Faculty

Unionizing Pays Big Dividend for Professors at Regional Public Universities

April 03, 2016

Full-time instructors at regional public universities earn an average of about $21,000, or nearly 25 percent, more in pay and benefits annually if they belong to a union, concludes a groundbreaking new study of compensation at such institutions.

The location and size of the employer also makes a big difference. Those in larger suburban public universities, the highest-paying category of institutions studied, earned an average of nearly $17,000, or 20 percent, more in pay and benefits annually than those at midsize rural institutions, the lowest-paying category.

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Such pay gaps become even larger when all three factors — location, size, and union status — are considered together. Unionized instructors at larger suburban institutions earn an average of about $40,000, or 50 percent, more than their nonunionized peers at midsize rural institutions, the study found.

Past research on faculty earnings at public universities has offered a distorted picture by lumping in data from state flagships and from regional institutions, argues a paper summarizing the study’s findings.

Given how the nation’s 390 public regional universities differ from flagships in their missions, student populations, and faculty workloads, they "deserve analysis in their own right," says the paper, presented in New York on Sunday at the annual conference of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.

The paper says the new study also differs from other research on faculty earnings in that it takes into account not just salaries but fringe benefits as well. To provide such an analysis, however, the researchers had to use data from the 2010-11 academic year, because the Education Department stopped collecting information on faculty benefits after that point.

The new paper’s authors are Nathaniel J. Bray, an associate professor of higher-education administration at University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa; Stephen G. Katsinas, a professor of higher education administration at Alabama and director of its Education Policy Center; and Johnson A. Ogun, a fellow at the center and an assistant professor of culinary arts at the University of North Alabama. Mr. Bray and Mr. Katsinas found similar payoffs to unionization in a study of community-college instructors’ earnings published last year.

Benefits Under Debate

The degree to which college faculty members benefit from joining unions is heavily debated by education researchers, partly because efforts to quantify any impact on their earnings are confounded by factors such as market-related variations in what colleges are willing to pay their employees and geographic differences in income.

There’s a substantial overlap between those states with relatively high costs of living and those states where public employees can join unions. Conversely, living costs, and all workers’ pay, is relatively low in those states in the South where public employees are barred from collective bargaining.

"It is a completely different world living in San Francisco than living in Kansas," said Thomas L. Harnisch, director state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. In many cases, he said, rural public universities "are just going to have smaller salaries due to the cost of living."

Past studies that focused entirely on faculty salaries and factored in public flagships found no more than modest benefits to belonging to a faculty union at a public four-year college.

The new study links unionization to an $11,000, or 15 percent, difference in the average salaries paid to full-time instructors at regional public universities and about a $10,000, or 32 percent, difference in the average benefit package offered such instructors.

There's a substantial overlap between those states with relatively high costs of living and those states where public employees can join unions.
In an interview last week, Mr. Katsinas said the difference in overall compensation that his study linked to unionization was far too large to be attributable to differences in the cost of living.

Mr. Katsinas acknowledged that his study used a shorthand method for classifying instructors as unionized, based on whether their state’s labor laws let instructors at regional public colleges engage in collective bargaining.

But, he said, virtually all such institutions’ faculty members belong to unions in states where it is allowed, and often such unions enter into contracts with university-system offices overseeing many or all such campuses in their state.

Of the more than 127,000 full-time instructors whose earnings were analyzed in the study, 63 percent worked in the 30 states where they could collectively bargain at the time the data were gathered. The study classified as unionized the full-time instructors at about three-fourths of the 55 suburban, three-fifths of the 74 urban, and half of 261 rural public universities it examined.

Mr. Harnisch, of the state-colleges association, said he was pleased to see a study focusing on regional public universities, which he called "a sector of public higher education that is really the workhorse but often gets overlooked for elite private institutions and public flagships."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.