By Richard Vedder
A new TIAA-CREF study shows 96 percent of full-time faculty at four-year schools is highly or at least somewhat satisfied with their jobs --only 4 percent feel otherwise. By contrast, on average about 20 percent of workers in other occupations are less than somewhat satisfied with their work --five times the proportion amongst the full-time professoriate at four-year schools. No doubt, the academic underclass of adjuncts, part-timers, graduate teaching assistants and the like have much lower levels of satisfaction than their higher paid and more secure senior colleagues. Nonetheless, the extremely high levels of job satisfaction are consistent with a feeling growing strongly in me in recent years --- the professoriate is collecting a lot of economic rent --payments beyond those necessary to keep them employed at current levels of productivity, and that economic rent has been enhanced by growing research grants and student loans.
Other things equal, a happy faculty is probably better than an unhappy one; but why, on average, are faculty happier than other professional or non-professional workers for whom, other things equal, happiness is also preferable to an unhappy state? A lot has to do with the fact that faculty have very few constraints on what they do, or how they do it. They have a huge role to play in decisions relating to their mission. They face few consequences (at least after tenure is granted) for mediocre or even poor performance. They are reasonably well paid, and have relatively few formal demands on their time. They can earn lots of extra money teaching summer school, consulting for businesses, doing contracted research, etc. Why shouldn't they be happy?
One of the reasons reform comes slowly in higher education is that the faculty know they have it good --and therefore realize that reform cannot help but threaten their nice way of life. Trying to fight the faculty and ram reform down their throats is an appealing approach to many, but it seldom works at most traditional not-for-profit institutions. No major reform of American higher education will occur without confronting the governance issue --who decides the future direction of American universities?
One approach to deal with this problem is to bribe the faculty into submission --pay faculty to give up some of their traditional prerogatives. In a crude sense, that is what happened when capitalistic enterprises replaced some state-owned ones after the fall of Soviet communism. It is not a perfect or even a fair solution, but it might work. Another approach is to increase market forces in higher education by slowly keeping universities from drinking so much at the public trough. There are several models that can make an overly satisfied professoriate more like other professional workers --not immune to the consequences of poorly serving the consuming public.