Winning the dollar lottery

Felipe Fernández-Armesto analyses a survey of academic salaries in the US

May 15, 2008

Forget the review books and the summer reading suggestions that literary editors will soon unleash. Readers of the current number of Academe, the bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, are sure of hours of fun. For this is the time of year when the association provides its members with a breakdown of academic salaries and emoluments by region, sex, rank and, most intriguing of all, each of the thousand-odd higher-education institutions that respond to the annual questionnaire. In US common rooms, the report is awaited as eagerly as The Sunday Times Rich List at suburban English breakfast tables. The fact that there are now roughly two dollars to the pound makes comparisons with the UK easy. Anyone used to the British system should take into account the fact that almost everyone at or above Britain's senior lecturer rank is dubbed a professor in the US.

The revelations are intriguing. It is instructive to start with salary, before factoring in other emoluments, and to focus on institutions with doctoral programmes - the places that would qualify as universities in Europe.

First, disparity in sex leaps to the eye. Female professors get a salary of, on average, $109,853 (£56,150) a year. Men at the same rank make over $10,000 more. Despite all the efforts of universities to outlaw bias on grounds of sex, men spend longer in the job and accumulate more pay. The second most conspicuous inequality is between independent and public-sector institutions. In the maintained sector, the average salary for a professor is only a little over $109,500. In private institutions, the figure leaps to more than $144,000, although the latter figure does not include church-sponsored colleges, where many staff receive nominal salaries because they have ministerial stipends or are members of religious orders. They earn, on average, nearly $124,500 from their universities.

Next, there are stunning regional differences. In most of the country, professors of either sex struggle to reach $110,000. The high levels are dominated by the northern and mid-Atlantic coast states, where average salaries are in the mid-$130,000 range, and the Pacific coast, where they top $123,000. In Kentucky, Mississippi, Oregon and Utah respectively only one institution declares average professorial salaries higher than $100,000 a year, and in North and South Dakota, Idaho, New Mexico and Wyoming none reaches that level. In Montana, no university reports a mean of more than $80,000. In West Virginia, West Virginia University stands out with $92,800. Nowhere else creeps much above the $70,000 mark.

The local cost of living hardly explains these differences, because state-by-state disparities between particular universities are enormous. And although on some campuses business schools, law schools, medical schools and other high-rolling professional establishments warp the figures, they are not responsible for all the inequalities. In California, a professor at Stanford University can expect nearly $174,000 a year - not far short of double the salary of a professor in the University of California state system. In Georgia, the average salary for a professor at Emory University - the institution endowed with Coca-Cola money - is nearly $45,000 a year more than at the University of Georgia. Washington University, St Louis, a well-heeled Catholic school, pays about 50 per cent better than any other university in the state of Missouri. Nationally, Harvard University easily tops the league at $184,800. In the same small state as Harvard, the University of Massachusetts struggles to make the $110,000 mark.

The inequalities do not perhaps seem as scandalous as those in the commercial sector. No fat cats in professorial ranks rip off donors the way that many failed executives in the business world mulct their shareholders. But the AAUP also publishes a table comparing the pay of top university football coaches with that of professors. Among the 100 or so schools that take American football really seriously, the coach earns, on average, more than a million dollars a year - roughly ten times the average professorial salary in the same institutions. In most of these places, professional fundraisers will tell you that the returns justify their priorities.

Teaching in US universities is, in short, a financial lottery, where rewards are irrational. But the AAUP's statistics also help to show why, in general, academics are better off on the western side of the Atlantic. Over a third of university professors in the US earn more than $130,000 a year. Compensation packages include, by UK standards, generous health and retirement benefits, which typically amount to about 10 per cent of salary. Normally, universities support the research of senior staff with supplementary funds, ranging from $1,000 to about $40,000 a year in the humanities. Of course, in the sciences, medicine, social sciences, economics, law, and business studies the sums fluctuate enormously but can be hugely bigger.

Finally, you can work till you drop: few US institutions have compulsory retirement ages. Terry Eagleton, had he left the University of Oxford for Manchester, New Hampshire, instead of Manchester, Lancashire, would not feel rejected at reaching the age of 65. And he could keep drawing that salary.

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