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Faculty pay attention

April 10, 2012

When I started teaching, I didn’t worry much about either my salary or student plagiarism. I figured that universities work on the honor system, and I’d rather let someone else fool me than make a fool of myself by becoming a classroom cop or fretting over a few dollars.

But being taken for a fool gets old pretty quick. I now do everything I can to prevent plagiarism. Unfortunately, the university funding crisis and dismal job market make it rather difficult to increase my salary. On good days, if I could afford it, I would do my job for free. On other days, it galls me to be underpaid.

Calling attention to low pay for full-time faculty doesn’t seem likely to win much public sympathy. Most people today get by on considerably less. Nonetheless, it’s worth getting the facts straight on faculty pay.

Yesterday the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released its annual report on U.S. faculty salaries. Average full-time faculty pay increased 1.8 percent in the 2011-12 academic year, while inflation was about 3 percent. In fact, “2011-12 marks the third consecutive year—and the sixth year in the last eight—in which the change in average full-time faculty salary has fallen below the change in the cost of living.”

Use this interactive table to check out average faculty salaries at particular schools. And remember that disciplines with more perceived market value – business, economics, law, engineering, computer science – enjoy higher faculty salaries than the liberal arts. For example, according to the 2010-2011 AAUP faculty salary report, assistant professors in Business make more than double those in English (table H). The familiar explanation is that high private-sector salaries drive up faculty pay in these disciplines. It’s not because their faculty are more qualified, work longer hours, teach more effectively, or contribute more to society (some do, some don’t). It’s also not because their graduates get better jobs. Considerable evidence (here and here) suggests that liberal arts majors, while facing an initial disadvantage on the job market, eventually either match or surpass career-oriented majors in both salary and job satisfaction.

This means that faculty in some disciplines receive higher pay due to labor market dynamics that have nothing to do with the intellectual and vocational purposes of the university. And what makes sense from a market perspective can be disastrous from an organizational perspective. Large salary inequalities within a single campus undermine faculty morale and shared governance.

The AAUP report does not include salary information on contingent faculty, who teach most U.S. college courses and are paid far less than tenured and tenure-track faculty. The Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) is preparing a report on the issue, due to be released this spring.

This year’s AAUP report discusses student tuition (rising), presidential compensation (excessive), and the impact of unions on faculty salaries (positive), and it concludes by considering faculty salary in the context of U.S. national income distribution and the Occupy Movement. Most full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty receive salaries higher than the bottom 50 percent and lower than the top 20 percent of U.S. households.


Are full-time faculty underpaid? Given our education, workload, responsibilities, and societal contribution — yes, many of us are terribly underpaid, especially when you consider our previous years of very low pay as research and teaching assistants. But rather than pondering exactly where faculty salaries belong on today’s scale of average household income, it seems more important to focus on the corrosive inequality reflected in the scale itself.

One cause of that inequality is the failure of many one-percenters to recognize what they get from the rest of us. The AAUP report notes that 94 of the 100 largest U.S. corporations have CEOs who are college graduates (36 from U.S. public institutions).

Entrepreneurs without college degrees, such as Rupert Murdoch, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, are the exceptions. Looked at from one perspective, the real job creators are the college professors who taught the occupants of the corner offices many of the skills they needed to ascend the corporate ladder, including those gained from courses in fields such as philosophy, English, and the fine arts.

So if you happen to know any one-percenters, tell them to check in on their former college professors now and then. There’s always more to learn.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Ben Hoyt permalink
    April 11, 2012 4:38 PM

    It’s sad, but it seems that taking your last few articles together, things haven’t changed a great deal since the time of Weber. In his words (translated into English):

    “Thus academic life is an utter gamble. When young students come to me to seek advice about qualifying as a lecturer, the responsibility of giving it is scarcely to be borne. . . Lasciate ogni speranza.”

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