Saturday, February 6, 2010

Quantifying the Arts IV: Tie Professor's Salaries to Wages

Scott Walters, of Theater Ideas and CRADLE(arts), has decided that he isn't busy enough and has started a new blog with Tom Loughlin to generate new ideas about a Theater curriculum, named TACT (continuing a love of acronyms...). I'm excited to see what goes on over there, because I'm interested in changing the curriculum of the arts.

Anyways, my first introduction to the new blog was this post, which contained a Modest and Tactless proposal: "Tie the salaries of theatre professors to the income of their students."

Before you get all up in a hizzy (there was a brief second where I did), I think it would be good to revisit the spirit in which this proposal is offered, which probably goes back to the Kushner quotation that Scott used during his last "modest" proposal:
I can take comfort, however, from Tony Kushner who, when he proposed in his outstanding speech and essay "A Modest Proposal" (American Theatre, Jan98, Vol. 15 Issue 1) that we "abolish all undergraduate art majors," recognized that "Since[undergraduate arts education] so very lucrative, I can say let's get rid of it and we don't have to worry that anything will actually happen. So my speech is rather like theatre in this regard, and this frees us to consider the validity of my proposal...as a pure abstraction ultimately productive of nothing more unpleasant than a spasm of conscience and perhaps something as pleasant as a whiff of scandal and a flicker of ire." I should be so lucky.
Now, Scott's proposal this time around is a lot more fully fleshed out than the lottery idea, and it seems like it would work.

There's one huge, huge problem though: Scott notes that there is no profession (since the Actor's Equity salary median of all actors is $0), so tying professors' pay to students' performance in "the profession" may get professors to compete to turn out students into a system that won't support them. Even if some college out there figures it out, their incentives would now be aligned with a system that doesn't work. So what if professors are making sure that some of their students are earning over $8,000 a year? It's not a huge improvement over the current system, since the rules he proposes still allow a large number of students to fail.

But I take Scott's point in the context of the blog, which is that if professors were aligned to their students' interests, they would fight for curriculum reform. In fact, there's the possibility in this system that theater professors would suddenly find incentive to reform the theater industry -- trying to encourage students to make living wages at theater start-ups back home rather than pouring in to the over saturated market in New York.

I would like to point out, however, that there is a certain degree to which professor's salaries are tied to their profession. Now, before I make this point, I probably should make it clear that this is based on my own university, New York University, and is probably not representative of all schools.

But at the same time, it's clear that NYU pays its theater professionals a tiny fraction of what they pay (as a for instance) Business School professors. Although our school's financials are private, and therefore we can only speculate on much of the budget, public tax returns show that the highest paid NYU employee is a fertility doctor at NYU's School of Medicine, who makes something north of $2 million a year.

Why does the fertility doctor make north of $2 million a year? Because NYU feels it has to have the best fertility doctor in the field -- and therefore, it has to pay above the prevailing wage for fertility doctors (and in this case, above the prevailing wage for a top-of-the-line fertility doctor).

Our theater school also employs working professionals as our teachers (at least in our professional training classes) and, therefore, they have to pay better than what those teachers would be making in the field. Which, in our case, is basically tuppence. Whereas a business school teacher is probably forgoing a salary of $100k or more, the top-of-the-top teachers in our theater program would probably not really be making much worth talking about if they were outside of the school.

Again, this is probably a problem endemic to schools which seek to employ working professionals to teach. There's a different model for academics, since the competition there is almost exclusively other academics, and therefore isn't so moved by the economic fates in the market. And also, the difference between this process and Scott's proposal is that whereas right now, in general teachers' pay is linked to the success of an industry as a whole, Scott's proposal makes the individual teachers responsible to the success of students in specific.

One last point I want to make: Scott's proposal really only makes sense if the success of students really is affected in a huge way by teachers in the college level. Which of course to some degree it is. But if we look at the current problems in the American Theater (of which much ink/0101s have been spilled), then we can see that unless the system incorporates the change of the industry into it, the teachers will simply fail. The way the system is set up, there's too many artists for too few jobs, because the jobs are overly concentrated. As he points out, there's an 8:1 employment ratio within AEA, and I'm sure many of that 8 are just as qualified as that 1, but there's a glut.

The walk-away is that Scott once talked about needing to move the riverbed. I agree that tying professors' salaries to the success of the students is key. But to what success? In my last post I talked about how the market is incredible because it forces valuation on the intangible, because it can't deal with anything that isn't valued. When we structure the economy (the way that Scott's gedankenexperiment does), we need to choose what we value, because that's going to be the output of the system.

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