Done some thinking on the bus the other day. Started with this question: is the current system of distribution of income in US universities in the humanities justified? (generally higher pay for researchers over teachers and bonuses given for those who research, or rather, publish more often)

I think it’s not. That in turn led me to two related questions about to what degree it’s justified or what elements are justifiable, which in turn opens on to why paying for research/publishing (specifically in the humanities) is justified at all.

What justifies funding for academic research in the humanities?
Here’s four that don’t satisfy:
1. a right to income.
2. importance of the research
3. utility in teaching
4. advancement of the field

I think 1+2 fail for the same reason, in that they’re true but would not work as an objection to cutting funding provided funding went to something else for which those justifications could be given. 1 is particularly weak, since that right is so often not respected. 2 also doesn’t work because the importance is likely to be either intrinsic to the activity or limited to a small community of folk. 3 is better I think but it’d have to be shown that the material actually enhances teaching (this also presumes teaching is a good, which I do – I realize that’s another argument but I’d like to just assume it for now). 4 fails because the advancement of the field requires justification itself (I’m not willing to presume the importance of that in the way that I am for teaching).

One answer I can come up with is akin to the pay received by the writers of airport novels and by pop stars: the pay is the result of an institutional framework which it would be bad to meddle with. This isn’t particularly clear, but something like – mucking about with publishing and bookselling and the music industry would have some negative effect. Something like this. I’m having trouble phrasing this clearly, which unfairly makes it a weaker justification, but I’m also having a hard time presenting it because I think it ultimately fails. What I mean here is some justification analogous to the following:

“A hospital with a union may have the occasional nurse working who doesn’t do a particularly good job and the union may help preserve this situation.” In that case, this is not an objection to having a union (the same conditions obtain in non-union hospitals except under management’s prerogatives so it’s not clear this is a real downside of unions, even if it was there are benefits to unionization for employees and patients which outweigh any downsides).

I don’t actually want to get into a discussion about that particular example, I only raise it as a parallel – in that example, and I realize this is unfair, academic publishing/research occupies a position analogous to the nurse who doesn’t do a particularly good job – where the point is that a given institutional arrangement is a positive thing and the particular activity (pay for research) is included in that arrangement in such a way that there’s no way to change that issue without having a worse institutional arrangement over all. That doesn’t mean the activity itself is justified. To go with the unfair analogy, the nurse who does a poor job and gets paid is not justified, even though there’s no better justifiable institutional framework or justifiable manner in which to eliminate this unjustified activity.

Even if this were the case with research, that it’s ineliminable for similar reasons, and I’m not sure it is, that doesn’t satisfy. That’s not a positive justification of funding for research so much as it’s a justification for not cutting funding – the research occupies some position akin to a necessary or ineliminable evil or a morally neutral element (akin to paint on the wall or something).

It’s probably obvious by now that I doubt that pay for academic research is justified at all in a substantial way (one that is specific to this sort of activity and under anything like our current type of society), but I’m trying not to pre-judge the question. I also should say, as someone who works in a university I’m not making any claims about reforms that should happen – in the current climate I doubt that any positive reforms are likely – and I’d be happy if I were personally to benefit from what I think is the unjustified current arrangement. (It’s like the lottery in a way, it’s probably not a justifiable institution but if I won it I’d certainly keep the money.)