Today I had a conversation with someone who is now working for free at a major academic center.

Yes, that’s right. This person is no longer being paid a salary – but is still working.

The center that this person is working at brings in a few hundred million per year in grant money – on top of hundreds of millions in patient care revenues, etc.

But, because the person hasn’t received a grant for a while, the university has shut off the salary.

“Sorry, no grants, no paycheck.”

“Oh, you need to eat? Food? Maybe you can eat agar left over from the latest experiment while you wait for three months to see if you’re graced by the roll of the NIH grant dice.”

“By the way, we still expect you to teach that course next fall for all the med students, but we don’t have any money for your salary to do that – you’ll have to milk the NIH for that.”

This is taking things too far.

I’m calling a spade a spade – and this is the worst kind.

Universities seem to have gotten this notion that this is a “business” and that all their scientists are “businesspeople”. This is especially true in academic medicine.

But I’ve got news for the administrators who think they are being so smart by running things “like a business:”

Yes, in a business, salary can go to zero if you’re not “productive” enough. No difference here.

But, in a business, salary can go to millions or billions if you’re extremely productive.
BIG difference here. In a business, there’s huge upside potential. In an academic job?
Not so much, these days.

Basically, what the university is doing to this person (and many are doing to many people) is saying: you’re taking all the risk on the downside, but you get none of the upside potential.

You get no grants, you get no salary.
You get millions of dollars in grants, and you get no extra salary*.

It’s not the way to motivate people, folks. At least not the really smart and really capable people. They will see right through the ruse (why do you think I own two businesses? I don’t want to miss out on the upside potential of my own particular skills and talents).

I’m happy to take on the risk of my salary going to zero – as long as the university is happy to pay me at least 30% of the total grant revenue I bring in each year. (ummmm errrr maybe I shouldn’t be giving them any ideas about “businessifying” academia even more)

It is saddening to me that the academy has gotten to this point. I understand that everyone has big budget pressures to deal with. I try to be sympathetic about that. But the question that admins should be asking themselves are, “what are the long-term ramifications of my budget cutting decisions?”

The long term ramifications of putting people in a situation where there is only downside but no upside is low morale, and a flight of talent.

When the talent flees, the revenue will drop.
When the revenue drops, more budgets get cut.

And things go into a death spiral.

That’s not the way to run a business, folks. Most businesses who go into that kind of death spiral die (or get bailed out by the government).

Universities: treat your scientists (and all your people) well! You should be treating them like kings and queens, not like peons. These are the people that make your university great – and bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in grants.

Universities administrators that “get this” will be leading successful institutions into the future.

3 thoughts

    1. Sukumar, this is true. But I think it is not only the quantity of the individual salaries of the administrators – but the overall quantity of administrators that is the problem.
      At my university, it seems like any personnel action requires five to ten levels of approval. Every time something gets delayed by those levels of approval, I think about all those salaries paying people to push paper around and make my life more difficult. Frankly, it can be angering at times.

  1. Just in the last five years or so , I think the pressure for bringing grant monies has increased about ten fold. I believe, educational institutions have become more and more a part of the market economic institutions. The identity and purpose of educational institutions is being lost. This will happen unless we learn to value education for what it is. There is an opportunity for doing that given that our popualtions are aging. We often cater to the young who want skills to hit the labor market. That could be just one function. I think, if more and more people at various life stages come to universities, educational institutions will become more and more valued. Professors like the one who lost his salary may become more valued for his or her experience. Just a thought. –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.