Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I'll Never be Worth $5.7 Million to Anybody

An article in today's New York Times headlined "NYU Gives Its Stars Loans for Summer Homes" has generated a lot of buzz in the twitterverse and blogosphere, as well as here on campus, where the topic has been the subject of some discussion for a while already. The article contains more details than I'd seen previously on the topic, including the $5.7 million loaned by the university to the dean of the law school to buy two homes, one in the city and one outside of it.

With the caveat that I'm sidestepping the real point of this article, which is about executive compensation in universities relative to other expenses (including faculty salaries and student financial aid packages) and about transparency in university spending, I found myself most preoccupied by the extent to which this article demonstrates that the university values us not for any merit inherent in our work but to the extent that other people or institutions value us. The article quotes a university spokesman as saying that "certain loans help retain faculty members who 'can easily pursue a financially rewarding professional career instead of choosing the path of university scholarship and teaching.'"

Let's concede that in an ideal world, intellectual endeavors would be valued on their own terms. But let's also concede that we don't live in an ideal world. Assume that in every other area of human activity, people are valued for what they produce and its market value, and that academics are valued for the opportunity costs they incur for being in the academy rather than plying their trade elsewhere. Professors in the law school are compensated on the basis of what they would earn as lawyers; engineering and physics professors earn salaries commensurate with engineers and physicists working for the space program or making sure that buildings don't collapse. And in the humanities? We have virtually nowhere else to go (and certainly nowhere higher-paying), so there are no astronomical salaries or glitzy perks to be matched.

To be sure, this is in large measure because American society, by and large, looks at pure knowledge, at history and literature, with disdain; there are all sorts of measures that indicate this. But to what extent have we in the humanities contributed to our own undervaluing? Have we hamstrung ourselves?

In the hard sciences and in law, not only do university faculty have other career options, but they also routinely do some work outside of the university walls: in consulting, in government, etc. In the humanities, though, when someone dares to write for a general audience — say, to try to explain that maybe there's something to be learned from the Middle Ages, or to tell a little bit of an early-modern Indiana Jones story that is simply going to grip people, fascinate them, and maybe, just maybe, make them want to learn more, read more and see more —a full-on Greek-tragic chorus rings out in condemnation and foreboding at the simplification and the dumbing down, even if that's not what's really happening. In contrast with the sciences and the legal academy, when scholars in the humanities work outside of the ivory tower, they often stop being taken seriously inside it. Is it any wonder we can't make a better argument for our own value, however true or just or right or self-evident that argument may indeed be?

I'm not even going to try to argue that it shouldn't be the case that we have to talk to "normal people" about what we're doing, to wring my hands and lament such extramural contact as a necessary, unfortunate side effect of the declining place of the humanities in the academy as well as in society at large. I don't actually think it's a bad thing. If we start making our work accessible to general audiences as well as to academic ones, everybody wins: These obscure, esoteric topics that we all believe in so passionately can interest and benefit a much wider range of people; and maybe as a side effect, we ourselves can become more valuable.

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