Critics of higher education ask from time to time why I don't simply reduce faculty compensation by, say, twenty percent. They are right to observe that the payroll is the primary portion of the budget. I am always willing to consider ideas offered in good faith. Here is how an across-the-board salary reduction for professors might play out.
The foreseeable reaction to my hypothetical decree likely would be the calling of a faculty meeting at which I would receive a no-confidence vote. Institutions of higher education practice democracy. The chief executive officer of a college -- one hesitates to even borrow that title from the corporate context -- is elected and can be unelected. Professors are my colleagues; I am not their boss.
Although the governing board is actually the authority that appoints me, a strong signal of disapproval from the faculty often, though not always, leads to the exit of the head of any campus. In rare instances, the board opposes the faculty and backs the leader. That in turn means a siege will set in, which has various outcomes, none especially happy.
I hasten to add that this isn't about self-interest. The point is not to protect my own job. The point is that a search for my successor will be convened sooner rather than later. The faculty will ensure that the most important selection criteria is whether the candidate will reverse my decision posthaste.
Thus it is not likely that a faculty salary reduction of any magnitude can be maintained permanently. It would merely swap out the person who presides over meetings.
Suppose though that I enjoyed sufficient popularity I could bring around a majority of my peers to accept this cut. No doubt there would be some who would do so begrudgingly or on the tacit understanding the situation was temporary.
Then the forces of the market would operate on us forthwith. Virtually all of our professors, capable and productive as they are, would look for opportunities elsewhere. The renowned scholars and the best teachers would be recruited away by our rivals.
The reputation of the institution would drop, perhaps irreversibly. The word on the street would be that the school was approaching its demise. (Blogs could be expected to encourage the speculation and exodus.)
Ironically, the group whom we imagine as benefiting from a reduction of faculty compensation -- the students -- would no longer be interested in attending. They would have no desire to be associated with a place that has such serious problems.
Collusion among schools on compensation is not legal and wouldn't be effective. It violates antitrust policies. But if it could be arranged, maybe by the state legislature as to the public system, there are enough well-endowed private schools that would take the opportunity to raid their competitors.
Finally, what if a magic reset were to occur. We wake up, and, by an intervention along the lines of the classical deus ex machina, faculty salaries ended up much lower.
The quality of the faculty would suffer, as people chose other pursuits: staying in the lucrative practice of law instead of joining the academy. Anyone a decent law school would consider hiring as a professor could, if she wished, make much more money at a prestigious law firm. Our tenured professors make less than a brand-new associate at such an enterprise.
Without delay, constituents would demand that each school compete against others in rankings, leading straightaway back into the same cycle as each bidder for a star tried to put together the best recruitment deal. Professors are human beings. They respond to the same incentives as anyone else.
Whenever we face difficult decisions, we wish for the cure-all. A moment's reflection on the consequences should suffice to dissuade us in this instance.
There are better alternatives. I admire the professors with whom I am privileged to be affiliated. They value both teaching and scholarship. Reducing compensation is not as good an option as increasing productivity. Our faculty already have agreed to increase their workload. Tenured professors are teaching more classes than their junior colleagues here and more than their peers at other leading institutions. They also are committed to increased counseling of students. Our strategic plan emphasizes engaged scholarship. The best research applies to the world around us.
Together, but only together, we can change higher education.