Academic Dispute | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Academic Dispute

Debate about higher ed often fails Econ 101

It's hard to know what Pittsburgh would make of Andrew Carnegie today ... and not just because of the union-busting, or the fact that his steel mills would obstruct the use of riverfront trails. This was a guy who didn't like football. "[T]o me, the spectacle of educated young men rolling over one another in the dirt was — well, not gentlemanly," he once told college students.

Carnegie also showed an interest in a group of people that remains unfashionable even today: underpaid academics.

While Carnegie had little formal schooling, writes biographer Joseph Frazier Wall, he "had been shocked to discover how very small the salaries of college professors were": Clerks in his office earned more. So Carnegie set up a nationwide pension fund for professors, asserting that "the least rewarded of all the professions is that of the teacher in our higher educational institutions." The venture later became TIAA-CREF, a financial-services firm academics nationwide still rely on.

Today, of course, colleges are among Pittsburgh's largest employers. But now, as in Carnegie's day, local leaders often demonstrate only fitful interest in the hardship that makes their own prosperity possible. Even much-beloved University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who is taking a victory lap as he retires from 19 years of leading the school, seems to have some blind spots.

Nordenberg spoke to a May 28 opening session at the 2014 Social Equity Leadership Conference, hosted by Pitt with the theme of "assessing social equity and civil rights in the light of growing income inequality." And to hear Nordenberg tell it, universities generate social equity just by virtue of existing. Citing a slew of studies, he declared that a "college degree can be a ticket out of poverty." Spiraling student-loan debt — which has topped $1 trillion nationwide — was a problem, he allowed. But it could be blamed largely on state legislators with budget concerns and, sometimes, "anti-intellectual views."

True enough. College grads do earn more over a lifetime than those without a diploma. And Pennsylvania's support of higher education has lagged, one reason students here carry among the largest debt loads in the country.

But in outlining the prosperity a diploma offers students, Nordenberg didn't mention the ill-paid adjuncts who are increasingly likely to teach them. Nor did he reckon with research like a February report from the nonprofit Delta Cost Project, which found that as tuition rises, colleges have shifted resources away from teaching. "You see it on every campus — an increase in administration and a decrease in full-time faculty, and an increase in the use of part-time faculty," one report author told the Chronicle of Higher Education. (The trend does have an upside: My own spouse works in college administration.)

When such subjects get broached, it's often by conservatives whose real interest is in cackling over the possibility of seeing pointy-headed professors kicked to the curb. Take the June 1 column by Post-Gazette columnist Jack Kelly, in which Kelly professes to care about the fact that administrator salaries have risen, and that "student debt has increased 500 percent, but starting salaries for college graduates shrunk 10 percent."

It's not like Kelly cares about income disparity — or the fact that graduates are entering a job market that lags even as corporate profits soar. The problem, he says, is that "at many colleges, preparing students for a career takes a back seat to political indoctrination." At Harvard, he wails, students "will be required to attend ‘power and privilege' training," while at the University of California-Santa Barbara, the student council "demands that syllabi contain warnings" about material that "might trigger feelings of ... distress." (That's right: Kelly chose this week to mock students at UC-Santa Barbara for being too sensitive. Classy!)

Confused about why a conservative, whose tribe usually denounces "Ivy League elitists," would oppose urging Harvard kids to be more humble? It's simple: Blaming colleges for not "preparing students for a career" is easier than asking why our economy generates so few jobs — even as it produces more and more wealth at the top.

Even during academic discussions of social inequality, college leaders can struggle to acknowledge their part in the problem. Conservatives, meanwhile, argue that French majors are the only ones to blame for it. It's almost enough to make you nostalgic for the guy with the Pinkerton guards.

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