Brow Beat

The Clever Stunt Four Professors Just Pulled to Expose the Outrageous Pay Gap in Academia

Indira Samarasekera
The resignation of University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera has inspired an elaborate joke, highlighting just one of many examples of academic “administrative bloat.”

John Ulan/Canadian Press

The current 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 they probably didn’t expect 56 Canadian academics, fed up with a highly paid administration in the face of country-wide “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 célèbre.

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 (and, in some cases, increased hiring of low-paid adjunct faculty). Most notoriously, E. Gordon Gee received a nearly $6 million retirement package when he “retired” in disgrace from Ohio State University. (Don’t feel too bad for him, though.) 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 (or hired 100 new faculty at $50,000 each, give or take). 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 co. 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 explains to me, 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 adds, “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. (Although whoever the university hires to replace Samarasekera will also get to brag that they do the job of four people, which is kind of obnoxious.) But what if the “fun” turns serious and Cawsey and gang actually get what they wish for? She says she won’t come on without a very specific and highly unorthodox bonus package:

Correction, June 17, 2014: This post originally misstated that Samarasekera was leaving her position this year. She is leaving next year.