Sunday, April 20, 2014

In Your Face, Tomasky

While commenting on Paul Krugman's academic salary, which is lower than one might expect, Michael Tomasky uses the salaries at the University of Michigan Law School to make a point about Krugman's compensation:
While researching something else, I took a glance at the salaries given to faculty at the University of Michigan Law School. Nearly three-dozen faculty members there make more than Krugman’s $225,000. Fourteen are north of $500,000. Well, that’s law school, you might argue, they have to pay more. Maybe. But I can promise you you’ve never heard of them (except maybe Catharine MacKinnon, at $297,000).
I've actually heard of quite a few of them. (Is it cheating that, a couple of decades ago, I attended UM Law School?)

The funny thing is, the lesson I draw from the UM salary figures is that both salary bloat and the Peter Principle are alive and well. For some of the names on the list, compensation figures seem low -- but, like Krugman, the professors who seem underpaid have other, often substantial income streams from their publications and consulting work. Some of the numbers seem... wrong. As much as I respect the man, by way of example, I find it very difficult to believe that Judge Timothy Connors pulls in over $600K per year as an adjunct lecturer. David Lat publishes a different set of figures here, the top paid UM professors from 2012 to 2013, and although lecturers aren't technically professors... I just don't see it. If anybody can shed light on the peculiar figures (e.g., Judge Rhodes, a brilliant bankruptcy jurist, listed as receiving a salary of $566,666.68 as a "LEO Intermittent Lecturer") I would love to hear the explanation -- and to get tips on how to get that sort of compensation while moonlighting as a lecturer.

I have personal experience with some of the professors who are unquestionably paid a greater salary than Krugman. One is a brilliant man who, regrettably, could make a fortune if only he could bottle his lectures and sell them as an insomnia cure. Two are among the worst professors I've ever endured, one having demonstrated little interest in preparing for class and making casual, absurd statements during her lectures, and another being both intellectually lazy, and prone to narcissistic outbursts when corrected in class. (The lesson is: Don't correct him. You will pay.) One is among the hardest working, exacting people I've ever encountered in any sphere of my life. Another is brilliant within his field, with an encyclopedic grasp of his subject and an amazing ability to make it accessible to his students. One is probably the nicest people I've encountered in academia, with a dedication to teaching that seems too often absent from the classrooms of an elite law school. One, who I know only by reputation, was remarkable in her ability to draw her students into her philosophy of law. There are a few others who I know by reputation.

I know a few of the names of people who earn less than Krugman, as well. It's interesting to see how the compensation for certain clinical professors has risen -- I expect that comes from the increased emphasis on clinical law programs over the past twenty years, with an associated increase in demand for professors skilled enough to lead an effective, attractive law clinic. Some of the clinical professors date back to when I was at UM, and I worked with a couple of others when I was at ICLE. One of them graduated from UM a year before me, and I also remember him from classes (where he was obviously brilliant). A person from what is sort of my law school class (being a "summer starter", I fall between two years of regular graduates) is doing quite well as an administrator. A couple of others, I can count on meeting at my child's school events, as they're the parents of one of her classmates.

At the end of my review of those names and numbers, I was left with the feeling that the salaries of law school faculty reflect less of a meritocracy than would likely be achieved on a more open market. Part of that results from the absurd increases in law school tuition, funding lavish facilities (and boy, has UM Law upgraded its facilities from back in my day, when they already seemed pretty darn nice) and increased salaries. But for the better members of the faculty, I don't begrudge them their salaries. They are people who could earn as much or more (and sometimes already do earn as much or more) outside of academia. Where I find myself a bit annoyed is with the number of professors who I doubt have any greater interest in teaching than when I suffered through their lectures, and who I know haven't gotten any smarter, who seem to have floated through the years with ever-increasing salaries, praise be to tenure.

I suppose for those unfamiliar with Krugman, save for by reputation as a left-wing bogeyman, there might be a similar feeling. They might not be expressing, "That's too much money", in the sense of it's being too much to pay a high profile economist to teach at an elite university, but in the sense of, "I don't like Krugman, so he shouldn't make that type of money." As I understand it, Krugman's ability as a columnist parallels his ability as a professor, and he's capable of communicating difficult, abstract, complex topics in a way that his audiences (be they the readers of his columns or those who sit through his lectures) can understand. I think UM would do well to trade a few of its highly-paid but dubious talents to Princeton or CUNY, in exchange for Krugman as a professor for its law and business schools. But then, if Krugman were primarily focused on chasing the dollar in his academic career, it's difficult to believe he hasn't had offers on the table significantly in excess of his starting salary at CUNY.

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