Jonathan Rees

Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo

We Need to Talk About Our Salaries

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A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend of mine in the hall outside his office. He’s a relatively new department chair, and he was explaining that the reason he’d left his previous faculty job to come to our institution was salary inequity. At his old university, he said, new hires made almost as much as the people who had been around the campus for a long time. Now that he was a department head, he found himself in the awkward position of hiring new people at more than what some of the longtime professors earned.

If you’ve been a faculty member for any significant length of time, you are probably familiar with both of those problems:

  • The first is called “salary compression.” That means the pay gap between new hires and senior professors is getting smaller, usually because institutions have to offer higher salaries to new people in order to remain competitive with the other offers those people might get.
  • The second problem —“salary inversion”— is when new hires actually make more than senior faculty. It happens after compression lasts a long time at an institution, without any adjustment to the salaries of senior professors, and it has become increasingly common in academia after many years of near-universal budget austerity.

For many faculty, the only solution to either problem is to get an outside offer, something many of us are either unwilling or unable to do.

Seeing the same problem at two universities, my friend, the new department chairman, had concluded that salary inequity was a function of academic culture but I disagreed. I see salary inequity as a function of academic labor markets, rather than academia per se. Settle into one place for too long and your salary will suffer if your university doesn’t have the resources to reward performance.

But of course when it comes to faculty salaries everything is relative. Those of you reading this who are contingent instructors are probably thinking how much you’d love to experience the problem of salary inversion if that salary were closer to a living wage than the pittance you’re probably getting paid right now. What too many tenured and tenure-track people fail to understand is the fact that horrible adjunct wages are an important reason why our wages have mostly stagnated. Why raise the salary of tenured professors if you can replace them with faculty willing to teach more students for substantially less money?

Now some of you in the tenured and tenure-track ranks may be protesting: What about our research? What about the prestige we bring the institutions that employee us?

Unfortunately, the quality of your journal publications does nothing to exempt you from the law of supply and demand. The vast majority of cash-strapped administrators trying to meet budget for next year would gladly let you move to your next university if it meant that they could get someone to fill your classes at a fraction of the cost — no matter which not-particularly-well-read journal published your last article.

The adjunct faculty in your department may be invisible to you, but they are anything but invisible to the people who run your college or university. Indeed, from a strictlyfinancial cost/benefit standpoint they are far more desirable than tenured and tenure-track faculty. Indeed, the state of Wisconsin is about to test whether it can fill an entire system with faculty willing to work on a contingent basis, and the huge pool of poorly paid adjuncts available for hire will likely prove crucial in making that experiment a success.

That’s why it’s long past time to break one of the biggest taboos in academia, if not American culture in general. It’s time for all faculty to start talking about how much money we make — both across disciplines and with our colleagues at all levels of employment. As individuals, we will never make more than the labor market will allow, but together we can begin to design equitable solutions that cut across arbitrary and unfair employment categories.

People who do the same work deserve the same pay, no matter what they were originally hired to do. To make that possible, we faculty have to start by talking to each other — both about what our salaries are and about what our workloads are. Most important, we have to understand that the terms and conditions of our employment are all closely related.

A few weeks before talking to my friend, I had dinner with five economists. If you don’t know, economists are among the best-paid academics around because of the lucrative nonacademic market for their services. Nevertheless, shortly after the meal came they started complaining about the undeservedly high salaries for management professors in business schools.

“When I rise it will be with the ranks, not from the ranks,” said the legendary union leader and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. No matter what your starting point on the academic salary ladder, that sentiment applies to us all.

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