Pro-tax university professors find a tax that they don’t like

A lot of my Facebook friends are university professors. As such they get, as part of their compensation, free tuition for their children (or, oftentimes, partial payment for tuition if they send their kids to other colleges). Some of them have graduate students, who get their fictitious tuition paid when on research or teaching assistantships.

All of these folks publicly supported Hillary Clinton prior to the election, denounced the Trumpenfuhrer’s hints about shrinking the government’s role in our society, and generally advocate for higher tax rates so as to enable the government to fulfill all of our collective dreams.

How are they reacting to the latest proposed tax law changes? With desperate lobbying efforts to preserve their own tax exemptions. Examples:

To my California friends and family, especially those who have children to educate: Republican representatives in these CA districts near you have BIG influence over *which version* of the tax bill—including whether it taxes things like tuition remission, etc.—eventually gets approved. It’s not an exaggeration to say the future of American higher education is at stake.

A crucial decision remains to be made between the House and Senate versions of the GOP tax bill. So here’s a plea to everyone who cares about the future of American universities: not only must we CALL OUR REPS, we must urge our friends and family to do so as well! I’m calling not just my own reps and senators but others’ too, identifying myself as a professor and trying to convey my sense of urgency about this bill.

[mass email to faculty at University of Chicago] Doubtless all of you are thinking about the potential effects of the Republican tax bill, which appears bent on directly attacking higher and lower education in the United States. …  The bill passed by the Senate *does not* include the grad student tuition waiver tax proposed by the House bill. …

For students like Mollie Marr, pursuing her M.D. and her Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine, losing the tax waiver could mean dropping out of OHSU. Paying the estimated tax on top of her non-deferrable undergraduate student loans would leave her about $ 500 a month to live on. … students, staff and faculty to share their personal stories and perspectives about the impact of losing this tax waiver … Call and email your U.S. representatives and senators.  [official OHSU news release]

If universities actually are delivering something of value to professors’ children via tuition waivers, shouldn’t these good folks want to pay tax on that value? A core principle of U.S. income tax is that you pay tax on the fair market value of stuff that you receive in exchange for work. Also, if universities are delivering something of value to graduate students in exchange for work, why should a Walmart cashier have to work extra hours to make up for the tax not collected? (see Ugliest part of the Republican tax plan: What if universities were forced to calculate the value of a graduate education? for an exploration of what the imputed value of this tuition waiver should be, though)

These same folks have spent years on Facebook arguing for the government to collect more in taxes. Now they’ve found a tax that they don’t like!

Related:

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Another book on lazy college professors: The Faculty Lounges

The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get The College Education You Pay For is a book by a Wall Street Journal editor vaguely along the same lines as Academically Adrift and Higher Education?. Unlike Academically Adrift, however, the book does not have research data to relate. Unlike with Higher Education?, the author, Naomi Riley, did not spend time in classrooms.

In the first chapters of The Faculty Lounges, we learn that professors get tenure by conforming to established patterns of thought and then colleges pay tenured faculty long after they stop being effective. This is not news and the author explains that tenure in the old (pre-1994) days, when there was a mandatory retirement age of 60 or 65, was rather different from today’s tenure. Riley is a good journalist and digs up the most embarrassing episodes of tenured professors behaving badly, e.g., Northwestern’s Arthur Butz, an EE teacher, venturing into Holocaust denial.

Riley asserts that colleges today are handing out a lot more vocational degrees and professors of “security and protective services” shouldn’t need tenure protection for controversial ideas compared to traditional liberal arts faculty. I’m not sure that this is true. A professor of criminology might opine that the War on Drugs could not be won and should be abandoned, thus attracting the wrath of politicians who continue to appropriate funds to fight the War. By contrast, what would a professor of Ancient Greek be likely to say that would offend today’s powerful elite?

Riley decries the valorization of progress and novelty. She introduces the subject of debasement of standards by noting that Thomas Friedman addressed a group of 4000 university administrators by telling them to ignore “concrete outcomes like grades and test scores”. Teachers should instead try to install passion and curiosity in students because “the job students will hold probably doesn’t even exist today”. How a student was supposed to learn passion from someone who devoted the first half of his adult life to getting lifetime job security is a question Friedman did not address. Nor did Friedman address how a student was supposed to learn curiosity from someone who stayed in the same narrow research area for his or her entire career. Since it isn’t clear what colleges are supposed to teach it is therefore excusable that they don’t bother to measure quality of teaching or outcomes.

The miserable lives of adjunct faculty are covered in this book. It is not clear why a Wall Street Journal alumna has a problem with universities paying minimal dollars to adjuncts and working them like slaves. There is a market for PhD college teachers and presumably the adjuncts are paid a market-clearing wage. Riley does note that students don’t learn as much from these fatigued part-timers and that the rise of the adjuncts corresponded to a big rise in grade inflation. Adjuncts get re-hired based on previous semesters’ student evaluations and the best way to get high marks with students is to give out As.

The book contains a long chapter on unions. It isn’t clear why this is relevant. Colleges are terribly inefficient at helping students learn. Does it really matter whether or not the ineffective teachers are union members or not? Unions seem to be a factor in ensuring mediocrity, but plenty of non-union tenured faculty are mediocre as well.

Riley includes a chapter on politics and the tendency of university teachers to adopt liberal political views in order to fit in with their community. Once again, it is unclear how this is relevant given the terrible job that teachers do. Would you rather pay $ 50,000 for a bad education from a Republican or a Democrat? Riley cites no evidence that students are looking to their professors for guidance in how to vote. Perhaps the political views of the faculty are not interesting to students.

Riley makes an effort to figure out why costs are so high. She pinpoints the bloat in administration that has occurred at most schools: “As of 2007, private colleges employed one senior administrator for every thirty-five students.” But then she circles back to the faculty as being the main source of the problem, e.g., because professors get to decide when to offer classes at their own convenience rather than at convenient hours for students trying to fit in enough requirements to graduate.

The final chapter is devoted to Olin College of Engineering, perhaps the best undergrad engineering program in the U.S. Professors are on five-year contracts and everyone seems to be happy while the students learn far more than at traditional schools.

Riley doesn’t address the tough questions. Olin and some other schools have shown that they can hugely improve the quality and consistency of undergraduate education. Yet demand for a high priced low quality education delivered by adjuncts and elderly tenured professors remains very strong. Given that there is a more or less free market in higher education, why doesn’t the market self-correct?

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog