Saturday, April 5, 2014

The "Chicago is different" quip: another view

A few months ago, someone on behalf of the university administration was asked why the salaries of faculty at UIC lagged behind those at Urbana-Champaign.  This person responded, "Chicago is different."

That's the story as it has come down to me, and I first heard it around December 2013 or so.  I don't know the context and I don't even know if it really happened.  If someone can point me to more documentation about the context and what was actually said, I'd be much obliged.  But that's all I know about it.

I have heard union supporters complain about the attitude supposedly expressed in the "Chicago is different" quip.  They seem to interpret it as meaning the following:
the student faculty at UIC is more racially and ethnically diverse than the student body at Urbana, and people who teach a more racially and ethnically diverse deserve to be paid less than people who teach the relatively more privileged student body at Urbana. 
Sometimes this interpretation evokes conspiracy-minded tone.  At one of the rallies during the two-day strike, a speaker explained that sometime during the 1960s, when UIC was just getting started, a bunch of administrators got together and decided that because many of the new university's service staff (janitors, etc.) were minorities, they could pay these staff persons less.  And now that the service workers have unionized, they were able to win the pay and respect they deserve.  The moral was that faculty were in a similar boat and suffering from the condescending association of "Chicago" with ethnic and racial minorities and that the faculty, too, needs to unionize.

I do not wish to deny that racism or ethnic (or gender) discrimination might somehow be involved in the way the university compensates its service workers or its faculty.  I do suggest, however, that if it's an issue of several administrators getting together and coldly calculating the wages along exactly those lines, the simplest solution is not necessarily unionization.  The simplest solution would be a few well-placed firings, lawsuits, and civil rights prosecutions.  The "bad apple" theory of discrimination calls for removing bad apples.

But back to the "Chicago is different" quip. Depending on what exactly was said and what the context was, the quip could actually mean something different.  It could have meant that UIC, for a host of reasons, is less competitive than Urbana and that the faculty who teach there just don't command the labor-market power of the types of faculty who sign on with Urbana. 

Here are some possible reasons that UIC might be less competitive.  One, the market-value of UIC faculty scholarship just hasn't been as impressive as Urbana's.  Two, UIC is a newer school, and newer schools might need to pay less.  They don't have the brand-name quality that older schools do, and they probably have fewer money-donating alumni, too.  Three, UIC's departments have until recently been geared toward undergraduate education.   My knowledge of UIC's history is murky, but I understand that before sometime in the late 1990s, the graduate programs the College of Liberal Arts were not as robustly funded and promoted as they are now.  And rightly or wrongly (probably wrongly), it is the important-sounding graduate programs, with enhanced stipends, etc., that attract and demand higher-paid professors. 

I could be wrong on these points, and it's always debatable how we ought to value the quality of scholarship, the newness or oldness of an institution, and the degree to which grad and research programs sound important.  I'm just throwing out there some possible reasons that Chicago might be different.  And these reasons do not directly have anything to do with racial and ethnic diversity.

Now, "directly" in the preceding sentence does a lot of work.  It is quite possible that all my reasons above can be true and that they are still somehow implicated in UIC's oft-remarked diversity.  So let's work from the assumption that those offended by the "Chicago is different" quip are correct that it bespeaks a reference to UIC's diversity.

"Diversity" can mean a lot of things.  I think it does mean, or ought to mean, something more than merely recruiting affluent people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.  It also means, or ought to mean, recruiting people from underserved populations or from less affluent backgrounds.  That means more first-generation college students and more students from economically challenged circumstances.  These students can less afford to pay high tuition.  And if they have more academic challenges--say, if they require more instruction in writing or in pre-college-level math--then that's a cost the university must meet somehow.  I do agree, by the way, that UIC tuition has risen a lot and is high enough already, but let's keep in mind that the sticker price of tuition at local private universities, such as De Paul, Loyola, or the Illinois Institute of Technology is higher.  (I do need to acknowledge, however, that those schools probably offer more generous grants-in-aid and scholarships, so perhaps the actual price paid by a given student is lower.)

I can see a way someone could use the "Chicago is different" argument to suggest that the faculty who serve this population might need to accept lower salaries, that part of the satisfaction from helping other is not to gain the larger stipends one might gain elsewhere. Higher salaries do increase the cost of running the university.  And those costs have to be met somehow.  The union, in its most recent statement, from April 3, 2014, seems to imply that those costs can be met by the "hundreds of millions in profits" the university has taken in over recent years.  And if it is true that that money really represents something like "profits" and not, say, dedicated funding streams or well-thought-out hedges against future risks, then the union has a strong case.  But if the "profits" are indeed dedicated to certain funding streams and if the risk they hedge against are not overly conservative, then the issue is a closer one. 

I am pointing out a possible argument that can be made.  And I do agree, as a general proposition, that salaries in service of the public might sometimes have to be lower in order to meet the needs of more members of the public.  But I also must admit that by itself, that proposition is not dispositive as an argument against a wage increase. 

I can in fact imagine an argument for a wage increase that reflects a commitment to UIC's diversity.  Better pay and longer term contracts enable UIC faculty to be even more committed to serving their students.  It's not that they're not committed already, but with higher pay and greater job security, instructors would be able to act in the longer term interests of their students.  They would have a greater incentive to continue to be a resource to former students.  In the years after I received my BA and again after I received my MA, I had occasion several times to visit former professors, to get their advice, and in some cases to secure letters of recommendation.  That's hard to do if a faculty member is so contingent that he or she might not have a job the next year or if that instructor is so ill-paid that he or she might have to look for work elsewhere or be less available because of having a second job.

But let's not make the same mistake that the administrator responsible for the "Chicago is different" quip is presumed to have made.  Let's not assume that a pay increase, however well deserved and however beneficent in the long run, comes with no negative consequences for the students.  Inflation happens.  Costs creep up and up.  Surpluses and "profits" are sometimes quickly and unexpectedly depleted.  Tuition rates rise higher.  And the rise is not always the result of a cynical, money-grabbing administration. 

One need not be an anti-union scold or share my reservations about the union to see some merit in what I am saying.  I think a strongly pro-union person could take this post to heart and learn from it.  Some people will hear "Chicago is different" and react in a way similar to that of some of my pro-union colleagues.  And for the record, I think, as a pro-union friend argued, that it's an altogether good thing for the union to question the university's spending priorities.  But other people's reactions might be similar to my own.  I think both sides have a case.

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