Degrees of Privilege

Marx once wrote that “it is essential to educate the educator.”1 Of late, educators have done quite well all on their own. At my institution, a mid-sized public university with 12,000 students, the plundering is in full tilt. It’s a regional campus, which means that the main campus plunders the local campus while the local gentry (the top administrators and senior faculty) do the same to everyone lower down in the hierarchy. To appreciate just how complicated and insidious this system has become, it helps to get up close.

That universities have evolved into businesses is of course true. But it’s also a point overblown by internal critics alarmed at some of the latest trends. The system of privilege is nothing new. Like the kleptocracies that have become ubiquitous wherever big business and big government coalesce, the new regime has taken on dimensions hardly imaginable just a few short years ago, dimensions that harken back to the opening decades of the industrial system when predatory practices were large-scale and commonplace. Society at large has lost much of the gentility that was for a time identified as a hallmark of the mixed economy. The university mirrors society at large, even if on a truncated scale. Rather than study society, professors can simply study themselves.

Until late into the 20th century, university life was confined to the middle and working classes, with the professoriate and administration living within the former and the support staff recruited from the latter. Students by and large either came from privilege and attended privately-endowed colleges or hailed from the working class and attended the relatively inexpensive public universities and state colleges. This scenario has altered dramatically during the last half century. The student population now includes groups previously excluded from higher education, especially racial and ethnic minorities whose families hailed from agricultural backgrounds and had only recently moved to urban areas. But as access expanded outward and downward, the system of privilege also altered in ways both profound and irrevocable. In other words, the exclusivity given up in terms of the student body found a compensatory reaction in the treatment accorded to administration and faculty.

These days the system of privilege extends from the upper administration down through the full-time faculty, just as wealth within capitalism represents the upper 18 or so percent of the population.2 At the universities, these administrators and faculty interact frequently and fluidly through a system of institutional governance, notwithstanding an occasional paste-up here and there. Besides governing themselves, these two groups also oversee the ever-growing body of part-time faculty, the students (who numerically outnumber all other groups combined), and the few odd support staff (principally administrative assistants and clerks) that still exist. Most of the latter have succumbed to technology, so that pretty much everyone else does their own office work. The custodial and food service workers have been largely privatized, although the distinction between private and public gets very blurry at times. The employees at the Starbucks in the student union at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., for instance, don’t actually work for Starbucks. They also don’t receive Starbucks-level wages, even though they mix the same beverages and wear the same trademarked logo. In this case, the private corporation and public university collaborate in order to keep down wages and costs, with the customers none the wiser.3

Salaries for top administrators and faculty are at an unprecedented high. The chancellor at Rutgers-Newark earns $385,000, a huge sum considering that 40 percent of the undergraduates receive either federal or state grants (and sometimes both) because their families’ incomes are so low. Half the incoming class resorts to loans.4 The chancellor can also receive $38,500 in annual bonuses, a sum roughly equivalent to the contractual minimum of $39,058 for the most junior of the full-time faculty. An additional $150,000 will be forthcoming if the Chancellor survives five full years in her position, an indication of the pressure-cooker these jobs have become. (The higher education trade magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote some years ago that average tenure for deans and university presidents was four to five years.)

The chancellor also receives a $3,000-per-month housing allowance, to continue until the university has completed its renovations on a penthouse apartment in an historic highrise building, at which point she will live rent-free. She and her husband will have 3,600 square feet between them. First-year students in the dorms share a bedroom that measures 178.25 square feet, with every six students sharing a common space of identical size. For this, each student will pay $7,667 to cover the two semesters (nine months).5 That the chancellor will peer down at the student dorms from her penthouse perch seems only appropriate.

Lastly, the chancellor receives a car and driver.6 Annual bonuses, deferred compensation for length of service, housing allowances, an automobile, a chauffeur—all this in addition to her salary. These perks alone are the equivalent of three or four additional faculty members or a half dozen or so support staff. There are also special budgets for travel and entertainment, but these are considered office expenses, with no need to include them in the letter of appointment. Special services from the computing staff are another of the incidentals that need not be enumerated in writing.

There’s more. The chancellor’s husband comes with her from her previous institution. He’s now a faculty member at the main campus. And her speechwriter, who also followed from her previous institution, doubles as the local campus’s communications director. His wife has been hired to teach as well. Thus, to hire one, the university hired four. The chancellor’s perks and personal attendants combined are equivalent in cost to a small-sized academic department. So functions privilege in an academic setting.

Matters at the main campus are, of course, more extreme. The president (to whom the chancellor reports7) receives a salary of $650,000. His wife is now a faculty member (an additional $78,500), and he qualifies for annual bonuses of $97,500. There’s also a house, car, driver, and an extensive budget for travel and entertainment. The salary bill for the president and the chancellor alone (spouses and retainers excluded) equals $1 million annually, at an institution where undergraduate tuition (excluding fees) runs some $11,000 per year. Besides the president, three sports officials and two academic deans each earn over $500,000 in base salary (bonuses and other perks not included).8 According to a consultant brought in by the faculty union, 79 administrators at the university each earn over $250,000.9

I focus on Rutgers because it’s the institution I know best, but examples could be chosen at will. The president’s salary is hardly atypical. His salary of $650,000 does not rank among the top 10 public university presidents nationwide. His salary isn’t even the highest in New Jersey. The median salary for public university presidents across the country is $478,896. Included in this survey are 227 institutions. That is, 113 of them pay amounts greater than this.10

One could go on, but the pattern is clear. Excessive “profit-taking” at the one end in the form of salaries, perks, and privileges is accompanied by an accumulation of debt at the lower end. At Rutgers-Newark, 56 percent of the undergraduates finish their degrees in debt, at an average of $25,000 each.11 With 10-year repayment plans, the $2,500 per annum amounts to a bit over $200 per month. Interest will raise this considerably. At the relatively low rate of four percent, there’s an additional $5,374 to repay, with the monthly charges boosted to $253. At 8 percent, an additional $11,398 is needed. Payments mushroom to $303 per month.12 The loan payments are severe enough that they will depress living standards for a good portion of the 10-year repayment period, with a minimum of 10 – 15 percent of take-home pay devoted to this single purpose.13

We don’t yet have a complete picture of the changes induced by the Great Recession of 2008 – 9, but what we do know indicates a transformation quite profound in its severity. One out of every six recent college graduates is under-employed: either fully unemployed, working part-time but seeking full-time employment, or has already quit looking. Of those employed, nearly half (44 percent) are employed at jobs for which a college education is not necessary.14 Precarious and proletarian, this new “precariart” has begun to reconceptualize politics with a focus on communalization and alternatives to the market system.15

It used to be that student loans (and financial aid in general) were essential components of a stable social system. For the middle classes, financing a child’s education more-or-less guaranteed that the family’s class standing would be maintained from generation to generation. For the working classes, student loans (and the college degree made possible because of them) meant that elevation into a higher income, occupation, and social stratum was a realistic expectation. During the second half of the 20th century, there was as well an across-the-board elevation because of higher productivity and the cheapening of consumer and agricultural goods that most everyone benefitted from. But there was also a decisive shift in the arrangement of social classes as the middle classes drew in new participants from below. For some decades, this was a major achievement of the capitalist system—this ballooning of the lower and mid-range sections of the middle class. A college education, partially financed through student loans, was key to this process.

Just the opposite is occurring today. Student loans actually hold people back, trapped as they are in the unseemly clutches of the banking system and the scores of parasitic loan processors and debt collectors who each add another layer of burden.16 Rather than serve as a lever of upward mobility and entrance into the middle classes, debt now serves to delay that access. Financial aid is a barrier to be overcome rather than a boost which makes life happen faster. The very nature of financial aid has been transformed from a positive into a negative. Loans are no longer an inducement to attend college but a reason to avoid it.

Salaries for faculty and administrators once followed a different logic too. Faculty received salaries less than what they might achieve in the private sector. The trade-off was a matter of lifestyle. Teaching schedules left ample free-time during the academic semesters and summers entirely without responsibilities. The guarantee of life-time employment (tenure) fostered creativity by removing the threat of job loss. The variable in all this was the faculty member’s commitment to research and writing. How hard one worked was self-determined. Administrators were elected from within the faculty, part of the system of collegiate governance. This tended to occur in the latter part of one’s career, when an individual had accumulated ample experience on various committees and task forces and served as the coordinating chair for their academic department. Administration presupposed that one’s research program had run its course and that teaching had lost whatever allure it might have had previously. Administration was the penultimate step to retirement.

These days administrators are appointed from above. There’s faculty input to be sure, but in very few places is there faculty control. Administrators also tend to form their own caste, as can be seen from the many perks and privileges accorded them. The top ranks of the faculty are included within the rewards system. Salaries for elite faculty figure in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, with special housing allowances, research and travel funds, and staff support that includes administrative assistants and graduate students. All this is justified by the need to recruit people who otherwise might be enticed by the skyrocketing salaries that have come to define the private sector, whose practices the universities thereby mirror. Still, for all the inflation of salaries in higher education, they are nothing in comparison to developments in the private sector. Average pay for the chief executive at the 200 top publicly-traded firms with revenues greater than $1 billion was $15.1 million (2012 data).17 Much of this was in the form of stock options, a perk not (yet?) available to officials at public universities. At Rutgers, the 2013 – 4 budget was pegged at $3.6 billion. One wonders why the escalation of executive salaries in education has been so slow in coming.

For the lowest level of faculty, perks are clustered at the hiring phase and generally limited to reimbursements for moving costs, a new computer for their office, perhaps some initial research funding, and a reduced teaching load to ensure sufficient time to research, write, and publish. Further riches await their elevation into the elite of faculty, which requires that they be wooed by other institutions. Short of this, they will have nothing to look forward to except annual salary increases (when still allotted), a bit of merit pay for exemplary service, an occasional semester free of administrative and teaching responsibilities (faculty sabbaticals), and possibly mid- and late-career promotions to higher levels of the professoriate.

How much the world has changed can be seen in the treatment accorded the former president of Rutgers, who collected a salary of $335,000 upon his resignation, approximately two-thirds of what he received before. His year-long sabbatical freed him of any responsibilities whatsoever during that period, in part to lessen any inclination to interfere with the new president but mostly so that he had ample time to rekindle his academic interests before returning to teaching. Faculty at Rutgers are eligible for a semester leave after every six semesters of teaching, but academic administrators, because they’ve foregone leaves during their administrative stint, start with a year right away. The ex-president will teach two courses per semester at most, the equivalent of $83,000 per course. Part-time faculty (whose ranks swelled considerably under his tenure) earn a contractual minimum of $4,800 for the same course.18 And like his successor, his wife too received a faculty position when he first came to the university as president.

Spousal hiring has flourished in recent years. The Chronicle of Higher Education documents just how common the practice has become. In some academic departments, one fifth or more of the faculty are (or were) married to other faculty or staff at the same institution.19 Yet similar practices are frowned upon in different sectors of the economy. Corporations who hire the relatives of government officials, even when overseas, are subject to bribery investigations and fines.20 At the universities, you can hire the spouse of someone you want to hire, but hiring the spouse of someone who might award the university a government contract can be problematic. Nepotism, it turns out, has distinct definitions within the law depending on where and how it takes place. It is also one of the telltale signs of a social system gone rigid, with class replaced by caste when it comes to the upper reaches of society. Legacy admissions, the priority given to the children of alumni who are actual or potential donors, are another piece of this picture. So is life-long tenure. That these things occur so openly within higher education is testament to its continued special status within society at large.

If there are caste-like distinctions between the upper administration and the faculty, between the full-time faculty and the part-time instructors (who are excluded from almost all governance), between the full deans and the under-deans, between the academic administrators and the non-academic heads of service departments (registrar, business office, financial aid, student affairs, academic services, physical plant and custodial staff, etc.), there is also a huge gulf between the faculty writ large and students. Deference to one’s superiors is one of the oddest of the caste-like practices within higher education.21

Students know as if by instinct to use formal titles (professor, doctor, dean) when addressing or even speaking about faculty members. When talking to students, faculty even refer to each other by title, so pervasive is this system. Students are taught to think critically except about their own immediate situation, in which case they are expected to follow custom. The business world, by contrast, largely functions on a horizontal model when it comes to interpersonal relations. Everyone is on a first name basis. Perhaps if you are elderly or senior-enough, newer employees (like recent college graduates) will address you with Mr. or Ms., but even this isn’t regular. At work, the graduates need to unlearn the formality instilled during their education. Few other areas in society besides higher education maintain such systems of titles and deference—the military, the clergy, and virtually all levels of government are the exceptions.

Slowly, public education is being privatized by means of tuition hikes. Traditional methods of privatization aren’t possible since colleges and universities require huge subsidies in order to function. This situation, whereby an institution is sold off by charging its customers higher prices, is unprecedented in the annals of capitalism. The students (and their parents) don’t actually become owners, even though their payments make possible the reduction in government subsidies.22 (Economists are clueless about such developments, which remain entirely unscripted in their textbooks. Their rule of thumb: don’t discuss matters that don’t fit your theoretical model.)

Attempts to create educational “profit centers” have not been particularly successful. Most initiatives involve online education in one form or another. Except in a few isolated areas, retention remains a major limitation to the expansion of these efforts.23 Education is essentially a social activity, especially for undergraduates. Without teachers and without face-to-face interaction, the endeavor loses its luster. For all the discipline instilled in students from pre-school onward by means of tests, assignments, mandatory lessons, homework, essays, and reports, students nonetheless lack the motivation and self-discipline to make online education a success. To understand why the panacea of online education has fallen short, one need only consider the limits of the existing system of mass education. Online education is unidirectional, with minimal interaction and involvement with real people. Students are unprepared for this level of self-education.

The faculty union is as puzzled by these many developments as everyone else. At Rutgers, the American Association of University Professors (A.A.U.P.) represents the full-time faculty, although it also negotiates on behalf of (and collects dues from) the part-time faculty. Not many people remember that the A.A.U.P. was one of the pioneers of the two-tiered wage system in the United States, accepting the use of part-time and severely underpaid faculty long before corporations like U.P.S. learned to do something similar with their own workforces. The A.A.U.P. has a special knack for doing just enough so that it can’t be accused of doing nothing at all. The most recent Rutgers contract, for instance, includes job titles for a group of faculty that the university previously excluded from official “bargaining agent” status. But it was also a contract without teeth, since most of newly-covered instructors already earned the minimum salaries that were negotiated on their behalf.24

With the A.A.U.P., bluster is the name of the game. It criticizes the excessive salaries paid to administrators, yet no mention is made of faculty members who similarly receive $250,000 or more in base salary. The recent controversy over former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, opposed as Rutgers’s commencement speaker because of her history as an architect of the Iraq War and apologist for torture, was only a disagreement among colleagues. The protest organizers reassured everyone that “faculty opposition was expressed in the best tradition of shared governance.” What’s more, “Rice’s record condoning torture is antithetical to the values that Rutgers holds.”25 One can only speak of “Values that Rutgers holds” if one is in basic agreement with how matters stand otherwise. When radicals testify to their institutional loyalty, you know you’re in trouble. Reaffirming the institution’s “core values” simply confirms one’s position within it. For the faculty to be genuinely critical would require that they also call into question the privileged status that separates them from everyone else.

It’s not all that odd, then, for the chancellor to decry the fact “that the ‘American Dream’ is tragically so out of reach for so many Americans and the trend line is toward increasing disparities,” as if she has nothing to do with these disparities.26 The embrace of multiculturalism throughout higher education by administrators and faculty alike embodies some of this same disconnection from social reality. Multiculturalism is perhaps best understood as an updated version of “We The People,” calibrated to skin color and vocal inflection. It is especially popular at a place like Rutgers-Newark, where  the student body contains “no majorities, only minorities.”

This ideology of inclusion ignores the dichotomy that has come to define the academic community and society in general—the wholesale stuffing of pockets at the high end and the economic stagnation that characterizes the lifestyles of almost everybody else. Many of the top administrators and faculty are quite “progressive” in their own right. Hence, the opposition to Condoleezza Rice and the unhesitating embrace of multiculturalism. Yet how does one respond to individuals who were once part of the solution but who are now part of the problem? This is the question about which the rest will need to educate themselves.


  1. Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, #3.
  2. For an excellent account: John Marsh, Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality, Monthly Review Press, 2011, especially Ch 1. Also, Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, 2014.
  3. The campus’s food service vendor operates the venture on behalf of both Starbucks and the university.
  4. Rutgers 2011 Dashboard Indicators, 51-54; (2 July 2014).
  5. Kelly Heyboer, “Rutgers prepares to bring new life to one of Newark’s original skyscrapers,” The Star-Ledger, 22 December 2013; (4 July 2014). Also, (4 July 2014).
  6. Kelly Heyboer, “New Rutgers-Newark leader to be among highest-paid at university,” The Star-Ledger, 20 June 2013;The Star-Ledger (30 May 2014).
  7. Naming conventions vary from institution to institution. At Rutgers, the Chancellors of the individual campuses report to the President. The reverse is true at other institutions.
  8. Keith Sargeant, “Rutgers tops largest N.J. department in payroll, staff: Merger balloons base salaries to $1.5B; several top earners in athletics arena,” Daily Record, 17 February 2014; (30 May 2014).
  9. “Open the Books! April 10, 2014 Presentation by Professor Howard Bunsis,” AAUP-AFT RUTGERS; (30 May 2014).
  10. Jonah Newman. “Compensation of Chief Executives of Public Colleges, 2012-2013,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 May 2014, pA24-A29.
  11. For New Jersey public institutions: (30 May 2014).
  12. For a student loan repayment calculator: (2 June 2014).
  13. Chris Isidore, “Starting salaries rise for new grads,” CNN Money, 10 January 2013; (2 June 2014). Obama’s proposal would reduce student debt repayment from 15% to 10% of ‘discretionary income’ (gross income minus taxes and mandatory bills such as rent, utilities, etc.). “We Can’t Wait: Obama Administration to Lower Student Loan Payments for Millions of Borrowers,” U.S. Department of Education; (4 July 2014).
  14. The Editorial Board, “Starting Out Behind,” New York Times, 7 June 2014; (4 July 2014).
  15. “The Holding Pattern,” Endnotes 3; (3 July 2014).
  16. “Student Debt: Foreclosing on the Future,” in Strike Debt, The Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual, PM Press, 2014, p66-7. Student debt at Rutgers mirrors the national average.
  17. “An Unstoppable Climb in C.E.O. Pay,” New York Times, 29 June 2013;
  18. AAUP-AFT Rutgers Part-Time Lecturers Agreement 2011–2015; (2 July 2014).
  19. Robin Wilson, “Faculty Couples, for Better or Worse,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 October 2013.
  20. Aruna Viswanatha, “Exclusive: U.S. expanding corporate foreign bribery probes to include hiring,” Reuters, 25 April 2014; (2 June 2014).
  21. There are exceptions, particularly among graduate faculty and students, at experimental or elite schools like Sarah Lawrence, and in creatively-oriented fields like art and creative writing.
  22. The New Jersey FY2013 appropriation for Rutgers was less than the FY1995 funding level; Rutgers Budget Facts and Figures, (8 July 2014).
  23. Continuing graduate professional education (e.g. advanced certificates for practicing lawyers, engineers, architects, etc.), hybrid classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and IT and finance classes (where the incentive is the enormous salaries upon being credentialed).
  24. “Only a very small number of people will see a rise in salary from this new Memorandum of Agreement.” “What Just Happened? MOA for NTT,” Email from Lisa Klein, Distinguished Professor and President of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, 23 December 2013.
  25. “Victory for Shared Governance: Condoleezza Rice Withdraws,” Email from Lisa Klein, Distinguished Professor and President of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, 5 May 2013. From the original letter of protest: “The mission of a University is to promote truth and knowledge, including historical knowledge. A commencement speaker is supposed to represent a model of citizenship to graduating students.” “Rice Letter to Faculty,” Email Attachment from Rudy Bell, 4 March 2014.
  26. Helen Paxton and Nancy Cantor, “Getting To Know Her: An Interview With Chancellor Nancy Cantor,” 8 November 2013; (5 July 2014).


Gary Roth

GARY ROTH is a former Vice Chancellor and Dean at Rutgers University-Newark, where he now teaches.