Illustration by The Chronicle
By Silke-Maria Weineck
It is true that academics vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. This has led conservative enemies of higher education to claim that universities are left-wing institutions. They are not. They are quintessentially bourgeois institutions — liberal, sure, but not on the left in any meaningful sense. Their prime function is the reproduction of civil society and the managerial class.
With regard to labor politics, even calling universities liberal is a stretch. This is, in many ways, an open secret; we don’t talk about it much because it is in both academics’ and the right wing’s interest to maintain the fiction of campus radicalism. But the abyss between academic self-presentation and actual institutional politics is yawning so wide it threatens to swallow what’s left of our collective claim to decency. I want to draw attention to just one simple yet infuriating example of how many universities have abandoned even the pretense of liberal commitments.
Universities are facing terrifying budget shortfalls as a result of the Covid-19pandemic, and they need to do one or a combination of three things. (1) They can spend their endowments — but most colleges either don’t have the amounts they would need, or, like my home institution, they do have the money but, for a mixture of good and bad reasons, do not want to dip into it too deeply. (2) They could take steps to increase revenue — but the very circumstances that have led to the crunch make that nearly impossible, certainly to the extent necessary. (3) They can cut expenses — meaning cut staff and salaries, which are by far the biggest budget item.
A left-wing or even a left-liberal institution would make sure those cuts come from the top and are structured like a progressive income tax, with those earning more forking over not only more of their salary but a higher percentage of their salary. Progressive taxation is the bedrock revenue principle of liberal democracies, including the United States. It’s impossible to imagine leftists, left liberals, or even centrist Democrats advocating for a flat tax.
And yet, all over the country, this is what universities are doing. If they are not firing faculty and staff members, shuttering entire departments, or cutting salaries directly, they are pausing retirement contributions. Psychologically, this is the easiest cut to sell to a jittery work force — you don’t feel it right away. Nothing changes. You’re making the same amount you were before, right?
Of course, no, you are not. Your salary was just cut by whatever percentage your university contributes — 5 percent, 10 percent, 15 percent — to your retirement plan. This money was part of your compensation. Now it’s gone. To make matters worse, you are not only losing the money that went into your retirement fund, you are losing whatever money that money would have made as it grew, untaxed, in your account.
This is a flat cut. The staff member who makes $30,000 a year is giving up the exact same percentage of her salary as the business-school professor raking in $300,000. Yes, the latter contributes more in absolute savings, but she does not contribute progressively more. Her retirement account is already fat beyond what most Americans can imagine. Meanwhile, the student-services coordinator will see her account go from thin to emaciated. Say she is 28 years old, and her retirement contribution is 10 percent of her yearly salary, or $3,000. Assuming a rate of return of 5 percent, that $3,000 would have been worth $18,244.22 by the time she turns 65. That’s $18,244.22 she won’t have in old age.
It would be so damn easy to do this differently. Anyone with a basic grasp of Excel and a few hours to kill could figure out how to cut salaries progressively to achieve the same amount of savings. Don’t touch salaries below your county’s median income. Divide up the remaining salary tiers: take 5 percent from the lowest tier, 10 percent from the next one, 30 percent from the top. Or implement some version of that. Use the damn spreadsheet.
To repeat: This would be easy. And right. And in keeping with the most basic liberal principles universities claim to uphold. If universities ran themselves the way they talk about themselves, no college would have cut retirement benefits across the board. But here’s the thing: as long as the right insists that universities are basically temples to Mao, we never have to actually prove that our institutional politics are even to the left of Angela Merkel. Their distortion is our cover story. Most universities, as contingent faculty members know all too well, particularly if they’re not unionized, exploit labor to the same extent and with the same gusto as Walmart does — whenever they can get away with it.
I would love to be wrong about this. I would love to see my institution commit to instituting any future cuts in a progressive fashion — after all, few of the faculty members I talk to believe that salary cuts aren’t on the way. So far, university faculty have been spared, our salaries merely frozen; the same can’t be said of the hundreds of people laid off in the medical school, which has always been less squeamish when it comes to firing staff. And yes, those progressive cuts should apply to the football coach and the basketball coach and the president and the provost, and to tenured faculty like myself who make decent money (at least counted in humanities dollars).
Yet whenever I have floated the idea, I’ve been met by awkward silence — not just from the full-time administrators, whom we love to blame for everything that’s wrong, but from my fellow faculty members. All too often confusing our private ideological convictions with our institutional politics, we actually share a lot of the blame here. We can and should be leading this charge. Because no matter what shambles faculty governance has been reduced to, we could still be the ones with the power if we wanted to be.
Silke-Maria Weineck is professor of German and comparative literature at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.