Academics don’t get the actual money, but they get some of the same perks that rich people get. Some of the examples he used were maybe more relevant to some universities than others (access to faculty clubs, campus golfing, and so on), but others, like being able to travel regularly (thank you, conferences) are true of most academics.
Likewise, the ability to say what you want is easier if you’re either rich, or working in an institution that embraces academic freedom. Some of the eccentricities that professors are allowed are also reminiscent of what you can get away with if you’re wealthy. Of course, the dark side of this is that both the wealthy and the professoriate have power that they use to abuse others.
Academics a “make believe rich people” my professor argued, had a historical basis. It’s certainly true that historically, scientists were well off. They had to be, since research wasn’t really a substantial professional until the twentieth century. There was also the belief that financial independence helped to ensure objectivity.
Additional, 17 July 2014: Of course, the day after I post this, I find this flagrant and unthinking display of wealth from a university provost.
My wife and I gave our daughter a choice for her sixteenth birthday. If she wanted, she could have a party or we could go on a family cruise. ... She would like her birthday cruise to be the same islands cruise we took as a family six years ago.
A vacation cruise may not be something that many people would be able to suggest as a teenager’s birthday present. And two vacation cruises in six years is probably not within the range of most rank and file faculty at universities, and particularly contingent faculty.
Needless to say, when I wrote the post, I was not thinking about upper echelons of university administration. I was thinking about the most regular, non-administrative faculty.