US faculty play a numbers game

November 22, 2002

Academic salaries in the US have been soaring as faculty vie for the best, but, writes Stephen Phillips, pay inflation is slowing.

"I have a formula," recounts literary critic Stanley Fish, dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "Most senior scholars at good institutions are well rewarded. So I increase their salary by 20 to 25 per cent. If they're on $100,000 (£62,966), I might say I can give you $125,000."

Such brash tactics were key in the aggressive recruitment drive Fish mounted in his previous role chairing the English faculty at Duke University from 1985 to 1999.

Aided by a $200 million fundraising drive, Fish assembled a star-studded departmental line-up spanning the day's leading literary criticism luminaries. Wooed by salaries running to six figures, the likes of Barbara Hernstein-Smith, then about to become president of the Modern Language Association, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a leading figure in "queer theory", and African-American studies pioneer Henry Louis Gates, who was poached from Cornell University, flocked to the private North Carolina institution. As a result, the department vaulted from th to fifth in the National Research Council standings and the benefits were felt campus-wide.

But a metaphor used by Fish in the Chronicle of Higher Education at the time proved apt. "It's analogous to what's happening in basketball: you no longer have the firm assumption that a star will play his whole career with one team."

The dream team was, indeed, short-lived: it unravelled in the late 1990s amid internecine squabbling and frayed collegial relations. Still, Fish remains adamant that the most effective way to build a "hot" faculty is to start with established stars. He is convinced that there are clearly identifiable stars in different fields - "people whose work is taught, and who produce models of scholarship".

In line with the prestige they confer, such people command stratospheric salaries, and the US's elite institutions are prepared to break the bank to land them. Last year, Columbia University enticed Stanford University economist Joseph Stiglitz, whose research about unfettered markets seldom producing optimal conditions is firmly enshrined on university curricula, with a salary of more than $200,000. Stiglitz swiftly rewarded his new host when he scooped the Nobel prize later that year.

The lure of earning similar big bucks may be part of what is tempting an increasing number of UK academics across the Atlantic. But what about the general picture of salaries on offer to the broad mass of academics in the US?

Superficially at least, the picture looks good. Last year, faculty wages rose 3.8 per cent to an average of $62,895 - the largest increase in more than a decade - according to the latest American Association of University Professors survey.

At Ivy League institutions, the average pay packet for full professors in 2001-02 ranged from $100,000 to more than $140,000. Tenured faculty at Harvard University are America's best paid, earning close to $145,000 a year on average.

But the survey reflects a widening pay gulf between the elite private research universities, bankrolled by huge endowments, and publicly funded institutions, whose fortunes are tied to increasingly stingy state government handouts. About 80 per cent of US students are educated at public institutions.

The public-private divide, however, is complicated by high-powered public campuses such as the University of California, Berkeley, where full professors earn nearly $116,000 a year. But, on average, publicly funded faculty took home about $9,000 a year less than their private peers last year.

The earnings gap is leading to faculty at public universities being pillaged by better-heeled private institutions, notes Ronald Ehrenberg, economics professor and director of the Cornell University Higher Education Research Institute. In one recent year, the University of Arizona, an average payer for the US public sector, lost 75 faculty members to other institutions, despite efforts to retain them with counter offers, he notes.

In one particularly flagrant example, the private George Washington University in Washington DC last year lured pioneering experimental economist Vernon Smith, touted as a future Nobel laureate, and six of his cohorts from Arizona with salaries ranging from $95,000 to $240,000.

University of Texas economics professor Daniel Hamermesh, who compiled the AAUP's findings, believes the effects of such competition can only be negative for the country as a whole. "Most education is a public endeavour," he says. "That the public has decided it doesn't give as much of a hoot as it did before (about higher education) has implications for the future competitiveness of this country, which is driven by the education of the majority."

Meanwhile, public institutions are emphasising non-financial rewards to prospective staff. Mayville State University, in relatively impoverished North Dakota, is America's lowest-paying public university. Full professors at the rural institution are paid $41,800 a year on average.

Rick Holman, an education professor at the university, says: "I just got home from a conference in Indianapolis. I didn't tell anyone what I'm making because it's almost embarrassing." After 20 years at the North Dakota institution, five as a tenured full professor, Holman takes home $42,000.

Gary Hagen, the vice-president of academic affairs, describes the sales pitch he uses to offset the salary drawbacks. "We offer smaller classes and don't have the demands of publish or perish - this appeals to a lot of people who would rather be an excellent teacher than (do) research," he says.

Another disquieting trend in US faculty pay is the growing disparity in earnings across different fields, with humanities and arts professors losing ground to sciences, law, medicine and business studies faculty members. Salaries are only part of the picture. An increasingly important feature of science faculty recruitment is the start-up package institutions can offer prized staff, such as the freedom to set up their own laboratories to pursue their research interests. Such packages can cost anything from $250,000 to $500,000 on average, Ehrenberg says, but some have been known to top the million-dollar mark.

By contrast, the best perks academics in less hardware-intensive arts and humanities fields might expect is $5,000 or so for a powerful data-crunching computer, and some paid vacations thrown in for good measure.

Mirroring the workforce at large, another inequity is the stubborn lag in average female professors' pay versus that of their male counterparts. With an average salary of $75,425, women faculty members trail men by some $10,000.

US faculties are also witnessing so-called salary compression in some areas because of competition in the academic labour market. To woo staff in flourishing disciplines, many institutions are boosting entry-level pay, putting rookie professors' salaries closer to those of longer-standing staff. According to Holman, the perception is that new faculty will be hired "at the expense of those committed to staying".

But Hamermesh is unsympathetic: "You don't see compression for people who are good. If a field is booming, it's typically booming at all levels - those left behind are those who have not boomed in their own research."

In the long term, however, the outlook for academic pay is not very buoyant: 2001-02's salary escalation is not expected to continue this year. Last year's rates were set by June 2001, before the recession hit. The prospect of shrinking stock market-indexed private endowments and tightened public education budgets could mean bad news all round.


  • Private university average: $71,460
  • Public university average: $62,024
  • Ivy League average for full professor: $100,000 (£62,966) to $140,000
  • University of California, Berkeley (leading public university) full professor: $116,000
  • Average for full female professors at all universities: $75,425
  • Average for full male professors at all universities: $85,437

 $1.00 = £0.63

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