The salaries of university presidents might be the clearest indication of what is happening in higher education, profiteering at the expense of those who want to further themselves through education in these uncertain times. With the increasing of the cost of college and student debt, college presidents’ salaries also continue to rise. College presidents have a notable increase their gains, which is part of the trend of corporatization of education.
The average of total compensation of college presidents who serve a full year is now over half a million dollars. The top ten highest-paid college presidents in the United States make several million dollars per year. The highest paid president, Jack Varsalona at Wilmington University in Delaware, made about $5.4 million dollars in 2014 according to a study conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2016.
The cost of a college education has nearly doubled in the last twenty years and student debt has steadily increased as well. In fact, in the in 1993-1994 about half of college graduates left school with debt incurred from their educations with an average just over $10,000. But today nearly two-thirds have debt with the average having about $35,000 in debt.
The Trend of Corporatization of Academia as Seen in Collegiate Athletics
The enrichment of a few top-level employees at the expense of students can also be seen in the business of college sports where coaches make multiple times what even college presidents make. Jim Harbaugh, head football coach of the University of Michigan, leads the way at just over $9 million per year. In the meantime, the athletes must adhere to strict rules while colleges and corporations rake in millions. The highly touted “full-ride” athletic scholarships are an exception, with the majority of athletes receiving partial scholarships or full scholarships for only a portion of their time in college. Athletic scholarships are also not guaranteed for the academic career of the students and are generally yearly commitments.
In the meantime, the athletes must adhere to strict rules while colleges and corporations rake in millions. The highly touted “full-ride” athletic scholarships are an exception, with the majority of athletes receiving partial scholarships or full scholarships for only a portion of their time in college. Athletic scholarships are also not guaranteed for the academic career of the students and are generally yearly commitments.
This is not to get into the deep discussion about the compensation of student athletes. It is only to point out that college has become a business where the people at the top of the pay scale (coaches, presidents, and administrators) rake in guaranteed millions while the students and adjunct faculty have few, if any, guarantees.
What do CEOs and College Presidents have in Common?
This relatively new trend of compensation in colleges is not novel in the corporate world where the pools of people who are bringing the labor capital to the table are often placed in a compromising position. This strategy of putting employees in precarious positions, used by major corporations follows the doctrine of neoliberalism, which favors a “flexible” workforce where employees are constantly in peril. This has resulted in CEOs receiving unprecedented increases in salaries over the past thirty years.
In this interview, Noam Chomsky eloquently explains how the US University system increasingly favors the interests of those at the top in a business model where the bottom line is what is most important, not education.
The crazy thing that I found about college is that, unlike dealing with another business a car company, for example, my investment was not guaranteed. I paid thousands of dollars, maintained a 3.6 GPA and completed and paid for more than the 30 credits of my program and walked away with nothing. Regardless, I had little legal recourse. But if I were buying a car on credit, making payments, etc. I would receive a car in the end. There is no such guarantee in academia.
This uncertainty is an astonishing aspect of the business of higher education, which is rarely discussed. It makes one want to examine what is happening in our system and question everything, including the similarities between CEOs and college president pay scale. While CEOs still make 276 times their average worker’s salary, college presidents make about 129 times what their students make after years in the workforce. The main difference is that if you pay for the product that the CEOs are peddling you receive it, while college degrees are not guaranteed, even if you deliver your part of the bargain.
Often recent graduates are clinging to jobs because they have been saddled with so much debt that they aren’t able to go out and test the market to find higher pay. This is the result of them being put in a position where they are just doing what they can to get by and are terrified of the possibility of losing their employment.
Does it benefit our society to increasingly have higher education run like a business? I would appreciate your opinions.
“I’ve seen some really horrifying stuff in my department from advisors. Stuff I’d call gaslighting. Stuff like advisors taking credit for students’ work. Yeah, for sure, it can happen.” –Stated an anonymous source who only identified as “namesarehard” on a string in an online forum entitled: “How common is bullying in grad school?”
Gaslighting in Higher Education
The term “gaslighting” was unfamiliar to me when I read this person’s post. After doing some research, I began to think back on my time in grad school at Hunter College and perhaps it was going on with other students in my program. But personally, I felt an alienation that started with the institution and I am not sure what happened to me was gaslighting. There seemed to be a disconnect between the students, the students and the faculty, the professors and administration, and even between the professors.
The administrative arm of the school felt out of touch and far removed from the struggles of their students, many of whom are working other jobs and many raising families while navigating a bureaucratic labyrinth. All this pressure was compounded by constantly being clipped by unforeseen fees.
I don’t think I ever experienced gaslighting because it didn’t appear that the professors had purposely conspired to make me feel crazy. Although when I wrote the president of the school to demand my money back they did come together and were dishonest and created a united front against me. The onus was always on me. In my case, it was a situation where angst pervaded every aspect of the experience.
PTSD from Academic Bullying
Then I came upon this interesting article about PTSD and academic bullying. The term “Posttraumatic Scholar’s Disorder” was coined by Gina Hiatt, Ph.D. on Academiclader.com to describe symptoms experienced by many graduate students that “relate to a specialized subset of PTSD.”
My mother, a mental health professional, had mentioned numerous times that she believed I exhibited signs of PTSD during and after my experience at Hunter College. Some of the phases mentioned as examples of what were said by faculty in Hiatt’s article about “Posttraumatic Scholar’s Disorder” were eerily similar to things I encountered while in grad school such as being told that “this chapter is not graduate level work.”
Moreover, she said that the “traumatic event is persistently re-experienced” in a number of ways. One that hit home for me was “recurrent recollection, dreams, or rerunning of alternate scenarios in one’s head.” This made me think back to days in grade school, junior high and later high school when I was bullied by fellow students. I would think back and wish I had reacted in a different way. As Hiatt points out, saying “I wish I had said this in response!” is a typical reaction to bullying. I had many such situations in grad school.
However, the nature of academic bullying is quite different from schoolyard bullying. In schoolyard situations, the bullying is so direct that it is obvious. However, in the academic realm, there is a subtly and disconnect that makes it hard to understand. I was not fully aware that I had been bullied until very late in the program. I think this is partially because I had put so much faith in the education system, the reputation of Hunter College, and the professors who I thought were there to guide me. In essence, I was being bullied by an institution and this is something that is hard to fully comprehend, especially as it is happening.
Academic Bullying and Isolation
Since writing Academic Betrayal several students and professors who have been bullied at Hunter and other institutions have contacted me and shared their stories. This was cathartic because this kind of bullying can be isolating. Isolation is one of the major issues that most people have when they are bullied, especially by institutions of higher education.
I received a thoughtful response from a former student who likened it to spousal abuse. The reason it is hard to see beyond the abuse is partially isolation and partially, in my case, ignorance of the widespread nature of such abuse. As this former student said, many people start a negative self-dialogue because they believe that something is wrong with them rather than the institution and its faculty. As she said: “I selected this man (or in a student’s case, institution). It’s a bad place which means that my ability to make good decisions is seriously flawed. Thus, it’s all my fault that I’m in this mess.” Then the victim reasons that “These highly educated individuals (faculty/ instructors/ chairs) are treating me badly because I deserve it, I must be worthless because ‘they’ treat me this way.”
So the takeaway is that if you are in one of these situations, know that you are not alone. Although depending on the circumstances you may not be blameless, it is almost certainly not your fault. Did I experience textbook gaslighting? No, I don’t think that there was some grand conspiracy against me to undermine my sanity.
However, is it any more comforting to know that the toxic culture inherent in the institution I spent over half a decade in caused PTSD and that many other institutions of higher education have done the same to students and employees?
Author’s Note: A more than sufficient companion for this piece would be to read through chapter III of Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges, a more exciting recommendation would be to go all the way through his short and astonishing book.
Education in the United States
There are more than enough difficult questions to be answered and taxing problems to be solved across American society. Issues that unite people are dwindling, while polarizing conflicts continue to dominate our politics and our media. With that said, I think that one statement which remains entirely immune to partisanship is simply this — we need to improve our higher education system.
While America harbors a significant percentage of some of the finest colleges and universities in the world, the overall picture of the educational system is declining along some disturbing trends. These are not partisan issues, they cannot be equivocated, and they have the potential to be solved.
Perhaps the most obvious problem plaguing our higher education is its untenable financial burdens. Current projections indicate that a standard undergraduate degree could cost upwards of $500,000 by 2035. 
This estimate is based on the six percent upward trend in tuition costs per year, a number which is roughly double the average increase in automobile prices. It goes without saying that this usurious increase in tuition costs has created an exponential explosion in America’s student loan crisis.
In total, college graduates hold around 1.3 trillion dollars in debt based upon the most recent estimates, with the class of 2016 incurring an average of $37,172 per student. 
When you consider these devastating numbers in addition to America’s faltering jobs market and the fact that student loan debt is almost entirely immune to forgiveness, the picture shifts from grim to dire.
There are a wide variety of reasons for this immense growth in higher education costs, but one glaring issue is the overwhelming increase in administrative positions on nearly every campus. New York Times reporter Paul F. Campos noted that “administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.”  While salaries for professorships and full-time teaching positions have stagnated over the past several decades, there has been a huge increase in hiring administrators to fill positions that are increasingly esoteric and unrelated to the education of students.
Supplementing this issue is the fact that many of the country’s largest universities have been seduced by the financial lure of the NCAA and college sports. Forgoing expenditures that would have a direct impact on the education of students, institutions all across the country continue to pour funds into new stadiums and practice facilities. This is happening while, simultaneously, the administrations are collecting huge sums of revenue from teams of “student-athletes”—who incur all the risks and none of the rewards of professional athletes. While teachers’ salaries have struggled to keep up with inflation since the 1970s, football coaches like John Harbaugh of Michigan and Nick Saban of Alabama rake in a cool nine and seven million dollars a year respectively.
Lost In The Woods
The underlying current that has produced these negative outcomes in our greatest schools, the tidal flow, is the same one that is driving American culture downwards across the spectrum. We have simply lost our way, forgotten what got us here and failed to see what is going to take us forward. Colleges and universities have been seduced by the unfettered capitalism that wreaks havoc at home and abroad, except for the ever-shrinking few at the top who reap absurd benefits. The notion of a “liberal arts degree” is seen as laughable in today’s society, by people who have learned in their college careers that the only purpose of an education is to work and produce wealth.
In her column for the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reminds us that higher education really means, “Liberal, not as opposed to conservative, but as free, in contrast to imprisoned, subjugated, or incarcerated. Free citizens studied the trivium and quadrivium as part of their liberal education, as these skills were considered the ones that would enable them to function successfully as free citizens in society.”  We are increasingly turning out students, burdened with unforgivable debt, who have no concept of what their education was all about. If their learning did not open up a strong job market, or increase their chances of becoming a millionaire, then none of it mattered.
In his time spent at places like Harvard and Princeton, journalist Chris Hedges witnessed this moral and intellectual atrophy take place first hand. He notes that so many of the people graduating from our best schools are, “cultural philistines.” He continues with,“ The specialized dialect and narrow education of doctors, academics, economists, social scientists, military officers, investment bankers, and government bureaucrats keeps each sector locked in its own narrow role. They exist to make the system work, not to examine it.”  The irony, of course, is not lost on those of us who understand what education is truly intended to instill in us. We are being robbed of the tools to move ahead, at the very places where they were supposed to be granted to us.
 Hedges, Chris. “3.” Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2010. p. 100, 98. Print.
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I was never a good student when it came to mathematics. I didn’t understand why I had to find the area of a triangle or the circumference of the sun or even why Sally let her brother eat 17 muffins out of the 356 she made. Honestly, I just thought that was rude of him. Regardless, I never understood mathematics.
My strongest subject in high school was English. I loved to write and listen to stories and read poetry. I dreaded going to math class because I knew it would just be hard for me to understand. So when I went to college, I chose a major that was mostly based on comprehension and in anything but math, except for one class: Statistics.
As much as I hated math, I was interested to see how this class would go because other professors had told me, “Statistics isn’t actually math.” The first day of Math 107, or the Statistics class I was required to take, I was ready to face my demons with enthusiasm. As much as I dreaded the thought of a math class after not taking math for two and a half years, I was optimistic that this wouldn’t be so bad. Wrong. It was terrible, and not because of the math.
I went to college to get a higher education, to be taught by those that were professionals and who could teach me things that I hadn’t known before. The fact that I love to learn has served me well, except when I have a professor who doesn’t care in the slightest.
My first day of Statistics, which I thought would be normal, certainly wasn’t. With my required text for the class in hand, and after finding at least someone I knew to sit down next to, I found a seat just in time before our new professor walked in. The first words out of his mouth were, “I don’t care what you get in this class because I have tenure.” What a great start to the first day of class. So remind me again why I paid as much as I did to sit through what would be the worst class I had ever taken?
His tenure statement set the tone for the whole semester. Not only that but my professor also made a practice of teaching us differently from how the material was presented in the book. Nonetheless, he expected us to do the equations correctly for our homework, which we found in the book. All the homework was being marked as incorrect because we did them according to the book’s instruction, not the way the professor taught in class. The “quizzes,” which all of us continuously failed, were unfair because he consistently asked obscure questions found in about 1% of the text. And I still don’t understand those aspects to this day. When we tried to ask for help, we would be told that if we didn’t get it by now, we would not pass his class and we should probably just withdraw.
The “quizzes,” which all of us continuously failed, were unfair because he consistently asked obscure questions found in about 1% of the text. And I still don’t understand those aspects to this day. When we tried to ask for help, we would be told that if we didn’t get it by now, we would not pass his class and we should probably just withdraw. By the end of that semester, I had an A or A- in every class, except Math 107, in which I received a C.
I felt cheated out of being educated on a subject that I actually needed to know for my major. I had asked around to see if I might’ve been the only one with this problem but, it turns out, this particular professor was like this in most classes. Between not caring about our education to publically shaming students loudly in class, for their bad grades, we began to feel his work was a true breach of the normal academic transactions between student and teacher. It was an example of academic injustice that I had never encountered.
Just because a professor has tenure, should not give them a free pass to essentially say, “Screw you and your education because I just don’t care.” I could’ve learned a lot about Statistics and analytics in that class, but instead, I learned that if a professor has tenure, they may give themselves permission to stop caring and they will not help you when you have trouble learning the material.
Moral of the story, research professors before you take their classes.
Student X is a senior at a New York State University and agreed to share her thoughts only if she were able to remain anonymous.