Column | Exposing academia’s outrageous pay gap

June 22, 2014 

The president and vice chancellor of the University of Alberta, Indira Samarasekera, is leaving next summer. This means that her job, which pays at least 400,000 Canadian dollars (about $368,500), is up for grabs. I’m sure the search committee expected a lot of top talent in the application pool — but it probably didn’t expect 56 Canadian academics, fed up with a highly paid administration in the face of countrywide “austerity” measures, applying for Samarasekera’s job in groups of four.

The elaborate and serious joke — an HR performance piece, if you will, that would also happen to have spectacular results if it actually worked — is the brainchild of Dalhousie University professor Kathleen Cawsey and three friends, a Gang of Four whose pointed (and hilarious) cover letter has become a Canadian media cause celebre.

The stunt comes on the heels of recent revelations that some of the United States’ highest-paid college presidents also oversaw some of the biggest increases in student debt. Most notoriously, Gordon Gee received a nearly $6 million retirement package when he “retired” in disgrace from Ohio State. If Gee had selflessly capped his buyout at, say, a meager $1 million, the university could have offered $10,000 scholarships to 500 additional students. Hot on Gee’s heels is James Milliken, chancellor of the CUNY system, who can now draft emails about that pesky adjunct rebellion in supreme comfort from his free $18,000-a-month apartment.

Cawsey and her colleagues decided they’d skewer the University of Alberta’s comparatively modest participation in the top-heavy university economy, and have a few laughs while they were at it.

“As you will see from our CVs,” the group writes, “we are eminently suited to fill this position. Indeed, we believe that by job-sharing this position, we would be able to do a better job than any one person could do — and the salary is certainly ample enough to meet the needs of all four of us. Indeed,” they continue, “for many of us one-fourth of your proposed minimum salary would double or triple our current wage.” They are quick to point out the advantages of a four-for-one deal, quipping: “We will even share one academic gown.”

Academics all over North America complain about the corporatization of the university and “administrative bloat,” but Cawsey and company are actually brave enough to put their names on a collective action that is equal parts brazen and good-hearted. The purpose of the collective app, Cawsey explained, was to highlight “the disparity between the recent growth of university administration — both in terms of numbers of administrators and in terms of their salaries — and their rhetoric of austerity, which has resulted in program cuts, loss of tenure-track jobs, increasing numbers of poorly-paid, insecure sessionals (adjuncts) and skyrocketing tuition. And,” she added, “because it was a lot of fun.”

It was enough fun, in fact, that 52 of Cawsey’s closest friends decided to join in, and thus turn the wholly farcical administrative-versus-faculty pay disparity into the actual farce it is.

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

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