08 June 2016

Academic Salaries: What do professors deserve?

Stephen Kershnar
Academic Salaries: No Basis in Theory or Practice
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 6, 2016

            Discussions of appropriate salaries in academia generates more heat than light. Lost in the discussion is the lack of a theoretical basis, or even much of an empirical basis, by which to evaluate salaries.

Consider the difference between salaries between public research and teaching universities (specifically, Category I public Doctoral universities and Category IIA public Master’s universities). Nationwide, there is a large difference. According to a 2015-2016 AAUP survey, the average senior (full) professor at a research university makes $130,000; the average senior professor at a teaching university makes $91,000. The same is true nationwide for junior (untenured) professors with an average salary of $77,000 at research universities and $64,000 at teaching universities. On average, professors at research universities are smarter and know more about their field than professors at teaching universities.

Note the overall compensation package for these professors is roughly 30% more than the salary, so these figures underestimate the cost to taxpayers. For example, the overall compensation package for an average senior professor at a teaching university is $119,000, considerably more than his $91,000 salary.
Next consider the difference between faculty and administrators. According to the AAUP survey, the average president at a public research university makes $456,000; the average president at a teaching university makes $273,000. The average chief academic officer (usually a provost) at a research university makes $320,000; the average at a public teaching university makes $204,000. Again, the leaders at research universities are far better scholars and more accomplished leaders than those at teaching universities.

The local universities fit this pattern. For example, according to the AAUP survey, the average senior professor at SUNY Buffalo makes $138,000; the average at SUNY Fredonia makes $90,000. For junior professors at Buffalo and Fredonia, the numbers are $82,000 and $59,000 respectively. The president of SUNY Fredonia (Ginny Horvath) makes $213,000, the provost (Terry Brown) makes $170,000, and two representative deans (Russ Boisjoly and Chris Givner) make $159,000 and $148,000 respectively. Even between fields the difference can be enormous with new philosophy and music professors making in the low to mid $50,000 range and new business professors sometimes making more than $90,000.

If one wanted to know whether these salaries are too high or too low, a theory is needed. On one theory, people should be paid according to what they deserve. The problem is that the usual theories of desert are inadequate and hard to apply outside of a free market.

Consider the notion that people should be paid according to how hard they work or how much they sacrifice. It is hard to see why this is true given that one person might work harder than a second but accomplish far less. An example is a musician who puts in a lot more effort than another, but still makes far worse music. The same is true for those teachers who work hard at their craft, but are still ineffective. Part of what makes people successful is intelligence and a likeable personality and these are strongly affected by genetics and thus not solely a function of hard work.  

In any case, academic salaries don’t track anything like this criterion. Some of the fields that have incredibly difficult programs (for example, physics, chemistry, and violin) are flooded with incredibly talented people, whereas other, on average, less difficult programs (for example, education and communication) are less flooded. The former do not intuitively seem to deserve more money if the flooded market makes it far cheaper to replace them.  

The notion that what people deserve depends on what they contribute to others is more plausible. The problem is that what someone contributes depends in part on what they produce and in part on how expensive it is to replace them. Both can, at least in theory, be determined in a free market, where profits measure overall productivity and people freely buy and sell labor. For example, a salesman might be worth a lot of money if he adds a lot to a company’s profits and would be expensive to replace. Without the profit motive, this is far less easy to measure, whether in theory or practice. For example, it is unclear how to measure a professor’s contribution to a college’s revenue.

It is also unclear whether revenue should be the main concern. A professor of an obscure topic (for example, Roman history or mathematical logic) might contribute a lot to student learning but little to college revenue, whereas other fields might do the opposite. 

If overall revenue to a university is what matters, thereby paralleling the profit motive, then the case for highly paid senior professors is far from obvious. For example, a public teaching college (for example, Fredonia) can hire a part-time adjunct professor at roughly $3,000 a class. This might cost the university $18,000 for six courses and $30,000 in total compensation when medical benefits are added in. This is far less than the $119,000 in total compensation (salary and benefits) for a senior tenure-track professor. Even if senior professors on average contribute far more than part-time adjunct professors, it is unclear whether they contribute $90,000 more. 

The same problem plagues market-based theories that assert that workers should be paid according to their contribution to people’s economic well-being. In the context of a free market, this contribution is at least theoretically measurable. It is harder to see how this works in contexts such as state universities when the market can’t be used to measure contribution. It can’t do so because there is no price mechanism to mediate between supply and demand. Instead, salaries are set by political forces and it is unclear on what basis they should do so.

The absence of a satisfactory theory of desert or market discipline prevents academic salaries from being paid out according to what people deserve or in an efficient manner. Perhaps a vague sense of an appropriate salary that partly satisfies both of these criteria is the best we can do. Still, it is unsatisfying. 

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