As a part-time public servant (I teach part-time at two state schools, Rutgers and Montclair State) I am required to sit myself in front of the computer for over an hour each year to watch a slide show on the ethics expected of public servants. Probably the first time this was a good thing since I had seriously been considering taking a tip-jar to class with me to help meet the costs of living in New Jersey. You see, part-timers do not get benefits. Some, like me, teach twice as many courses as their “full-time” colleagues and get paid less than half of what their betters do. I am a bargain-basement public servant. I figured a tip-jar might just help to cover mileage (not reimbursed). As I listen to the stern-voiced lady spilling out all the unethical practices (like tip-jars) that can lead to the dismissal of bad public servants, my mind can’t help but to wander to what Bruce Springsteen famously called “the mansion on the hill.”
Froma Harrop, a journalist in Providence, wrote an op-ed piece on higher education that appeared in yesterday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger. After surveying the situation at her local Brown University, Ms. Harrop laments the seemingly endlessly escalating costs of higher education. In the past four decades tuition has increased an average of 15 percent, whereas incomes (at least some) increased at an average of 6.5 percent. She notes, however, that the money is not going to professors or academic programs. The lion’s share of university money goes to sports teams. Students who often have trouble passing my admittedly easy introductory-level courses are pampered, petted, and preened by the university. The average undergrad has plenty of stories to tell of how they have been forbidden goods and services that the university reserves for its sports stars. Ms. Harrop also cites the fact that the number of administrators has nearly doubled in the last 30 years. For all that, the schools haven’t become more efficient, just top-heavy.
So as I waste an evening looking blankly at my computer screen, I realize that I am a public servant. Strictly part-time. I also realize that many public servants – those who hold high political office come to mind – earn far more than they strictly need. In fact, the benefits package alone of some of these “servants” would easily support a family of three mere mortals. And they don’t even have to make their own car payments. As an undergrad I took enough courses in ethics to officially declare it a minor. I have studied religion, a discipline akin to ethics, all my life. As the stern-voiced lady tells me all the bad things I cannot do with state money, I wonder what the top public servants are doing tonight.