Ivory Tower Hypocrisy at Occupy Los Angeles

“Universities share one characteristic with compulsive gamblers and exiled royalty: there is never enough money to satisfy their desires.”

Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard

I found this statement of solidarity with the Occupy Los Angeles movement on Facebook, and it incensed me.

For me, the hardest part of attending Stanford was not getting in. It was finding a way to pay for it. My parents were proud that I had won admission to a prestigious university, but they were terrified of the cost due to their modest teachers’ salaries. With two younger siblings, their funding my Stanford education was simply not an option.

I told them not to worry. My ROTC scholarship would fund 80% of the tuition, and two other merit scholarships would cover all but about $200 a year for the other 20%.

They reluctantly agreed, and I flew to a college campus nearly 3,000 miles away.

I have been on my own from the age of 18.

But I had it “easy.” My low six-figure college education was cheap compared to what it would be today.

According to N+1 Magazine, which I discovered via The Economist, the tuition at U.S. colleges increased over 900 percent — a rate 650 percentage points above inflation — since 1978. During the same period, housing prices increased only 50 points above inflation.

So if you think bankers are bad for helping to fuel the housing boom, they pale in comparison to the academic mafia. Well actually, bankers also helped these institutions maintain a massive tuition bubble by securitizing 30% of the $800 billion in outstanding American student debt.

But ultimately, the primary driver of all this tuition inflation is the schools themselves. Vance Fried of Oklahoma State University has demonstrated that it is possible to provide a “first-class undergraduate education for $6,700 a year rather than the $25,900 charged by public research universities or the $51,500 charged by their private peers.”

His solutions included separating the funding of research from teaching, increasing the student-teacher ratio, eliminating programs that attract fewer students, and cutting administrative bloat. For example, the cost of administration alone has grown by 61% in real terms from 1993 to 2007.

Which brings me back to the UCLA Department of Education’s statement of solidarity with the Occupy Los Angeles Movement.

Talk is cheap.

Until UCLA and other universities lower their tuition, I am sure UCLA’s Education Department will understand why I am just going to ignore this empty little gesture. It reeks of hypocrisy.

I would have been more impressed if they had offered to teach free classes for Occupy LAers, or pledged a one percent salary cut for every one percent UCLA lowers its tuition.

The bottom line is that this statement does nothing except make the faculty feel good about themselves in an all-too-common bout of ivory-towered navel-gazing. The average person will simply see this proclamation for what it really is: a mental masturbatory exercise disguised as an empty gesture.

About Sean Patrick Hazlett

Finance executive, engineer, former military officer, and science fiction and horror writer. Editor of the Weird World War III anthology.
This entry was posted in Business, California, Education, Finance and Economics, Media, Policy, Politics, Socialism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Ivory Tower Hypocrisy at Occupy Los Angeles

  1. Scott Erb says:

    I could be accused of jealousy, but in fact despite having less than half the pay, double or triple the teaching load and little prestige, I’m so glad I’m not at a big “ivory tower” school. Our rooms aren’t as comfortable, the workload intense, but we keep classes small, focus on teaching, and stay close to our students. I also am personally uncomfortable with institutions of education becoming politicized by taking official departmental stands. Individual professors can speak out using their first amendment rights, though they should be respectful of other views in the classroom and never “punish” someone for having a view different than their own. I think in more prestigious universities (nothing against your old school) it’s easy for the faculty to become insulated. Tuition has been rising here too, but we’ve had job cuts and make no profit. This year we have some of our best students in a long time — ones that decided the high cost of private schools wasn’t worth it — that they can get more value for their money.

    • “Tuition has been rising here too, but we’ve had job cuts and make no profit.”

      I think most schools have started cutting as well, even Harvard.

      I am guessing your school is probably on the more affordable end, so this broad critique likely applies less to your school than UCLA.

      My biggest beef with the statement was obviously the hyprocrisy of it. Tuition increases have risen across the board at a rate far exceeding that of the housing bubble.

      Secondly, my other beef is that a department in a public institution funded by my tax dollars supported a political position with which I disagree. Imagine if the trading desk at Goldman Sachs issued a statement in support of the protest. In short order, the media would label the entire company a hypocrite, and Goldman Sachs would fire the head of that department. I’m guessing UCLA won’t get any similar scrutiny, nor will the head of the department be censured by the university.

      If a university department supported the Tea party, the media would skewer that school.

  2. Sean, I understand and totally empathize with your own situation at Stanford, but professors do not determine tuition costs or anything close to that in the UC system. In fact our salaries have been cut repeatedly. So I think you’re getting angry at the wrong group. The fault lies at higher levels of the UC and State, which if anything we all get victimized by.

    • I also don’t appreciate the fact that an institution funded by taxpayer dollars has a department that is issuing a statement in support of a left-leaning organization. Do you think a state-funded university could get away with supporting the Tea Party movement? Do you still think they would be employed after doing so?

      Additionally, professors are part and parcel of a system that has raised tuition costs by a factor of 7 times the rate of home appreciation in this country. Rather than blame corporate greed or wall street, professors should take their own masters to task rather than redirecting the blame elsewhere in a costless and shameless pandering to a group that is suffering from the system that sustains these very professors.

      Everyone has a part in this mess, but to blame another institution for unaffordable education, among other things, is hypocritical and misplaced. To do it from the font of a supposedly non-partisan governmental institution is even worse.

      For anyone to assume that this movement speaks for 99% of the country is arrogant and outrageous. For a taxpayer funded organization to do so is completely inappropriate.

      “Sean, I understand and totally empathize with your own situation at Stanford”

      No you don’t. You didn’t when I was at Stanford. You still don’t now. You may sympathize, but until you walk a mile in my shoes, you have no clue what you are talking about. And this is what I have been talking about. This arrogant belief that the intelligensia “feels the pain” of the “little people”, and if the 99% would only awaken from their stupor, they would see the light from their intellectually superior masters.

      Why bother to argue on its merits? Everyone you know agrees with you, because if they don’t you discontinue your friendship with them. When you get a chance, you should read the Filter Bubble. You might learn something. Someone from MoveOn.org wrote it, so you don’t have to worry about exposing yourself to opinions that don’t fit your worldview.

      Have a nice life.

      • Ramesh says:

        “professors are part and parcel of a system that has raised tuition costs by a factor of 7 times the rate of home appreciation in this country. Rather than blame corporate greed or wall street, professors should take their own masters to task rather than redirecting the blame elsewhere in a costless and shameless pandering to a group that is suffering from the system that sustains these very professors.” –

        You call yourself a rational republican? This is just angry. You clearly have not walked in a professors shoes at a public university that has cut our own salaries several times. You are the one without any clue at all. I’d love to plot my salary versus yours and let’s see how they stand together. I have not only read the Filter Bubble but been in direct contact with its author. Like I said, take me on in a ‘rational’ debate in person rather than hiding behind Facebook or a computer.

        • From 2010 to 2011, my annualized salary dropped by 43%. From 2009 to 2010, the most recent dates available, your income increased by 14.1791%. Admittedly, I do earn more than you do, but I can be laid off at any time. At one firm, I survived through 8 consecutive rounds of layoffs.

          Your job is far more stable than mine is.

          If you want to debate me. Debate me. Instead, you have simply dismissed my arguments as “not rational.”

          Why? Make an argument.

          I have. Is it irrational to ask members of an industry who have benefited disproportionately from spiraling education costs to look inward and ask themselves how they can change “the systematic” denial of educational opportunities from within, rather than demonizing members of another industry? I never argued that the life of a professor was not hard. Publish or perish is a very real fear for young professors struggling to make tenure. I am merely pointing out the hypocrisy of the UCLA Department of Education’s statement.

          And of all people, Ramesh, you know first hand that I am not one to hide behind anyone or anything. I would be happy to have a very reasonable and logical discussion in person, in private or in a very public forum (though I’d advise against the latter as I wouldn’t want to embarrass you in public).

          Anyway, you have my number, and if you lost it, I would be happy to post it here.

        • Ramesh says:

          Sean, You certainly earn more than I, and you have an MBA from Harvard, and work in the financial sector that you yourself say is guilty of controlling and buying out elections. I have little disagreement that universities can be hypocritical in terms of claiming to support social movements that in practice they do little with. But you do not know either my department nor do you seem to get the point that professors within departments have almost no power. That is why I have been on the streets and you have not, instead armchairing angrily in an uninformed way what you think you see around you. So a departmental statement can by hypocritical in so far as it is not linked to actual action, I agree. But in our case it is linked to action – by a small unit but one that is actually very much dedicated to activist work in LA, and one you know very little about. Try to actually know who is making these statements rather than angrily dismissing them. I’ve invited you to my public talks to take me on now four times, since I also think you don’t understand social movements. I have zero doubts that I could easily outdebate you, and yes embarrass you if I choose, but that’s not what this should be about, certainly not since you claim you want this to be a rational space. I’m happy to call you as well since this is not going to end otherwise. Please post your phone number and I will call you this morning.

        • Ramesh,

          I enjoyed our talk. The experience was a classic case of the pitfalls of social networking technology. At least you can use the experience for your research. 😉

    • Dan, TX says:

      Wow Sean, your response was not reflective of a rational republican in my opinion. The higher cost of education is due to many things. You can point to some faculty who make very high salaries (usually administrators who stepped down or were fired who returned to the regular faculty, but sometimes superstars), but overall, faculty salaries are not the cause of rising tuition. Plot the number of administration and administrative staff per faculty member or student over time at Tier I Universities, and let me know what you find. Plot faculty salaries vs management salaries in any business and I don’t think you’ll find faculty salaries inflated (almost every Tier I faculty member manages programs; including teaching, research, administration, and national and international service). Most people, including you, don’t really have a grasp on what faculty do, it sounds like you think that faculty are supposed to teach in a classroom. And that is a small part of the job, but only a small part. There are plenty of community colleges for that. But Stanford is one where faculty spend only a tiny fraction of their time in the classroom. If Stanford faculty were suddenly compelled to focus solely on classroom teaching, Stanford wouldn’t exist for long.

      • Dan, TX says:

        And what I meant by all of that is that faculty overall tend to be revenue neutral. They bring in as much money to the University as they cost – at least that is how we tend to be judged. If you don’t bring in enough contract and grants combined with classroom teaching to cover the cost of your salary and benefits then you aren’t going to be looked at very favorably. In general, Stanford faculty bring in way more money than they cost, so one might expect tuition to be low at Stanford compared to most other places. But that money is spent to ensure students get an educational experience that is VASTLY superior. If you think tuition is too high, don’t go to that school. Don’t want to spend any money, go to the library and on-line to educate yourself. School is only one way to become educated, if it is too expensive, people won’t pay for it. Again, supply and demand will fix the problem. Anyone who complains about the cost of education has socialist leanings in my opinion. State support for public education is nice, but State’s DO NOT provide the major source of funding to any school of significant stature.

        • In high school, I took several advanced mathematics courses at a local state university, and the teaching there was slightly better than that at Stanford. Many professors at elite institutions ate there because of their research, not their teaching ability. That said, I think elite institutions generally do a better job of teaching in their professional programs where research is less important.

          In general, people pay to go to elite institutions primarily for the brand – which ultimately pays for itself. The brand is important, because it signals to employers that a graduate made it through a highly selective screening process.

          Your point about socialism is a fair one. The problem with elite education is that it does not entirely operate like a free market. Education is one of the only industries in which the customer is also the school’s product. By ” producing” students that are so encumbered with debt, the schools ultimately make it difficult for students to enter fields in which they could make the most difference. I hold myself as a key example. I majored in engineering because it was marketable, and history because I loved it. If I had my druthers, I would have earned a PhD in political science. Unfortunately, I had to do what was expedient and pay my dues in the Army, rather than spending those years in a PhD program. But, without rambling, I hope you see my point.

      • Dan,

        I can understand why you might think my response was not rational. This conversation is a bleed over from a different medium, so there is more context that is missing. Suffice it to say, sr deserved what he got.

        If you take UCLA for instance, about 500 employees there made over $288k a year in 2010 – I will be doing a post to confirm that number later . today. So it seems high salaries are a problem. The average American makes something like $49k a year. The average professor makes about double that. The average professor at an elite institution makes well over that amount.

        High salaries are obviously only a small portion of the costs. Administrative bloat is another big one. Universities are simply less efficient than private companies. The last piece is research, which costs a lot. Students shouldn’t be subsidizing it. Period. Not to mention that most top flight universities get a lot of money from the federal government.

        In your opinion, if these costs aren’t driving the 650 percent real increase in tuition costs, then what is? And how are Wall Street or corporate interests to blame for this? Shouldn’t professors be focusing their energy criticizing something they may actually have the ability to change and whose cost has grown faster than nearly every other cost in the economy?

  3. Vern R. Kaine says:

    Came across these links re: Compensation at Harvard and UCLA

    “While top administrators have not received big pay raises in the past two years, some have gotten financial perks and at least one has received extra pay for reasons UCLA officials have difficulty explaining with precision.”

    Not as stinky as the Wall Street bonuses and perks, but interesting nonetheless re: transparency.

  4. dedc79 says:

    “His solutions included separating the funding of research from teaching, increasing the student-teacher ratio, eliminating programs that attract fewer students, and cutting administrative bloat. For example, the cost of administration alone has grown by 61% in real terms from 1993 to 2007”

    Some of these items give me heartburn. I’d note first that he hits the nail on the head re research, which i’m pretty sure dwarfs teacher salaries in terms of university expense at many schools. While I don’t think universities should maintain programs if no students are enrolled in them i’d be hesitant to have schools jettisoning entire areas of education just because they aren’t so popular.

    • That’s fair. I was most uncomfortable with the jettisoning of entire departments as well. I’ve seen it happen in the private sector so often in the last 4 years with all the layoffs in my industry, that I’ve seen how it can be demotivating for organizations.

  5. Pingback: Ivory Tower Hypocrisy at Occupy Los Angeles: Part II | Reflections of a Rational Republican

  6. Vern R. Kaine says:

    How can people generalize and say that staff salaries have little to nothing to do with rising tuition costs? I’m open to an answer. If it’s a drop in government funding, a drop in students who can afford higher education, an increase in costs somewhere other than labor, I’m open to it and since there’s likely nothing to refute that with I would accept it without debate, but all I hear are just generalizations without any percentages attached to it. Is someone not allowed to question a public institution’s salaries? I know not-for-profits get testy when there’s are questioned…

    The price of labor affects the price (cost) of products, so why wouldn’t the price of labor affect the cost of services, too, like education? If professors’ pay has stayed flat, it seems from the UCLA #’s that the administration’s salaries are quite healthy.

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