Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Are Professors Underpaid?

I was redirected by Pharyngula to Dean Dad's post at Bitch, Ph.D's on "Giving Something Back" focused primarily on people who retire and then want to "give back" by teaching a class or two at the college (usually getting paid to so; how is that giving back again?) Anyway, what PZ was redirected me to was the comments. Very interesting conversation going on there. Buried about halfway in the comments was the questions: "Are professors underpaid?" I wanted to comment there, but the thread is so long, I didn't even see if someone else had responded. So maybe they did but I'm responding anyway.

Inside Higher Ed ran a story last week about the decline in faculty salaries, particularly the fact that they're not keeping up with inflation. At our institution, in fact, there's an attempt to "catch up" after a couple of years of small increases (I should note that in those couple of years, staff received no increase one year and a pittance the next while faculty at least received near cost of living). Also, the whole salary thing is relative; it very much depends on where you live. In the rural area where we came from, Mr. Geeky's salary commanded a fair amount of buying power and put him in league with other professionals. Here, however, he makes less than the plumber. When we moved, we negotiated hard for him to keep his current salary. The cost of living here is 3 times what it was where we were coming from, so that even at his current salary, he was essentially taking a pay cut to work at our institution. And what about those people who make less than he does (there are some who make more, of course). How do they manage in this high cost of living area. They live far away. Increasingly, faculty have to live further away from campus because they can't afford housing nearby, a problem noted in this post I was perusing last night.

In this area, in fact, elementary school teachers often make more than college professors. Not that they shouldn't, but the school system compares salaries locally while colleges often compare nationally or with "peer institutions." I find that problematic because the cost of living in an area can be a huge factor in determining whether you feel underpaid or not. If you're a college professor, and your salary puts you in the same ballpark as the deli counter person, how do you feel about all that education you paid for? Yeah, there are intangibles that might make up for it, but not necessarily.

And don't get me started on the cost of health insurance. So far, we haven't been asked to eat any increases in health insurance costs, but if we do, that will likely negate any pay increases. I know this has happened at other places.

I think the perception that faculty get paid a lot comes from the few stars who do and who are often visible to the general public. They may get tv time, for instance. And there's, of course, the perception that faculty get summers off. Why does no one complain about this for teachers? Is it because they're mostly women and so people figure they're taking care of the kids? That's always baffled me. No one said to my mom in that snotty tone we all know, "How nice you get your summers off." I also think that people don't perceive what faculty do as work. They often question what it is that professors do. Again, the stars may be in the position of only teaching one class (with the grading done by grad students), but most people teach many classes and are expected to do research and plenty of service. For anyone who thinks that that's not work, I'd suggest taking a gander at some of the blogs on the blogroll.