provide an elite education for them, as if that is a baseline necessity for all children (or perhaps just for the children of privileged academics?).

It also assumes that only an elite education will allow children to succeed in their future lives, which is also not my experience, having attended regional universities for undergrad and MA, and finding my way to an elite school for the PhD because I got fully funded for five years to go there (and yet, still took out loans, for a girl can't live in Boston on a stipend of 9K alone, which was what it was when I entered my program in 1997).

The fact is, worker benefits change all the time, based on financial situations of their employers. There is nothing sacred (or nothing more sacred) about a tuition benefit, in comparison with other benefits. And there is absolutely no reason why, when universities change other benefits that were in place at the date of hire (like health plans, or like, say, SALARIES or raise schedules), that they should not also consider possibly changing this particular benefit, particularly when it is not distributed equally among all workers.

The claim that this is equivalent to an employee-only education benefit (a benefit that normally exists in order to improve the quality of one's workers and to encourage promotion within an organization, which ultimately benefits the organization) is a red herring. All you have to be to get such a benefit is an employee, which all employees, by definition, are. To say that this benefit is equally open to all is the equivalent to making a benefit dependent upon one, I don't know, becoming a marathon-runner. Sure, everyone could, in theory, run a marathon. But what if you've got bad knees? What if you think marathons are stupid? Such a policy dictates an employee's life choices outside the realm of their employment status. While it's true that not all choose to take advantage of benefits that are available to all employees, a benefit that requires a private life choice in a particular direction to go into effect, a life choice that is outside one's job description, is discrimination.

Sorry this was so long, TR. The short version is, I'm with you on this one. And thanks for the historical context and for the thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

shaz said...

I get that parents might viscerally freak out at the thought of suddenly not being able to pay for the college education they thought they could. So I have a bit of sympathy for anyone who sees plans go awry beyond their control. But that isn't a justification for good policy.

It is institutional unfairness, exacerbated when it seems like a zero sum game. I wonder whether some of this resistance to losing a benefit is also largely an attitude I see a lot of in our dying CA public Universities -- cut anyone else, not me! I would like to see more sense of community when it comes to cuts, rather than all the selfish gathering the wagons against all outsiders. Cutting benefits in proporition to one another seems reasonable.

That said, TR: I wonder where you come down on, say, subsidizing on-campus child care. I find that more complicated because it has more gendered implications. Quality child care (especially infant) is a financially losing proposition (especially if the mostly-female workers are paid a living and appropriate wage). And having affordable and acessible childcare is something that often more directly affects female employees. So should Universities subsidize child care for its employees? That clearly priviliges people with children, but is that inequity worth the equity it assists in other areas?

It certainly seems less direct an employee-impact to reduce/take away tuition benefits, so less problematic in my mind. Though, of course, the notion of higher education as an (increasingly) costly privilege is such a problematic notion to begin with...

Dr. Crazy said...

Shaz - I want to answer your question about childcare even though you posed to TR. I think childcare is different. I'd say that quality and affordable childcare means that there is more equity between me and my colleagues in terms of expectations and distribution of duties. I support this because it means that then there's not an excuse for people to be unavailable for committees, unavailable for certain teaching schedules, etc. I get something in return if my colleagues have better childcare - something concrete and immediate. This directly benefits the community of which I'm a member. In contrast, the tuition benefit for colleagues with college-aged children doesn't have a direct impact on my working life, nor does it directly benefit the institution (unless there's some sort of productivity provision about people who receive the benefit). So basically, I think quality and affordable childcare for infants/toddlers really benefits all workers in the community (regardless of whether they have children or are child-free) as well as the institution, whereas I would characterize a tuition benefit as a perk that has no direct benefit on coworkers or the institution.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Tuition for children is one of the reasons I decided to go on for my PhD. I knew I'd never be able to afford college for my kids since I have to pay off 100K dollars of my own student loans.

My school offers benefits for partners, spouses, and oneself in addition to children -- AND it offers this benefit fully to adjuncts, like me. It's one of the ways my school is kind to adjuncts since they can't afford to pay them much per class (at least, not much for where we live). It also helps keep adjuncts (almost all women here) around for a good long time.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

From my vantage point, at a regional southern public university, I am envious that there is a policy like this to argue about. At my institution, there is a 50% tuition discount if a child attends our school. That's all.

In the Georgia state system, there are no tutition discounts at all, at least outside of the flagship. When I asked a dean during an interview about this, his response was simple: "The actuaries figured out that the policy was not cost-effective."

There's nothing fair about the elite SLAC/Ivy League tuition benefits, but for those who could actually take advantage of them, how could they not fight to keep them?

Tenured Radical said...

To all commenters:

I think the people who responded pretty much answered the questions posed, and I don't feel I need to. I think the question of class, as many people pointed out, is very relevant: Barbara Ehrenreich's "Fear of Falling" seems like a relevant text to return to at times like these.

Just to weigh in personally on child care and parental leave policy: yes, for all the reasons Dr. Crazy says and one more -- frankly, it is the only reason women get to work at all, despite the fact that even with subsidies they are often paying 1/3 - 1/2 of their income as an academic professional. And yes, I believe in parental leave which, in most institutions, also exists in a very broad context of leaves granted for family purposes, health reasons, and sabbatical/scholarly leave. Both of these things, by the way, attempt to replicate government policies in progressive industrialized countries.

And finally, the point that keeps being missed is a very simple one: if you have a benefit, extend it to everyone in your community (as several commenters note, other schools do.) It isn't a reason to get rid of it, and no one every advocated that. But also, the Zenith administration is not proposing to get rid of it -- not anything like that. It is proposing to scale back the increase temporarily. And what has caused the firestorm is the failure of some of us to agree that this is an apocalyptic situation and should be taken off the table.

I'm really not exaggerating: the blowback from this has been, in my view, uncivil and out of line. And as to people having very strong responses viz. their children -- I know that, and to some degree sympathize, since I have parents, and know parents, and I have watched similar things play out in my circle. But it's no excuse to misrepresent what's really going on or bully your colleagues who are trying to return the conversation to something more like a policy discussion where everyone's interests are on the table equally. And as this post shows, there are many alternatives out there that should be explored including, as Dr. Crazy suggests, acknowledging that there is not just one path to academic excellence.

My bottom line is that workplace benefits should be as generous as any institution can afford, including educational benefits (which, by the way, I know *have* been extended to individual faculty for their own use as a part of private retention negotiations.) But all of them should be available to everyone, and narrowing eligibility to one category of person --dependent children -- privileges a single set of values and needs over the vast majority of values and needs that are out there.

Anonymous said...

If universities provide tuition benefits because education is the business they're in -- just as clothing stores provide discounts to employees on store merchandise or airlines provide discounts to employees on air travel -- why is the benefit limited to faculty? Why don't all staff, who after all are part of the same community, enjoy this benefit?

Yes, I'm a staffer and I'm tired of hearing faculty complain about tuition benefits being threatened. Many staff employees also have advanced degrees and made sacrifices to get them; many staff chose to work for universities rather than industry because they value education above all. But apparently the children of staff do not merit the same educational opportunities as do those of faculty.

There's an evil elitism at work that assumes faculty produce superior children, who will flourish in private schools, and staff produce inferior children, whose educational needs can be fulfilled by free public schools.

I say, let the faculty children cast their lot with ours in the public schools, and let all the parents devote themselves to improving those schools.


GayProf said...

I think the last Anon brings up a great point -- So often the faculty claim to be working on behalf of "social justice," but in reality have very little idea about the wages, working conditions, or circumstances of the university staff. Social justice apparently means making sure that you maintain your own and your children's status quo.

Every state university where I have been associated had zero tuition rebates for faculty (much less their dependents). That seems like a bonus for Zenith, but not at all the norm (My state employers don't even provide faculty with free access to gym facilities -- Something I would actually use). Perhaps those complaining would be wise to compare this benefit with comparable institutions.

Anonymous said...

This is a great discussion (that I am coming to late), though I also wish that there might be a place for discussing a crucial point TR makes at the beginning of the post:

the ongoing scrutiny of the budget process by a committee of trustworthy people we elected, that any attempt to curtail faculty benefits and privileges (even those unequally distributed, as I will discuss below) is part of an ongoing conspiracy by the administration to proletarianize the faculty.

TR nails this, and especially the sense that there is a huge amount of fat somewhere in the budget -- always somewhere elsewhere. This is a destructive posture because it makes it difficult (as the rest of the post documents) for faculty to be serious participants in the very real conversations about the university and its finances that are going on everywhere.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Put me in with you on this one, TR. At SLAC, all FT employees get the tuition benefit, and there is a trade scheme with several other colleges, although people have to want to come to SLAC in order for the trade to work. In reality, this benefit probably helps staff more than faculty, because SLAC is not nearly as selective as most faculty want their children's colleges to be. So most of my faculty friends with really bright and motivated kids are paying for their students to go to good state universities, some paying out of state tuition. We also have a spousal benefit that allows up to 2 courses a semester for free, I think. It's a good deal, and if they were to cut it, it would hurt the lowest-paid employees most.

I think it's probably pretty cost-effective, considering what a lot of staff get paid.

But I do take your point, and think that, in most cases, especially those where the benefit is limited to faculty, I'd be really pissed off.

As it is, I really can see places to trim fat at SLAC, and much of it has to do with what some of my colleagues see as entitlements, but some also have to do with the extreme differences in pay and in budget oversight for the different schools at SLAC. And there are administrators who are paid too much :-)

Still, last year, our top administrators took no pay increases, and we were all given the same raise across the board, rather than a raise that was a percentage of our salaries. It's good to work somewhere where the administration looks at the overall picture. OTOH, for the singles like me, who are not too high up on the faculty wage scale, the long-term costs of such policies are going to hurt.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

oh, also, like Dr. Crazy, I come from a family where hardly anybody before me had a college education. My parents had Associate's degrees, and one uncle has a degree in Landscape Architecture from Cal Poly. Guess who paid for my education? Me and Pell Grant and Cal Grant. I didn't borrow my way through college, and I worked 30-40 hours a week while taking a full load. It's nice to pay for your kid to go to college, sure. Or to be able to subsidise their living expenses a bit. But nobody in my family expects their parents to pay.

Now, if you want to make that tuition thing a bit fairer, maybe it would be better to revisit the financial aid laws that make a child the financial responsibilty of the parent for several years after the age of majority and funding systems that make it necessary for families to borrow more than the cost of a house.

Seriously -- if we are supposed to be investing in future generations, shouldn't it be for better funding for all students?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

TR, count me among those who are with you on this. I thing that tuition benefits are a wonderful and relatively low-cost way to recruit and retain faculty while supporting the mission of education overall. But this dedicated spinster auntie would like to see the definition of "family" extended to include her nieces and nephews whose working-class parents probably won't be able to afford to send them to college, period.

My word verification word, by the way, is "hetorses", which I believe is defined as the painful contortions that some het folk go through when it's suggested to them that they are, in fact, the beneficiaries of privilege.

Jo Walton said...

Have you thought of adopting a seventeen year old who wants to go to Zenith? Have you thought of doing this regularly every year until you retire? At that point you'd have so many grateful graduate "children" to take care of you there wouldn't be a problem with needing other people's children's help. And doing this, or even just talking about doing it, might highlight the actual problem with the axioms they are working on.

Golden Handcuffed said...

Let's look at this from a different point of view -- contract law.

Does the fact that a contract is not entirely fair and can be entered into between only some members of a population invalidate the contract?

Some members of the Zenith population feel that they accepted lower salary over many years, with a promise of tuition benefit later. Then, twenty years (for some) into this contract, known locally as the Golden Handcuffs, the administration suggests a unilateral reduction in the benefit.

I don't think anyone would be surprised that those Zenith faculty who saw this as a contract feel done in.

Was the original contract unfair in that it was of use only to breeders of college-bound progeny? Of course.

But does that unfairness invalidate the contract?

Tenured Radical said...

Nice argument Golden -- if we had contracts that specified such things. But even labor contracts are renegotiated periodically: they are not open ended instruments.

And *of course* this sucks for people. But the move from an administration proposal to "this benefit will disappear" misrepresented the situation dramatically. Those of us who aren't permitted to benefit don;t think it should be taken away; we think we should be included, and if our colleagues aren't willing to stand up for simple inclusion, we aren't willing to stand up for a process that cuts all of our benefits and leaves some of theirs intact.

Anonymous said...

At one level availability of tuition benefits for faculty/staff children is a specific case of the more general policy issue of fringe benefits equity:

- Unhealthy (and older?) folks, including smokers and overeaters, benefit more from employer-subsidized health plans
- Large families benefit more from subsidized family health insurance plans
- Those with cars benefit more from free and subsidized campus parking

Some employers have responded to such inequities with so-called "cafeteria" benefits plans. And I'm aware of a (non-profit) org that offers a cash stipend for employees who decline the health insurance benefit. (I don't know if anyone can decline, or only those who are covered by another's family plan.)

As for dependent tuition plans, it seems critical to distinguish among those (a) restricted to the home institution, which is viewed as a high-caliber option; (b) restricted to the home inst, but parents would pay for a "better" college; and (c) portable.

Finally, I am struck by the irony that, in general, the most selective private colleges and universities -- including Zenith -- advertise "need-blind" admissions. If faculty (and staff on many campuses) ability to pay declines, the financial aid formulas should compensate (if not dollar for dollar). Why are the faculty unwilling to trust the financial aid programs that these institutions advertise as being central to attracting the best and brightest students?

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