Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Goodbye to Those Overpaid Professors in Their Cushy Jobs

Look, I don't post these kinds of articles to depress you. I think the issue of tensions among members of the academy regarding teaching loads and the public perception of the tenured life is fascinating, and will only grow more fraught as the economic downturn continues and as the business model of higher education becomes more focused on the bottom line. The article reports that some academics are growing more vocal in their disdain for colleagues who eschew taking on additional courses or administrative duties when the overall economic picture on most campuses is bleaker by the semester:

"Last September some professors at the University of California decided that not working on days they were supposed to teach might actually help the university win more support from the Legislature. The professors called for a walkout of classes—to demonstrate how budget decisions were affecting students—even though the president's office had prohibited them from taking furloughs on teaching days.
James Hamilton, a tenured professor of economics on the San Diego campus, called out his fellow professors on his blog. "If some of my colleagues perceive that they now have better opportunities than teaching at the University of California, I'd encourage them to resign so that they can take advantage of those opportunities," he wrote. "If not, they need to stop whining and do their jobs. And perhaps even be thankful that, unlike many other Americans, they still have one.""

Public perception is the another target of the article:
"The professoriate may be policing its own perceived slackers, and there may not be as much grumbling from legislators as there once was about professors out mowing their lawns on Friday mornings. But what about professors' pay—does it qualify as cushy?
For those people lucky enough to land full-time jobs at universities, the pay can be good, although, of course, it's all relative. For example, a mathematician at a college or university makes an average salary of $72,320 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (An annual survey by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources provides a more detailed breakdown: A full professor in mathematics and statistics at a four-year institution makes $84,32; an associate professor, $66,012; an assistant professor, $55,765; a new assistant professor, $55,186; and an instructor, $42,782.) That compares with an average salary of $67,430 for an accountant or auditor, according to BLS figures, and $75,22 for a statistician.
The average annual salary for English instructors at a college or university, meanwhile, is $65,570, according to the bureau. That's about $10,000 per year more than high-school teachers make ($55,150), but high-school teachers probably started earning real wages at least six years earlier, and have a better shot at tenure."

I think the article obscures some issues, particularly those regarding faculty unionization and work-life balance, but I find this to be a really compelling piece. What's your take?


  1. Comment from a BANDIT friend on Facebook:
    "Most of the problem is simply increased competition. When access to higher-er education is greater, so is the competition for academic jobs, which will down wages, in the form of lower wages or higher workload. Additionally, there are better outside options for math and stats people (e.g. accountant, quantitative marketing, think tanks, etc.) than there are for English people (I'm actually not sure what the outside options are...) In this way, I tend to agree with Hamilton: if people don't like it, there are more than enough people waiting who are willing to teach more and earn less.

    Also, I've never been sure why professors (in general) find it such a hassle to teach. It's only a zero-sum game if you approach it as such. You could also look at it as an amazing opportunity to interact with, shape, and learn from bright young minds who haven't yet learned how the veterans of the field think. I know I've had many great insights into how to think about concepts just from reading thought papers and having conversations with students.

    But then again, I'm just a silly little grad student."

  2. The salaries you quote are way out of line. The BLS has a mean that is skewed, seriously. If you want to see the REAL numbers, go the AAUP data on the Chronicle of Higher Education. These are located at: You will find that starting Assistant Professors start as low as 30K, and full professors with 30 yrs of service can get as low as 40K!!! An average regional state university might cap off in the 70-80K range after 30 yr of service. Now, its not like these folks just walked into a job. Doing a dissertation over 5-10 years at a 14K rate so they could serve the community as experts in their fields and produce the materials that are the fodder for what you watch on the History, Science, and Discovery Channels is a substantial self investment. IN fact, an average PHD invests more time (9-11 yrs), money and effort than your average lawyer (7 yrs), MD (8 yrs), or Pharmacist (4 yrs). Then, while not teaching they find themselves advising congress, the UN, and community members FOR NO PAY because community service is an essential part of their job. I know of few PHDs whose salaries exceed that of the average union worker such as an electrician, plummer, or tool-and-dye worker. Yes, they chose this profession knowing work vs salary expectations ahead of time....but so did the janitor, school bus driver, and fast food worker. In fact, a large component of PHDs are forced to work part-time on salaries of less than 15K. Just like those in the trades who are watching their jobs shrivel up, academics too are watching their jobs shrivel for similar reasons. In the case of those in the trades, its cut jobs to lower costs. In the case of PHDs its cut jobs to lower costs.

  3. ARE YOU GULLIBLE?? raises some excellent points which further underscore the unfortunate disconnect between perception (a job in academia being cushy)and the bitter reality (see AYG's post about more realistic salaries versus time invested), even among members of our own scholarly community. My brief meanderings are directed towards the earlier comment on work load, and the advice for professors to view teaching as "an amazing opportunity...", wow. I'll cut this person some slack since they are still in grad school, although I'll add, hey, aren't you too optimistic to be in grad school?
    The vast majority of professors I know, myself included, derive a great deal of stimulation and satisfaction from teaching, a process that can be as transformative for the professor as for the students. This is not the issue. The issue is that we are being asked to do more with less, and these differences in both support and teaching load for junior faculty are not trivial. For example, an Assistant Professor, even one who is beloved by students and receives consistently top-notch evaluations will not receive tenure with a mediocre or subpar track record of grants and publications. Tenure rejections rarely cite teaching record as justification not to promote. Given the prioritization of a strong research agenda at most universities (perhaps liberal arts schools are an exception), professors are forced to choose between protecting their time for research versus investing in teaching. Take for instance the case of only marginally different teaching schedules: the gap between a professor teaching a 3-3 load vs. a 2-2 load is 12 extra classes over the typical 6 year grind towards tenure! How's that for perspective, especially if publication requirements for the two departments are similar? You do the math for those regularly teaching 4 or even 5 classes a semester (and look out, my university, like many, is looking at increasing the teaching load substantially to offset the tight budgets). And, the time constraints are even tighter for those not fortunate enough to have TAs or grad students for grading support. Among adjuncts and part timers the situation may be even more precarious, as they might teach more classes than a tenure stream faculty member, but for a modicum of the pay and scant benefits. Sure, these tensions are heightened by the economic downturn and a shift towards a business model at many universities, but there is also the forboding sense that higher education, the life of the mind, and even the tenure process are endangered. Calling out fellow faculty members, as recommended by Prof Hamilton of UCSD is divisive and undermines a concerted voice of dissent from an organized or unionized faculty. As for the students, they certainly don't benefit when a professor has to choose between investing in their umpteen classes (for which they will receive minimal credit in their tenure review) versus whittling out a meager research agenda. Seriously, I'm whittling! For senior faculty, foregoing raises as part of protracted contract negotiations may be especially damaging for those in the public sector, whose pensions are based on their maximum salary in the final years of service. Tough times for everyone, so we should share knowledge and strategies to better cope with our situations, rather than embark on witchhunts for imaginary freeloaders.

  4. Just a comment to ARE YOU GULLIBLE?? regarding mean salaries being skewed. Um, no, I'm not gullible. Means are averages of an entire range of salaries, in this case across all levels (instructor through to full profs). So OF COURSE they are skewed. A handful of full profs in well-renumerated endowed chairs will pull the mean up to a whopping $65K. Wow! That's what means are. I am in total agreement that the AAUP salary guides are more useful since they break them down by status, gender, and specific department. But means can be useful in tracking overall patterns and inequities. And since the article I linked to use the BLS stats, that's what we have here. Carry on...

    And thanks so much to Anonymous for eloquently raising the issue of unionized faculty, which was completely overlooked in the original article.

    For the record, I looked up James Hamilton's salary online and I think I've discovered at least one source of his disdain for colleagues who are resistant to increase their teaching loads: at $156,125 per annum I could be pretty dismissive too.