The presidential political season is now underway, which means that many important stories that affect the quality of our social lives have been obscured in the fog of campaign soap opera. One such story is the meteoric rise in the salaries of our college and university presidents.
At first glace, this issue seems quite far removed from the nuts and bolts of everyday life, let alone the whys and wherefores of the political arena. But these astounding salaries symbolize a disturbing transformation of the university, a transformation that underscores a shift in our cultural values.
Consider some of these figures reported by Tamar Lewin in the New York Times. Between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 the presidential salaries at the 50 wealthiest universities rose a stunning 75 percent. Professorial salaries, by contrast rose only by 14 percent. In 2009, 36 university presidents earned yearly salaries of more than $1,000,000.
Although these significant compensation increases have been granted during a time of massive unemployment and tuition increases, university officials defend these high salaries. "The job of college president has changed dramatically in the last 30 years, as have the demands," David L. Warren, the president of the National Association of Independent Universities and Colleges, said in a statement quoted in the aforementioned New York Times article. "There is just a small pool of candidates who possess the skill set that is required and are willing to take on the stressful 24/7 nature of the position."
These statements about university president salaries and benefits mirror the corporate defense of outrageously high CEO compensation packages. The job is difficult and stressful. Very few people have the wherewithal to manage large enterprises. The competition for a limited pool of CEO talent makes a seasoned executive a valuable commodity, which will attract generous offers from competitors. High pay is one way of ensuring longer executive tenure at a corporation.
What's missing here, of course, is the potent symbolism of institutional priority. From the standpoint of students and faculty these astronomical salaries are out of sync with the reality of large classes, increased teaching loads, decreased faculty support and burgeoning tuition and fees. From the standpoint of faculty and students, outsized administrative salaries are a potent symbol of powerlessness. What can we do about it? Swallow the bitter pill and continue to teach large classes of students who have become nothing more than statistical commodities in a system of college and university corporate production?
The climate of mutual suspicion that the corporate contours of the university has produced reminds me of the late Erving Goffman's notion of the total institution. In total institutions, human needs are under strict control -- the university's rules, regulations and administrative practices, which tend to be bureaucratic and impersonal. In total institutions individual autonomy is restricted and creativity can be seen as out of institutional bounds. In total institutions power is exercised hierarchically; it is not shared. On our corporate campuses frustrated professors have been beaten down. Most of us are grunts in a system with fewer and fewer intellectual payoffs. In the gloom our students, who deserve to be better educated, move from class to class hoping to earn enough credits to graduate with a bachelors degree in four, five, or perhaps six years. Have our university institutions prepared them to be informed citizens who will contribute positively to society?
In most cases, the university teaches students how to get by, how to game the system, how to get through so they might one day be "certified" as a "college graduate," which may -- or may not -- guarantee them a good job. This way of doing things is no path to the social, cultural and intellectual creativity we'll need to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.
The social climate on corporate campuses, of course, reflects the much broader issue of social powerlessness that has been profoundly articulated in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Could the spread of American corporate power transform our society into a total institution?
One way to confront the spread of corporate culture on our campuses is to organize. Students can organize to protect their interests. Faculty can form unions or strengthen those that already exist -- all to advocate for better benefits, more support, and better teaching conditions.
University administrators can also contribute to changing the cultural status quo on our corporate campuses. In the summer of 2010 I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Saleem Badat, Vice Chancellor (President) of Rhodes University in South Africa. My colleagues there told me that upon his appointment, Dr. Badat, thinking he was being paid too much, declared that he would donate a significant portion of his salary to student scholarships. When traveling on university business, Dr. Badat also refused to fly first class, which is customary for other Vice Chancellors at South African Universities. These symbolic acts created a spirit of community and a sense of academic purpose at Rhodes University, an atmosphere that had enriched exponentially its educational environment.
Here's a thought. For one of their New Year's resolutions, I wonder if we could ask our university and college presidents to follow Dr. Badat's example and donate a percentage of their annual salaries to student scholarships or even faculty development. Some highly paid university presidents have done this sort of thing. For those who have failed to make this kind of symbolic gesture, I'm sure that such a move won't send you to the poor house. Indeed, such a symbolic donation would make your campuses a little less corporate and a little more like a community of learning in which we all seek to better understand and better appreciate the human condition.
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more