The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."... ...Henry Kissinger.

Commentary of the Day - January 11, 2005:  Please Waste Your Money on Me.  Guest commentary by Herbert Jack Rotfeld.

It sounds impressive when the experts interviewed on NPR or the evening news are not merely professors, but the Daddy Warbucks Eminent Professor of Moneymaking or the Dithers Distinguished Professor of Management.  These special named professorships are commonly called "endowed chairs" since they are created with the help of special donations or endowments to supplement the salary for a distinguished faculty member.  While these positions were at one time almost-rare special opportunities at prestigious schools or programs, today almost every U.S. university has multiple endowed positions all over campus.  At some schools these chairs are so numerous that even junior faculty might hold a specially named position.  People of my age or experience that I see at conferences either hold an endowed chair or are actively seeking one.

Holders of these endowed chairs have a work assignment that every faculty member in higher education craves.  In the usual practice, people moving to a new school for these positions also are enticed by combinations of high salaries, reduced teaching obligations and classes that meet for one or two days of the week or for a single academic term.  If the position goes to an existing department member, they receive the pay increase, plus a private spending fund and, again, additional released time from teaching.  And, of course, there is the prestige value.

At a basic level, it is important to ask just what these schools and their students get from the proliferation of these specially endowed chairs and professorships.

Many university fund-raising drives make the creation of endowed professorships part of their goals, since they give campus development officers a hook for generating revenue.  A large group of small donors could be encouraged to contribute to a fund for a special professorship that honors a beloved teacher who has retired or died recently.  Wealthy alumni who give large sums of money to their alma mater enjoy the perceived prestige in that any mention of the faculty member also includes listing the donor's name as part of the endowed professorship's title.  In more crass situations, corporations give money with the condition that the designated faculty member spend time each year speaking at special business events or providing other work on the company's behalf, such as setting up job training programs.

Schools administrators also have reason to like such donations since they give them an additional revenue source for raising faculty salaries.  When using these endowed positions to attract leading scholars in a field, deans or department heads hope to improve their unit's image by "buying the vita" of one or more research faculty members.  In addition, since schools also retain a significant fraction of research grant income for overhead charges, research leaders hired for a specially endowed positions could also be expected to generate more overhead funds for the university.

Of course, newly hired faculty do not always live up to the expectations of the position, or too often, the campus acquires someone like "Kirk" (a real person, but obviously not his name).  His twelve-month salary is second only to the president and football coach; and, he has a personal discretionary fund that rivals the salaries of many tenured faculty.  While he does not generate any research grants or advise any graduate students, his personal research publication activity is awesome; but, he's on campus only in the Spring to teach one or two classes.  Even then he calls off many class meetings or final exams as he travels around the world on consulting activities.  As he put it to a junior colleague in his department, he can "not teach" in the campus town or he can "not teach" at a desk at the think tank 2000 miles away, where it also is nicer to live and easier to collect data.  He talks to his department head or dean, sometimes even sharing consulting work with them or putting their names on minor publications, but for most of the year no one on campus even knows he exists.  His name sometimes appears on committee lists, but everyone knows he will not attend any meetings.  Kirk's arrangement might sound extreme, but there are many faculty members that come to campus only one or two days a week while spending the rest of their time on other pursuits in faraway places, which might include academic research, consulting, speaking engagements or even holding another job.

Aside from the abuses, there is a more basic problem of these endowed positions as they become fuel for an ongoing and increasing university competition to hire high profile and high priced faculty members away from other universities.  When deans or department heads publicly defend the practice, they usually assert that the students benefit from having their classes taught by faculty who are creating new knowledge.

Regardless of any research evidence or your personal beliefs of the actual connection between faculty research accomplishments and classroom effectiveness, publication activity itself arguably does have a positive impact on the reputation of many universities.  Various university rankings include average salary as a factor -- supposedly, the higher the salaries the better the school -- so by having more faculty on the payroll who are paid from endowment income, the average salary goes up without paying more for everyone else.  Yet as the positions proliferate, the potential improvement to any one school's reputation from a newly hired holder of an endowed chair is limited at best and always highly questionable.

A department could attempt to raise its national standing by the mass hiring of leading scholars in various areas and paying them top dollar.  This would be a sports model of academic rosters, as each department tries to improve its reputation by hiring its own version of the superstar that would dominate the field.  This has actually been attempted on a large scale at a few schools with disastrous results, as the superstars have their own version of the star athlete egos and often do not become integrated into the local campus community.  Ever the "free agent," they are often looking for their next job and could just as readily leave.

But while a big name sports superstar could be a strong factor in a team's winning seasons and have a value for television contacts, academic superstars are seen by few students on any campus.  Even without the abuses, the superstar hire's direct value to either students or to many faculty is limited.  The higher salary for stars does not impact the salaries and work for the rest of campus.

In the end, the value of the specially endowed position goes to the faculty member, not to the students or the school.  Since the source and quantity of donations are finite, funds that go to the uses of a special faculty line do not go to assist student scholarships or other special needs of the school's general endowment.

Every endowed chair is really a waste of money, except mine, of course.  But then, I don't have one. I just want one.  While I admit that the added pay boost would do little to alter how I work, I think I deserve one.

©2005 Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Herbert Jack Rotfeld is a (plain old) Professor of Marketing at Auburn University; and, he is editor of the Journal of Consumer Affairs.

The IP comments: Here in the Cal State system endowed professorships are few and far between, so the IP was somewhat taken aback by Herb's rather scathing commentary about the down side of endowed professorships.  Is it really that bad out there in the realm of research universities (and wannabe research research universities)?  Share your experiences with us.

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