Poaching, recruitment and anti-trust settlements

July 8, 2019

Duke University has agreed to pay $54.5 million to settle a class-action anti-trust lawsuit:

In the class action lawsuit Seaman v. Duke University, Danielle Seaman—an assistant professor of radiology at Duke when she filed the case—alleged that Duke and UNC agreed not to hire each other’s employees, which would violate federal antitrust laws protecting competition and wages.

UNC got off scot free, apparently, because it is the state government:

Because it is an actor of the state government, UNC settled the lawsuit in January 2018 without paying any money or admitting wrongdoing. However, it agreed to never enter a no-hire agreement and provide information to Seaman’s attorneys.

This should concern all academics, as should the recent settlement that USC paid to UCSD. In this latter case it is still a little obscure where the crime was, seemingly the real issue is theft of data by the PI with the conspiratorial assistance of persons at USC. But it is being reported and discussed in a way that casts the mere recruitment of a PI who is in charge of a lot of research funding as being somehow malign. There is a subtext emerging from some academics that it is somehow unfair that a private University is paying a salary increase ($500k per year per this report) over the reportedly low salary scales available at a University of California campus.

This is the stuff of Labor and Ownership of the Means of Production.

We academic researcher types bring value to our Universities and Research Institutions. There are various ways we are compensated for the value the institution believes we convey to them. Now and in the future. Hiring of this valuable labor (us) is competitive. Universities seek to get the “best” of the youngsters hired into faculty ranks. They seek to discard the ones that are not fulfilling the expectations within about 6-7 years, so that they can try again with a new prospect. They seek to retain the ones that are living up to expectations at the lowest possible cost. They also seek to hire mid-level or senior-level investigators who are proven values…and they expect them to continue to express that value. The costs may be higher, but again, this is business. The University is highly motivated to get the most productive value for the cheapest possible cost.

And academic institutions have worked for decades to convince the labor force to take less compensation. Tenure. Academic titles. Promises of stable working conditions and employment. Lifestyle. Cultural memes of higher callings, vocations, etc. Many ways to convince us we are not in fact Labor. So we won’t get uppity and ACT like labor. With organized, common interests.

As I mentioned before, I have recently gone through a mid-career recruitment process that ended with me accepting a new job. This was a very complex situation involving many moving parts but there is zero doubt that my calling card, my value in all of this, was my established track record of NIH grant funding. And this record led directly to the nature of the job offers. By this I mean the resources extended, appointment titles, research space and, yes, annual salary.

There is also zero doubt that the offers were limited by a desire on the part of the various institutions to keep or hire me at the lowest possible cost to them. This is the way the world works, in my experience, and I was not deeply offended. I get that this is labor / management. I get that if the institution thinks that a prospective hire is vulnerable to a low ball in some area of the discussion, they are going to try it. And I get that sometimes the prospective hire is going to put up with that because in the balance of upside/downside it is worth it.

The UNC/Duke conspiracy is one of those cases where the institutions were presumably seeking something more direct than the usual broad industry agreements not to raise salaries too high for certain job categories. Likely due to geography. One of the things that makes academic workers vulnerable to the industry is the geographical dispersion of the job locations. Moving is not trivial for workers with families and with working professional spouses, especially. So this gives institutions a lot of leverage to low ball if they think the prospective worker really, really wants to live in their geographical region. It also gives disgruntled workers a lot of incentive to look for a new job at a nearby institution if it is available. And in many regions, it is available. (I seem to recall from the UCSD/USC situation that the investigator was going to be set up for work in San Diego, not LA?) Duke and UNC share a geographical catchment area for labor. Beyond LA and San Diego there are the Bay Area, Boston, Baltimore/DC, NYC, Seattle…. Many of the US geographical areas that are hot for academic science share multiple institutions where one might seek employment.

We can’t overturn the balance of power between academics and institutions, of course. But we can change our recognition of what is going on and at the very LEAST not participate on the side of the institutions. So stop calling the USC actions “poaching” of an investigator as if mid-career recruitment efforts are unsavory in and of themselves. Stop being jealous that the guy was offered $500K in annual salary. Stop whinging about how surely so-and-so did not deserve what they were offered, just because you weren’t. Stop viewing poor little state, public, tax payer funded University of California as the victim of the big bad University of Spoiled Children- UC has many exceptionally active research campuses and I guarantee you they are recruiting mid- and senior-career faculty at all times. Stop dunking on Duke and realize that UNC was also culpable (even if it escaped by being a government entity) and that this is just the raw edge of practices in the entire business. Right? How many times have academics had to justify salary requests by reference to other salaries in the industry? A bazillion. It’s a conspiracy. It’s normal…but it is collusion. And we don’t have to be part of that collusion. We are LABOR and we should act accordingly. Negotiate accordingly. Job seek accordingly.

Above all else, understand and analyze news of the day accordingly, even if the reporters are muddying the waters as much as they possibly can.

3 Responses to “Poaching, recruitment and anti-trust settlements”

  1. jmz4 Says:

    There’s a PI at my ILAF who chimed in when there was a group whinging about a certain Boston area institution not paying their postdocs more, given the high cost of living, saying:

    “Honestly, I think I’m lucky I get paid to do this at all, since I’d do it in my free time.”

    To which a sizeable chunk of people nodded like this was sage advice, and the proper, self-effacing reply expected of a true Science Monk. I didn’t have the retort at the time, but it struck me later that I would find this incredibly demotivating if I were his trainee.

    It suggests that what we do is a hobby, that it isn’t important, and has no value to broader society, when nothing could be further from the truth. It is a job, that is important, and to the extent that our passion for it makes us better workers, that would only justify better remuneration.

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  2. Draino Says:

    “it struck me later that I would find this incredibly demotivating if I were his trainee. ”

    You must have had a fragile ego! I’m glad you weren’t subjected to such demotivating speech when you were a trainee. lol

    “It suggests that what we do is a hobby, that it isn’t important, and has no value to broader society, when nothing could be further from the truth. ”

    Why not both? A hobby that is important and has value to broader society. That’s why society pays you to do it, right? If you are nerdy enough or science-monky enough, or obsessive enough, then it also becomes your hobby.

    Like

  3. jmz4 Says:

    “You must have had a fragile ego! I’m glad you weren’t subjected to such demotivating speech when you were a trainee. lol”
    -No, I have an ego massive enough it will some day form a black hole, engulfing everything around me, crushing it with no chance of escape. That’s clearly why I’m suited for academia. My point is that it is a stupid thing to say to your trainees, because it suggests they’re merely facilitating your hobby, one that most of them won’t even get to indulge in later on. They’re in his lab, they’re not indulging their own intellectual curiosity, they’re indulging his (or at least a substantial part of their work is).

    “Why not both? A hobby that is important and has value to broader society. That’s why society pays you to do it, right? If you are nerdy enough or science-monky enough, or obsessive enough, then it also becomes your hobby.”
    -Yeah, that’s fine, I often justify the long hours that way to my wife (that the lab is both my work and my garage). But that’s not what his remarks suggested, especially in context. His remarks suggested that the work didn’t have broader value, because he was shocked anyone would pay us to do it and we should all be happy to be getting whatever pittance we get instead of advocating for better pay.

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