Chapter 5 — The Fat Years: Salary, Tenure, and Promotions | Pierre van den Berghe

| TBS Staff

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The cardinal principle of career advancement is: When in doubt, move. In order to move up fast in rank and salary you must either move out in space or threaten to do so. The person who is unable to leave his university because he fell in love with the locale, or because his wife wants to stay close to her parents, or because he does not get any outside offers, must inevitably fall behind his leap-frogging colleagues. The fewer your roots, the more unimpeded your race to the top. Each year, between late June and early September, tens of thousands of academics pack up and crisscross the North American continent in an apparently random migration.

The collective impression of meaninglessness given by these migrations can in fact be broken down into thousands of highly sensible individual decisions. For the academic world as a whole, for the various universities and colleges, and for the students, professional seminomadism not only serves no useful purpose: it is in fact positively wasteful and harmful. But for the professors it is enormously profitable.

Let us first try to understand the main features and determinants of this complex annual relocation. Sociologists refer to mobility in space as horizontal, and to mobility in status as vertical. The latter can be either up or down. In academia, vertical mobility takes place in reference to a double status system: academic rank and prestige of university.

The academic market place is a vast system in which the top universities have their pick of topnotch men in every field. (The well-known boast of Harvard is that when it tries to fill a post it always appoints the best man and usually finds that the person is already on its staff.) There is of course a certain amount of competition between Harvard and Berkeley, or between Columbia and Chicago, or between Yale and Princeton, but the top schools are definitely in a buyer's market. They have fewer posts than there are candidates who would be delighted to jump at the opportunity to join their staffs. But below the very top, universities have to face a seller's market and to compete fiercely with each other for the best possible staff-i.e., for people whose established individual prestige is likely to enhance the prestige of the hiring institution and department. Although appointments are officially confirmed by the board of trustees and the president, the bargaining parties in the transactions are in the first instance the candidate and the hiring department. The dean of the faculty in question in most cases has to approve the rank and salary offered, but at respectable universities he seldom chooses the candidates.

Since the overwhelming majority of universities and colleges are by definition not the top ones, the market as a whole may be described as a seller's, with intense competition between buyers. Colleges and universities have expanded faster than they have produced Ph.D.'s, and, in addition, teaching loads have gone steadily down. Consequently, the demand for qualified teachers outstrips the supply by an ever-widening margin. So far, the universities and colleges have agreed on practically nothing to restrict their cut-throat competition for staff except on an April closing date for the hunting season, and even that is frequently violated.

The individual academic will try to maximize his status

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