Huge variation in US academics’ pay

Alan Ryan reflects on the lack of uniformity in salaries for leaders of American higher education institutions

September 12, 2013

Labor Day – the first Monday in September – is the last day of the American summer, bookending a season that begins on the last Monday in May with Memorial Day. The latter honours fallen soldiers; Labor Day honours ordinary working men and women. Trade unions celebrate the success of long-ago campaigns for the eight-hour day, although today there are fewer members of trade unions than there are Americans who say they disapprove of trade unionism and regard it as a threat to prosperity.

It is also the beginning of the academic year for most universities and colleges, many of which have their “move-in day” the week before Labor Day and start classes the day after. The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes its annual almanac 10 days earlier, providing those with an unhealthy taste for raw data the chance to binge on something other than undercooked sausages on the neighbours’ barbecue.

The layout of the almanac – it begins with salaries – suggests that most of us are deeply curious about what university and college presidents are paid. British readers who flinch at the results of Times Higher Education’s annual survey of UK vice-chancellors’ pay, with heads collecting £250,000 and upwards for a not-very-demanding job, might wonder what Graham Spanier did as president of Penn State that earned him just under $3 million (£1.92 million) in the 2011-12 academic year; the answer is that he was fired by the university’s trustees following criticism of his handling of the sexual molestation scandal that has thus far seen assistant coach Jerry Sandusky given a 30-60-year prison sentence.

Casualisation seems to be the result of an over-supply of graduates who cling to the forlorn hope that a non-tenure-track post will eventually turn into a tenure-track job

But many presidents against whom there has never been a whisper of scandal have collected not a lot less: Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, collected just under $2 million in 2010; and Amy Gutmann, who is a distinguished political theorist and an administrator of genius, has just seen her “compensation” as president of the University of Pennsylvania rise from $1.5 million to $2 million.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are presidents of religiously affiliated colleges who make exactly nothing. As always, it’s the comparative rewards that puzzle the spectator; why do the presidents of some institutions make four times as much as the presidents of apparently similar places? The other puzzle is the pay gap between presidents and their seconds in command; universities are largely run by their provosts, who oversee the internal management of the university, as both chief financial officer and resource manager. Many successful presidents learned their trade as provosts, although there is some suggestion that provosts have become less enthusiastic about making that final upward move – perhaps they dislike the prospect of spending their lives on the road charming potential donors.

British vice-chancellors might feel underpaid when they look at their US peers’ salaries, but there’s less reason for most of the UK academic workforce to feel badly done by.

The uniformity of British payscales may leave you envious of US academic stars, but cast your gaze elsewhere and you may be grateful for the floor they place beneath the pay of non-stars at unglamorous places. If you found yourself teaching at a community college in West Virginia, you’d find that the average salary is about £30,000. Unsurprisingly, there are enormous differences between places that give doctorates, that stop with master’s degrees, that only offer a BA, and two-year colleges. More surprising to a British eye is the difference between salaries at private and public universities; the gap is about 20 per cent nationally. There has been something of a brain drain out of California and Wisconsin, although the more alarming phenomenon is not losing stars to other places but replacing tenured and tenure-track scholars with adjuncts and non-tenure-track teachers. A profession in which more than 75 per cent of the faculty in 1970 had tenure has turned into one in which 70 per cent of new appointees are off the tenure track. The casualisation of the academic workforce is partly the result of deliberate administrative policy: universities were burned in the past by hiring large numbers of faculty in momentarily fashion-able disciplines. Partly it seems to be the result of an over-supply of graduates who cling to the forlorn hope that a non-tenure-track post will eventually turn into a tenure-track job.

You might think that a casualised workforce would produce cheap education. It doesn’t, but it does produce the sort of spread between top and bottom of the tuition fee range that UK universities and science minister David Willetts hoped for but never saw. There are 149 US colleges and universities that charged more than $50,000 a year for tuition, board and lodging last year, and only a very few of them can behave like Princeton and its Ivy League peers, which give you the whole lot for free if your family makes less than about $60,000 a year. At the other extreme, you’d pay only $4,000 a year in tuition and fees at a degree-awarding public university in Louisiana, and half that at a community college awarding an associate’s degree and providing a launching pad for migration to a degree-awarding institution.

But my favourite piece of mind-boggling undigested data comes from – where else? – a survey of faculty who have had experience of teaching Moocs. By four to one they think Moocs are worth the hype. Since we’ve only got a pie chart to go on, we don’t know quite why; but whatever the reason, by 72 to 28 per cent they reject the idea that students ought to get credit for succeeding in a Mooc, and by two to one they don’t think their own institution will ever give credit for them.

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