In fact, I'd say that a little information is worse than total ignorance, because generally if people are completely ignorant, they acknowledge that they don't know anything and are then at least willing to listen. People who know a little on a subject, however, can convince themselves that they're better informed than they really are. And sometimes, the way a story is written can make that problem worse.
Take, for instance, this story from the Sun-Sentinel on FAU's tentative tuition hike. As long as it's talking about the budget cuts and tuition increases, it does okay, but when it ventures into hazier territory, well, the problems start.
Faculty members said that FAU hasn't fought hard enough for raises and that FAU is losing talented faculty.I'm glad, of course, that they even mentioned the issue of faculty raises, because that often gets left out, but let's look at two major problems with the construction of the above paragraphs.
The average salary for a full professor at FAU is about $94,000. According to a survey from the Chronicle of Higher Education, that's below Florida International University, at $103,800, the University of Central Florida, at $112,300, and the University of Florida, at $109,000.
The first should be obvious to anyone--the use of the word "average." It's a misleading metric, because it's too easily skewed by outliers--the example I've read more times than any other in recent years is that if you put 30 unemployed people in a room with Bill Gates, you still have an average income of over a million dollars a year. Obviously the FAU faculty situation isn't that extreme, but using average is still problematic.
The second problem is more serious to my mind, because it ties into the frame of faculty members as overpaid eggheads sitting in their ivory towers, sipping tea and thinking of ways to destroy capitalism. I'm talking about the focus on full professors. Full Professors are at the top of the academic food chain; they generally have the greatest status, and the most seniority. They're the highest paid faculty on the campus. Looking at their average salary and using it as a rubric by which to judge faculty in general would be like taking the average salary of star NFL Quarterbacks and extrapolating that onto the league at large.
But how many people know the difference between a full professor and an Associate Professor? An Assistant Professor? An Instructor? An Adjunct Professor? Outside the academic community, I doubt many know the difference, but those differences are significant. By the time you get to Adjunct, in most cases, you're talking about a part-time, paid-by-the-class, no-benefits-earning, lower-level class teacher. At some universities, adjuncts don't even have use of the department copy machine. That's a far cry from the near-six-figure average salary of a full Professor.
But the average reader of the Sun-Sentinel won't grasp that subtlety--they'll only see "professors at FAU average nearly a hundred thousand bucks a year and they're complaining that they didn't get a raise in the last two years?!" And considering that the median income in south Florida is considerably south of that number, it's understandable that they might be a little pissed about the seeming tone-deafness of that complaint.
Most faculty members earn a solid middle-class income which, when you factor in the amount of time most of us spend in school, isn't much of a reward for the effort put in. I'm not saying we're galley slaves, chained to our oars, but we're hardly relaxing on the veranda with graduate students fanning us with palm fronds while we wax poetic about how wonderful the US would be under a Chomsky/Nader administration either. But the average reader, without the necessary context of a university hierarchy, won't understand that, and so the stereotype is perpetuated.