I admit to being an idealist. I grew up far, far from academia. No one in my family had ever been to college before, but when my high school teachers described it, it sounded like a bookish place where knowledge for knowledge’s sake was valued above all more pedestrian concerns. There men and women read and studied and devoted their lives to learning. They lived in shimmering ivory towers and led the way of the future from their scholastic bunkers. And so I worked my way through college. Granted, studying religion may not have been the wisest choice for changing the future, but it seemed the right course at the time. I found a limited acceptance in academia, an idealist who just didn’t know when to give up. It was only after earning a Ph.D. that I stopped to look over the landscape with informed eyes and began to feel a deep dismay.
The best way to encapsulate that dismay became clear in a headline in the New Jersey Star-Ledger earlier this week: “More millionaires among college presidents.” It seems that the extremely rare job of college president is increasing becoming the path to riches. Now to a guy who has never found that mythical teaching position that supports a small family, this felt like a kick in the gut. More than that, it also summarized the dismal view I’d garnered of academia as a whole: it has become a money-driven enterprise.
The tawdry reasons given to justify college presidents earning six figures, some creeping toward seven, per year is that of unadulterated capitalism. Prestige, keeping up with the other corporate executives in academia, showing the strength of the school through the number of greenbacks wasted on the salary of a single individual — I simply don’t buy it. The college president worth his or her paycheck is the one who would take a pay cut for the honor of having the job. Okay, so I’m an idealist, but I believe that higher education, which began as an outgrowth of religious education in such institutions as the University of Paris, has lost its way. I know adjuncts at Rutgers who earn less than $30,000 a year (in New Jersey!) while the president’s salary tops $635,000. And don’t even get me started on the football coaches! I wonder who would win a purely intellectual contest: the University of Paris vs. the Big East Conference?