Workers’ Productivity

I am not the kind of person who jumps on everything my alma mater does and shouts hooray! I am, however, quite proud of our recent initiative to restrict the president’s pay to 10 times that of the lowest-paid worker. College is, in many ways, a grossly distorted microcosm of the “real world” (and I have a lot more to say about that, but this is not the post). However, it’s not totally distorted. What is very real is that there are a lot of people who work really hard, every day, and get paid peanuts; at the same time, there are other people, who work really hard, and get paid a lot.

The difference between these people isn’t work ethic or human value. The difference is what kind of work they’re doing and how that work is valued. We consider labor “skilled” or “unskilled,” and we shell out big bucks for workers who are most responsible for bringing in revenue to the college. As many people point out, paying large salaries to presidents of institutions is part of being a competitive hirer. You get what you pay for, or so this logic goes.

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You also get to live in, or at least near, a place that looks like this.

However, if we back away from the context of competing institutions of higher ed, we can see that, for example, $300,000 and $325,000 are fairly comparable salaries. Yes, $25,000 per year does add up quickly. However, is it going to make the president of the school happier? More fulfilled? More intellectually stimulated? …a better president, a better leader?

The school that I went to, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, is asking for exactly this reduction–reducing the president’s salary from $325,000 to $300,000–while simultaneously raising the lowest wages from $25,000 to $30,000. This would satisfy the 10:1 ratio initiative. This would also raise the lowest paid workers above the poverty level for a family of four.

While this doesn’t solve the college’s internal financial woes, it does make a clear statement of values–and it’s one that nearly everyone on campus supports. While the college president has an important role in the college as a whole, the campus cleaning crew, for example, are probably more important on a daily basis. But it’s not just cleaning crew v. president. Professors are less likely to have salary increases than administrators, yet professors are the core of the college.

Most ridiculous, in my opinion, is a statement made by James Sherk, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation (as quoted in the article linked above): “Employers base pay according to workers’ productivity. This sort of pay cap proposal attempts to redistribute wages from the most productive employees to less productive employees. In doing so it will severely distort hiring decisions.”

How can you compare the productivity of a college president, a professor, and a cleaning lady? “Productivity” is a fishy word in that statement, a word used to legitimize what is essentially defensiveness. In some ways, I think the cleaning crew could probably take the prize for most productive: they constantly clean up after hundreds of slobs, many of whom take partying productivity as seriously as any other form of it and produce their vivid results in dorm bathrooms and hallways.

Or perhaps we could give the top salary to the professor who touches the most students’ intellectual curiosity. When students felt moved by a lecture, they could drop a dollar into a collection plate passed around at the end of class. Presidents, having little daily interaction with students, would have to earn their keep in some other form, perhaps by selling advertising space on their office walls or allowing sponsored ads on the college website and receiving that revenue personally.

I do not think that every person on campus “deserves” equal pay. The requirements of each job involved with the college are different. Professors and most administrators typically have extensive higher education, which itself costs money; if we value that education, we should treat it as an investment by providing some form of return in higher wages. We must value that education, or we show that we do not value the education we are in the business of producing.

Further, we do need to value intangible work. Intellectual work often looks like staring at a blank page, or a blank screen. Creating and executing high-quality courses takes serious effort, but not the kind of effort that usually shows itself in sweat marks or dirty hands. Quantifying this work is a gnarly challenge, but devaluing it is not the solution.

In the end, though, money doesn’t buy happiness or even a particularly good president. What money buys is housing, food, electricity, clothing, transportation, and even education. To lose sight of this, to be blinded by competitiveness and greed, is a moral failing. In corporate environments, this is perhaps more understandable (though not more just). In institutes of so-called higher learning, however, it is reprehensible: if our supposedly advanced education does not allow us to see and comprehend unfairness and work on practical solutions to remedy it, can it really be considered much of an education at all?

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