When exactly did professors take a vow of poverty?

21 04 2011

Apart from a very unfortunate post about totem animals, the Chronicle blog ProfHacker is about the most useful blog around. Reading it has made me a better scholar, a better teacher and (in a small way) a better person. This post, however, made me want to throw stuff at my computer screen:

Surveys of faculty salaries do matter to those who study academic culture at large, and such information can be useful in certain contexts. But, in general, I do wonder if such discussions do more harm than good. Faculty salaries vary greatly for a host of reasons we could barely list in an hour of brainstorming. And what counts as a “good” salary will vary, too. But isn’t that true of all fields? I am married to a lawyer who is quick to point out that attorney salaries vary incredibly from the $22,000 one makes annually in a nonprofit to the million another makes in a private firm. I have heard doctors say the same thing. And accountants. And engineers. I think it is pretty safe to say that you can pick almost any field and point to examples of those who make very little and those who make a lot.

Personally, I have a problem with the notion that economists make more money than historians because economists are somehow more useful than historians are. But that’s not what’s being argued here. What’s being argued here is that some historians make more money than other historians because they’re better than the rest.

In fact, as this year’s AAUP salary survey handily explains, the reason is more like an accident of birth than a judgment of worth:

Another labor market phenomenon that sometimes affects faculty salaries is known as compression or inversion. Labor economic theory predicts that people with more experience will earn higher salaries; their experience gives them an edge in doing their jobs well. Thus, within a discipline we expect full professors to earn more than associate professors, who in turn earn more than assistant professors. This relationship between experience and pay can be overwhelmed in disciplines for which there is a shortage of individuals willing to complete a graduate degree when they could enter the private-sector job market sooner at higher salaries. In those cases, the market makes the new PhD recipient so much in demand that universities have to pay him or her more than they pay more senior assistant professors (and sometimes more than associate professors as well). Compression refers to the situation where a more senior faculty member is paid only slightly more than the newly appointed colleague; the extreme case of this is inversion, where the more experienced individual is actually paid less than the newcomer.

From the perspective of economic theory, compression or inversion are simply reflections of the operation of the labor market. From an organizational perspective, however, these conditions can be destructive because of their potential negative effects on faculty morale.

Alas, my wife is not a lawyer. Therefore, I can’t afford to live in ignorance. Salary surveys like the AAUP’s are very useful for making the case for making my case for economic justice.

I recently heard an administrator from another university explain to a group of faculty that college teaching was a “sacred calling.” This made me wonder if the bosses in Chinese sweatshops described making bra rings the same way. I doubt it. Nobody but college professors would be gullible enough to fall for such blatant disregard of the economic rules upon which labor markets are supposed to operate.


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