Labor & Work-Life Issues

April 09, 2012
Updated April 8, 2012

2012 AAUP Faculty Salary Survey

How much 1,251 colleges paid their faculty members.

Professors Seek to Reframe Salary Debate

When a parent asked Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. this year why college costs keep rising, he cited faculty pay as one culprit.

“Salaries for college professors have escalated significantly,” Mr. Biden said in January during a town-hall meeting in Pennsylvania. “They should be good, but they have escalated significantly.”

The vice president’s rhetoric is part of a broader story about faculty pay and productivity that the American Association of University Professors wants to rewrite. The group is seeking to use the results of its latest annual report on faculty salaries as a myth buster for the politicians, activists, and others who have argued that professors are earning too much while working too little.

The report, titled “A Very Slow Recovery,” sends a firm message: Professors’ pay is not the problem. It paints a picture of stagnation for full-time faculty salaries that, on average, rose 1.8 percent in the 2011-12 academic year, an increase that was swallowed up by a 3-percent inflation rate. When adjusted for inflation, faculty salaries fell by an average of 1.2 percent.

Over the past three decades, according to the report, tuition has increased at a much faster rate than full-time faculty salaries. The contrast is starkest at public institutions, where tuition and fees have increased over the past decade by 72 percent when accounting for inflation, largely in response to declines in state support. During that same time, the salaries of public-college professors, when adjusted for inflation, rose by less than 1 percent at doctoral and baccalaureate institutions and fell by more than 5 percent at master’s universities.

The price of college also has gone up, the report says, at the same time that institutions have increasingly relied on part-time faculty, whose wages are significantly lower than full-time professors’ and often do not come with benefits.

Meanwhile, the association also notes, college presidents’ average salaries were relatively sheltered from the effects of furloughs and pay cuts in the years following the recession. The gap between the pay of presidents and professors continues to grow. Between 2006-7 and 2010-11, median presidential salaries jumped by 9.8 percent, when adjusted for inflation, while median full-time faculty salaries rose by less than 2 percent.

Still, as the scuffle over collective-bargaining rights continues in several states, professors nearly everywhere are left to counter a popular opinion that they’re overpaid for the amount of work they do.

Just last month an opinion piece in The Washington Post questioned whether college professors work hard enough for their money. David C. Levy, a former chancellor of New School University and former director of the Corcoran Gallery and College of Art and Design, wrote that faculty at teaching institutions “deserve salaries commensurate with their hard-earned credentials,” if they’re good teachers. “But we should all object when they receive these salaries for working less than half the time of their nonacademic peers,” Mr. Levy wrote.

Overlooked in the debate over how to rein in rising college costs, he said, “are reforms for outmoded employment policies that overcompensate faculty for inefficient teaching schedules.”

The AAUP seeks to counter that kind of argument, portraying professors as underpaid, particularly in terms of their education and the value of their work. Faculty members, the report said, are among the top 10 percent of Americans in terms of their levels of educational attainment, but they are not in the top 10 percent of the income distribution of U.S. households. For part-time instructors, whom many institutions use to deliver the bulk of instruction on campus, the pay is even worse.

“The struggle,” the report concludes, “goes on.”

Caption text goes here

Jackson Hill for The Chronicle

Bridgette Davis, an assistant professor of education at the U. of Southern Mississippi, leads a class on “Principles of Teaching High School.” The average salary for assistant professors at Southern Mississippi in 2011-12 was $58,100.

Falling Behind Inflation

The American Association of University Professors surveyed 1,251 colleges about how much they paid their full-time faculty members.

Position Average salary 1-year change Inflation-adjusted change
All ranks $82,556 +1.8% –1.2%
Full professors $113,176 +2.2% –0.8%
Associate professors $78,565 +1.6% –1.4%
Assistant professors $66,564 +2.1% –0.9%
Instructors $47,847 +1.7% –1.3%
Salaries are adjusted to a nine-month work year. The inflation-adjusted figures are based on the December-to-December change in the Consumer Price Index.

Profiles of Professors and Their Pay

These four faculty members, like their counterparts across the country, are navigating a “very slow recovery,” according to the American Association of University Professors.

An Engineer Takes a Pay Cut to Become a Professor

Elizabeth P. Cheung

When Elizabeth P. Cheung arrived at graduate school at the University of California at San Diego a decade ago, she had no plans to become a professor.

In fact, she enrolled in the institution’s engineering program because the coursework for a master’s degree was tailored to students who wanted to pursue a career in industry.

But two years ago, while working for medical-device companies as a senior product-development engineer, Ms. Cheung realized that her job was simply that—a job. After giving birth to her first child, she decided that if her work was going to keep her away from her daughter, it had to have more meaning.

“I wanted to do something worthwhile, something that was actually contributing to society,” Ms. Cheung says.

She was hired nearly two years ago as an assistant professor of engineering and computer-aided drawing at Pierce College, a two-year institution in Los Angeles. But her newfound career came with a pay cut. Her credentials and experience allowed her to earn a $90,000 salary in her previous position; she now earns $60,000.

In its faculty-salary survey, the American Association of University Professors says that people don’t choose a career in higher education for the money. Ms. Cheung’s field—along with economics, business, and law—are those that the association has specified as ones in which faculty could typically could earn more if they worked in the private sector.

Ms. Cheung’s career switch was a trade-off with some real consequences.

“It’s expensive to live here,” says Ms. Cheung, who is married. “At some point we were hoping to buy a house. We knew that with me changing jobs, it would prolong the time it would take for us to be able to do that.”

But Ms. Cheung says leaving behind a job with a better salary was the right move for her. The ability to largely “be her own boss” and build maximum flexibility into her work day is a big plus, she says. Ms. Cheung teaches five classes each semester, but after those are done, she says, “I can go home if I need to, knowing that I might have to do other work at night or on Saturday.”

Because Ms. Cheung is a first-time teacher, she’s had to spend lots of time prepping for her courses. And grading papers is another time-consuming task to which she’s had to adjust. “I definitely feel like I’m putting in more hours here” than I did in my old job, she says. “Every semester has gotten a little bit easier, though.”

What hasn’t gotten easier is accepting the consequences of limited resources for higher education, particularly in cash-strapped California. Getting computer equipment repaired quickly, for example, isn’t a priority, she says.

“When you’re in industry, you have someone there who can immediately come and fix it,” Ms. Cheung says. “But here you can go weeks without something like a printer.”

Ms. Cheung says she doesn’t have any regrets about her career move. And she has no plans to leave academe—although she says she wouldn’t rule it out if the right opportunity came along.

A Librarian Braces for a 4th Year Without a Raise

Michael Russo

For Michael Russo, an associate librarian at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, the start of a new fiscal year in July brings with it the likelihood that he and his colleagues won’t get a raise. If that happens this year, it would mark the fourth consecutive one in which their pay remained flat.

“People are just demoralized to the point where they’re paralyzed and feel they can’t do anything about it,” says Mr. Russo, who began working at LSU in 2000 and is a tenured faculty member. “They just shrug their shoulders and say, At least I have a job.”

Many of his colleagues across the university who don’t have deep ties to LSU are busy trying to find another academic home, Mr. Russo says. But others, like Mr. Russo, have opted to stay focused on their work, despite its limited financial reward.

“The work I do is its own motivation,” says Mr. Russo, who earns $57,773. As a reference and instruction librarian, he teaches a one-credit course in how to use the library’s resources. Many students don’t realize “the scope of information that they can access,” he says, “so I feel the work I do is important.”

Budget cuts across the nation have led faculty salaries to stagnate for several years. In Louisiana, state appropriations for higher education fell by 18.5 percent from 2010-11 to 2011-12, according to the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University and the State Higher Education Executive Officers. Some states’ budgets are beginning to improve, but professors are facing a “very slow recovery,” says the American Association of University Professors’ latest report on faculty salaries. While full-time faculty salaries, on average, rose 1.8 percent in 2011-12, that increase lags behind inflation.

With flat salaries, Mr. Russo and some colleagues have had less face-to-face contact with others in their discipline. “Without raises we are not in a position to pay out of pocket to attend meetings and conferences, as these activities can cost thousands of dollars,” he says.

Having tenure, he says, at least gives him a choice. Assistant librarians must find ways to pay to attend state and national library meetings, he says, because earning tenure depends on it. “This puts assistant librarians in a very difficult financial position.”

Mr. Russo has played a major role in organizing LSU’s fledgling faculty union and chairs a library-faculty policy committee that has begun analyzing compensation issues, including how librarians’ pay at LSU measures up against that of faculty members in other disciplines.

He says he hopes that the issue of stagnating pay, among other things, might galvanize faculty to stand up for their own interests and stop relying on system and campus administrators to fight budget battles on professors’ behalf.

“I’m actually hoping that in the long run, this is going to make faculty much more skeptical and less trusting of the administration,” Mr. Russo says. “We have a situation here where the faculty is basically at the mercy of the decisions that are made by the administration.”

A Music Professor Gets a Raise After Several Years Without One

Anita P. Davis

After working for three years without a pay raise, Anita P. Davis and her colleagues at the University of Southern Mississippi saw a small bump in their salaries last summer. While that increase—which averaged about 3.5 percent per employee—was welcome, she says, it has done little to alleviate the frustration on campus.

The consecutive years of flat wages were demoralizing for faculty, especially since they were coupled with what Ms. Davis called “heart-wrenching” reductions to programs and faculty positions. Ms. Davis, an associate professor of music education who was president of the faculty senate last year, says many of her colleagues involved in that painful process became sleep-deprived and gained weight from the stress.

For full-time faculty nationwide, the compensation picture is “marginally better” this year than in the past two years, according to the American Association of University Professors’ annual report on pay. But, as at Southern Mississippi, the improving conditions come after several years of stagnation. When adjusted for inflation, the overall average salary of a full-time faculty member in 2011-12 is less than 1 percent higher than it was five years ago, in 2006-7, according to the AAUP. “2011-12 represents the continuation of a historic low period in faculty compensation,” the report says. “If this is the recovery, we may be in for a long ride—and we have to wonder whether we’ll ever get back to where we were before the crash.”

At Southern Mississippi, the university last summer was able to secure $3.5-million for raises.

But the way those raises were distributed in her department actually further eroded morale, says Ms. Davis, since the increases were doled out mostly on the basis of students’ end-of-semester course evaluations. The raises averaged 3 percent in her department, which matched the rate of inflation.

“Three percent isn’t a whole lot,” she says. And, she adds, “to be told you’re of more or less value because of the way a student rates your course had a negative impact.”

Ms. Davis, who has worked at Southern Mississippi for 12 years and whose nine-month salary is $57,573, says faculty understand that resources at a public institution can often be stretched thin. “We’ve always been doing more with less at this institution since I’ve been here,” she says.

Still, the lack of a raise in the past several years had led her to consider working elsewhere, she says. And retaining faculty is a problem campuswide, she adds. For Ms. Davis, a desire to stay close to her family and the community of her colleagues has kept her at Southern Mississippi.

“It’s frustrating when you feel like your work isn’t valued within the institution, but I am inspired by what I am able to do with my students,” Ms. Davis says. “That’s what keeps me going.”

An Adjunct Professor Cobbles Together a Small Paycheck

Joshua P. Zelesnick

Like many adjuncts, Joshua P. Zelesnick patches together multiple jobs at different institutions. He teaches introductory composition at both Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh.

With a combined annual salary that totals about $20,000, Mr. Zelesnick says he isn’t being compensated at a level commensurate with the work involved in teaching four courses each semester, three of which require separate preparation. The adjunct model, he says, needs an overhaul.

Mr. Zelesnick, who started teaching in 2007, says he finds himself in a position that’s less than ideal but nonetheless better than some of his fellow adjuncts. Through the University of Pittsburgh, he receives health insurance—an option not afforded to his part-time faculty colleagues at Duquesne—and he also has what is considered a full course load.

But job security is a major issue, he says. At one point, the student enrollment for composition courses at Duquesne dropped, and Mr. Zelesnick was only able to teach one section, which left him in a financial bind. To make ends meet, he took a job at Trader Joe’s for almost a year until he was able to find work at Pitt.

More than 40 percent of institutions’ instructional staff were part-time employees in 2009, according to the American Association of University Professors, and 75 percent of instructional staff were contingent faculty—a group that includes part-time faculty, graduate-student employees, and full-time faculty off the tenure track.

Part-time faculty appointments pay “incredibly low wages” and usually do not include benefits, the AAUP’s annual salary report says. Because of limits on compensation data available for this rapidly growing group of faculty, and the fact that they are paid by course rather than on an annual basis, the AAUP report does not include specific salary information for them.

Full-time instructors and lecturers, most of whom are contingent faculty off the tenure track, earn less than half of what an average full professor does, according to the AAUP. In 2011-12, the average full-time, full professor earned $113,176, compared with $54,202 for the average full-time lecturer and $47,847 for the average full-time instructor.

Pay inequality, combined with few benefits and little job security, is prompting adjuncts at Duquesne and elsewhere to organize labor unions. At Duquesne, adjuncts are seeking to form a union affiliated with the United Steelworkers. The goal, says Mr. Zelesnick, who is a member of the organizing committee, is to have the institution recognize the unfairness of adjuncts’ working conditions and provide them with health-care benefits, more equitable salaries, and more job security.

Being an adjunct is also a challenge from a professional-development standpoint, says Mr. Zelesnick, who hopes to eventually land a tenure-track job. The demands on his time from teaching, grading, preparing assignments, and holding office hours limit his ability to get his work published and attend conferences.

Limits on compensation and benefits for contingent faculty can impose a personal challenge, and, Mr. Zelesnick and other adjuncts argue, the model is ultimately detrimental to educational quality.

“In the end,” he says, “the students end up losing.”—Michael Stratford