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Jack Lew, John Galt, and American universities

Instead of complaining narrowly about newly confirmed Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s bloated compensation at NYU, we should demand that all universities release all employee salaries. As tuitions skyrocket, students and parents have the right to know where their dollars are going.

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Let’s be clear: Administrative bloat isn’t the only reason for skyrocketing college costs. Universities now provide a host of new student services, and they also have to comply with an ever-growing maze of complex government regulations. And not every administrator gets the kind of astronomical compensation that Jack Lew reportedly received.

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But students and parents have the right to know where their dollars are going. Instead of focusing narrowly on Lew’s compensation package, then, we should demand that all universities – private as well as public – release the salaries of all their employees.

Administrators won’t like that, of course. But some professors won’t like it either, because they’ve cut their own extraordinary deals. Universities used to be like professional baseball, in the era of the reserve clause: You played for the team that drafted you, and you had to abide by its terms.

Then everyone became a free agent, trying to negotiate the best deal for themselves. I have colleagues who routinely apply for jobs at other institutions – not because they want to move, but because they want more pay and lighter teaching loads. And who pays for that? Students and their parents do.

The great irony of the elite American university is that it’s populated mostly by liberal do-gooders, many of whom behave like conservative self-maximizers. In our academic writings and political pronouncements, many of us decry the fraying of community and the each-man-for-himself ethos of modern America. But when it comes to feathering our nests, too many of us act more like characters in an Ayn Rand novel.

“Why is it moral to serve the happiness of others, but not your own?” asks John Galt, the superhero of Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” To Rand, of course, it wasn’t. The best people looked out for their own interests, leaving the mediocre masses in the dust.

At our universities, the distance between the John Galt and the Jack Lew positions is a lot shorter than many of us would like to admit. Rather than raking Lew over the coals, then, universities might pause to look in the mirror. And we should show our true face to the rest of America, which deserves to know exactly what it’s paying for.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).


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