A Ramble on Academic Salaries

Each winter, the local newspaper does its public service and publishes a searchable list of the salaries of state employees. This includes employees at the state’s universities. Predictably, there’s a low grumble of outrage as faculty whose salaries are public record somehow find a way to object to them being made even more public. This is fine. As they say faculty gonna faculty.

I admit that curiosity typically gets the better of me and I look at the salaries of my colleagues with a mixture of surprise, envy, and disappointment. The basic patterns will be familiar to anyone in higher education these days: women are paid less than men, faculty in professional and science programs tend to be paid more than faculty in the arts and humanities, and long-serving faculty members tend to have higher salaries than more recently hired faculty of the same rank (with an number of dramatic exceptions). There is the predictable blurring of ranks with the highest paid assistant professors making more than the lowest paid associates and the same goes for the ranks of professor and associate professor. Non-tenure stream faculty generally make less than those with tenure or on the tenure track, but there is blurring here too especially across disciplinary lines. For anyone in higher education, none of this is particularly unusual even if individual salaries feel sometimes out of step with the status of a faculty member or my respect for their work.

This did get me thinking about the problem of faculty salaries. This isn’t just about the notion that salaries are too damn low or that women deserve equal pay to men, although both of these are true on our campus. Nor is it about the disparities between humanities faculty and faculty in professional and “STEM” fields where there is more competition from the private sector (or even elsewhere in the public sector). Competition to hire and retain high performing faculty has always existed in some fields. In the humanities, however, where supply outstrips demand, the number of in demand free agents is diminishingly small. In fact, graduate programs in the humanities have long mooted the idea of restricting supply of qualified candidates as a way to increase the market value of their graduates. While I tend to find such efforts to manufacture scarcity to be distasteful for many reasons including the tendency to privilege the product of education over the process of learning, it reflects the commonly held belief that the market dictates salaries. 

And on a macro level, this may be true. 

On the level of a particular or even typical college campus, however, I suspect that the relative market for individual faculty members is only one contributing factor to their salary, and there are other far more complicating elements of setting faculty pay than whether one can leverage a counter offer to get a raise. Faculty salaries are genuinely weird. 

The first and most perplexing issue is that faculty of all ranks typically do the same job. In other words, an assistant professor and a professor of history whose salaries might be separated by tens of thousands of dollars even within the same department, do the same work. They teach, do research, and do service on campus generally at the same scale irrespective of rank.

There is, of course, a vague sense that a professor might be more efficient in their research or teaching therefore able to produce more “research products” than someone early in their career and I’ll return to this below, but I’d argue that this does not extend to teaching or service. In fact, I might even suggest that early career faculty are more effective or at least more adventurous and innovative teachers than mid and late career folks. And it is certainly the case on my campus that mid and early career faculty tend to embrace service responsibilities with greater fervor. Even if one were to argue that senior or higher ranked faculty are better at service and teaching, there is nothing in our system of promotion designed necessarily to prove this. Indeed one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that promotion reflects certain levels of efficiency or advanced competence in teaching or service. More than that, it is rare that faculty rank is considered in service or in teaching. There might be some mild preference for senior faculty in some service position and they might have a slight advantage when selecting courses, but even this is pretty rare. The systems in place on my campus, at least, tend treat faculty of whatever rank and pay as essentially interchangeable parts. Indeed our contracts tend to be more or less the same with the same percentages of our labor devoted to teaching, research, and service.

Despite the similarities in our contract and our work, salaries tend to reflect research output in some way, and I would contend that at my institution faculty who publish more and “better” stuff tend to be paid more.

But even this is a messy situation and it is unclear why this is the case in the humanities.

Perhaps we should assume that this system incentives faculty productivity. That is, it incentivized a career in which producing high impact scholarship begets more high impact scholarship. Even if we assume that this is the case in some places in the university (as we will see below), I struggle to understand how it would apply in the humanities. 

First, as I have noted, rewarding a scholar who produces more high impact scholarship at a higher rate than an inveterate grinder in the humanities as a means of retention would seem to assume that there is the possibility for professionally mobility in the humanities. In the 21st century, however, there are few opportunities for mobility with the market already saturated with faculty who have roughly similar credentials at various ranks. 

It may be that this represents a kind of incentive to encourage faculty simply to do more work. But it is hard to imagine how producing more scholarship in the humanities benefits the university in a substantive way. Maybe this practice rests on the assumption that scholars who are active in scholarly work tend to be better teachers and better colleagues. This seems improbable as my institution, at least, doesn’t tend to think of academic life in an especially holistic way.  

It seems more likely that the practice of rewarding humanities faculty for research reflects a mismatch between a system devised to reward faculty elsewhere on campus and scholarly production in the humanities. In the sciences and certain professional programs, a successful publication record manifests itself in large part in successful grant writing. Successful grant writing brings resources into the university that, for better or for worse, help expand the university’s operating budget across campus and increases the individual’s and the institution’s research capacity. Therefore there is real need to incentivize research productivity in fields where significant financial resources are at play. The tendency to encourage and reward high impact scholarship in the humanities may represent simply the importing of standards established in grant funded disciplines to the humanities. 

Faculty members in the humanities, however, have long been used to this mismatched system. 

We know, for example, that things such as “quality” are not easy to define and and the opportunities for “impact” are not evenly distributed. For example, some sub-fields (say, the archaeology of Cyprus) tend to have lower impacts than others (say, the archaeology of Greece). It is also evident that scholarship associated with the study of women, gender, and race tend to be regarded as “lower impact” than more traditional fields of, say, political and cultural history, and this surely accounts for why some women and scholars of color are paid less. Despite this variability, departments need to teach a range of subjects and to hire a range of subject experts. As a result, faculty specialties rarely map onto opportunities for producing high impact scholarship and corresponding salary advancement (if we assume this to be the case at all!).

Because the discrepancy across fields is a known thing, departments (who at my institution have some say in compensation) tend to attempt to balance for this. Even assuming the best of intentions, departmental efforts are invariably a mixed bag. This tends to reinforce the perception that salaries are arbitrary and depend as much on the willingness of a department to smooth a certain amount of disciplinary variability (or recognize the work of an individual scholar) as some kind of measurable performance metrics. 

Ok. This is all a bit of a mess. To summarize:

1. In the humanities most faculty do the same job, but get paid different amounts.

2. Since the academic job market is stagnant and opportunities are pretty limited for mobility, salaries do not correlate neatly to issues of retention in the humanities.

3. Early career scholars who are paid less are rarely less efficient or productive in teaching and service and while they may be less efficient in producing scholarship, this isn’t entirely convincing for any number of reasons. 

4. Paying scholars more who publish more but who contractually do the same amount and same kind of work suggests that somehow publishing more creates conditions where it becomes easier to publish more. This may be the case in grant funded fields where grants can work as labor multipliers, but is rather rare in the humanities where grant funding is less common and work tends to be more individual.

5. Rewarding high impact scholarship—however defined—tends to compensate more richly faculty who work in high impact sub-fields. Departments realize this and attempt to balance for this, but this happens unevenly.

Where does this leave us?

It reminds us that academic salaries are arbitrary especially in the humanities. It removes compensation as a meaningful incentive for doing more or better or certain kinds of work. It should also build a sense of solidarity among faculty in some fields because we all do the same work and deserve equal compensation. 

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