A few months ago news broke that Jehuda Reinharz, the former president of Brandeis University, would receive millions of dollars in continued salary and benefits, including some 800,000 dollars in unused sabbatical leave and millions in what amount to consulting fees to assist the new president. The issue was raised again last month when Brandeis announced that they were giving him a 4.9 million dollar lump-sum payment. In the initial report, Reinharz (known as “Jehuda” around campus, at least when I was there) said that “this is what happens in America,” framing it that he had worked hard while professor and President and that he was just receiving what was owed him. In a more cynical light, however, his comments could be construed to mean that what happens in America is that a few people are put in a position to reap massive rewards that the vast majority of people cannot get.
At roughly the same time, the football players at Northwestern have filed to form a union, saying that they are being exploited. This follows in the wake of players from a number of schools this year talking about player solidarity and about refusing to play and a report from a UNC researcher that some athletes are practically illiterate (not that this is the first time such reports have come out). Basically, the athletes say that they produce millions of dollars in revenue for the universities in the form of donations, publicity, and so on in return for which they (many of them, anyway) receive scholarships and medical attention while they are in school, but the total sum of the benefits are a fraction of the value they provide.
The backlash has been extreme, with many people making the argument that the students receive an education and that providing stipends for the athletes would destroy the game. Of course, the scholarships are not guaranteed for four years, and, in a sport like football, there are life-long injury issues. Moreover, many schools invest heavily in and bring in huge amount of money from athletic programs (even if those ledgers do not always balance) and the schools effectively function as minor league programs for sports that do not have official minor leagues. Universities are enormous businesses, and the complaint that educators sometimes make is that their business is athletics, rather than education.
Of course, the exploitation is not limited to athletics. More and more of the teaching is being done by graduate students and adjunct faculty members on contingent contracts. Junior faculty members (and, sure, tenured ones, too) are subject to their own demands. Alumni, from the very wealthy who can underwrite the cost of a building, to the very poor who are buried under loan repayment and possibly unemployed, are called upon to donate, and the students are increasingly exploited for tuition and fees.
Universities employ thousands of people, from educators, to secretaries, to accountants, to janitors, to construction workers. They also require a lot of maintenance and upkeep, pay for a lot of internet, books, and access to journal articles (to name just a few things). This is where a lot of this money goes, but much of it seems to be going to presidents and deans in the universities.
I am sympathetic to the football players and I am a graduate student. The rhetoric that treats these issues as isolated are missing the larger picture. The entire structure of higher education is built on exploitation, with very few people who make exceptional profit off it.