USA: Report Reveals ‘Disturbing’ Trends In Academic Salaries


Combined with declines dating back to fall 2019, professors and instructors have lost 7.5% in their income adjusted for inflation. Over the same period, presidents’ salaries rose 9.6% and chief financial officers’ (CFOs) pay rose by 12.7%.

According to the Washington DC-based American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2022-23, this means that while the pandemic took a toll on senior administrators’ salaries, they were “better insulated from its effects than the faculty”.

Equally important are the AAUP report’s findings about the continuing high level of precarity among America’s higher education teaching cadre and that female professors’ salaries continue to lag significantly behind their male peers. Sixty-eight percent of the men and women who teach in America’s colleges and universities are either part time or on other contingent contracts. Only 32.3% of the college and university teaching cadre has tenure or is on the tenure track.

On average, women professors earn US$20,700 less than do their male peers: US$96,900 against US$117,600 or 82.3% – meaning that for every dollar a male professor earns, a female professor earns 82 cents, a figure that hasn’t changed in decades, says Glenn Colby, senior researcher for the AAUP.

“The AAUP has been tracking this since 1974. I’ve reviewed all the reports since then and what you see is that while the overall salary differential has closed a bit since then due to increased representation of women in higher ranks, the gender pay gaps within each rank have actually increased over time, with the greatest gaps occurring at the full professor rank. As a result, for the past decade or so, the overall salary differential has remained flat at just over 80%,” Colby wrote in an email.

For her part, Johanna E Foster, professor of sociology and affiliated faculty in gender and intersectionality studies at Monmouth University (50 miles south of New York City), says: “As you can imagine, I’m deeply disturbed to read that the gender salary gaps are persisting among faculty and, in fact, have widened.

“It’s truly astounding, enraging really. It’s been 60 years this month that the Equal Pay Act was signed into law in the United States. And yet, here we still are in higher education. It’s just inexcusable that women professors’ salaries are behind men professors.”

“If we also looked at discretionary stipends, research monies and course releases as a kind of compensation, for example, I suspect that the gaps would be even wider. And, if we looked at those gender gaps by race and ethnicity, we would see compounding burdens for faculty women of colour. So, overall, it’s a troubling report to read,” says Foster, who holds the Helen Bennett McMurray Endowed Chair of Social Ethics at Monmouth University and is president of the university’s faculty association.

Decline across all academic ranks

The AAUP report is based on the AAUP’s Faculty Compensation Survey completed in March by 370,000 full-time and 90,000 part-time faculty members in more than 500 colleges and universities. The data covers some 300 doctoral and 250 regional universities, 200 liberal arts colleges and 100 community colleges.

The decline in faculty salaries (after adjusting for inflation) occurred at all academic ranks from tenured professor to instructor. In constant dollars, the decline since 2019 was steepest for tenured faculty, from US$162,421 to US$149,600 or US$12,821. Assistant professors’ pay dropped by US$6,400 while lecturers’ pay declined from US$74,600 to US$73,000.

By contrast, senior administrators lost less buying power. When the AAUP report combined data from public with private-independent and religious higher education institutions, it found that the cumulative decline in presidential salaries was 5.4% and for CFOs 2.7%.

In publicly funded institutions, where presidents’ salaries increased on average by 12.5% between 2020 and 2022, the cumulative loss was only 2.8%, making these presidents the group that lost the least buying power over the past three years.

According to Colby, one of the study’s most surprising findings is that fringe benefits that were cut or frozen at the start of the pandemic have largely recovered in public institutions but not private institutions.

“This highlights our understanding that private institutions tend to have higher salaries for faculty, but public institutions tend to have better fringe benefits or, at least, more stable fringe benefits.

“We can only speculate why fringe benefits were not cut as much and have recovered in public institutions. I suspect it has to do with collective bargaining, which is more prevalent among public institutions.”

Less than a quarter of the nation’s professors are tenured; another 12.5% are on tenure track. The remaining 68% are contingent: 48% are part time, 13% are non-tenure track and 7% teach at institutions that do not have a tenure system (most of these teach at community colleges).

These figures have been exacerbated by retirements during COVID and freezes placed on new hires. “From fall 2019 to fall 2020, the number of tenure-track faculty members decreased by 4,500 (4%) … [and] the number of tenure-track faculty members did not partially recover [as the pandemic waned] in fall 2021; instead, the number further decreased from fall 2020 to fall 2021.”

While the number of contingent instructors has also fallen (by 42,276) since 2019, at 567,745 they remain by far the largest group in the academic workforce.

Colby underscored two effects that follow from the reliance on contingent employees. The first is institutional. The prevalence of contingent employees rather than tenured professors dilutes academic freedom, as Colby wrote in March 2023 in the AAUP’s “Data Snapshot: Tenure and contingency in US higher education”.

“Tenure is the primary means of protecting academic freedom and exists not only to protect individual faculty members but also to benefit students and serve the common good by ensuring the quality of teaching and research in higher education. Over-reliance on contingent appointments, which lack the protection of tenure for academic freedom and the economic security of continuing appointments, threatens the success of institutions in fulfilling their obligations to students and to society.”

The second effect, Colby says, is the impact of precarity, which he defines as the opposite of “equable employment”, on the instructors themselves.

“Contingent faculty live with general uncertainty, wondering whether they’re going to have a job next term or next year. This impacts faculty in many ways. If you are trying to get a loan for a house, good luck trying to prove that you’re going to have income next year. Or if your classes don’t run the next term and you have no classes, good luck trying to get unemployment benefits if you weren’t a proper employee in the first place – and these rules vary by state,” he says.

The state of student funding

The AAUP report finds that per student state funding increased over the past two years so that (in 2022 dollars) funding had returned to the 2008 level: US$9,470. This is almost 30% higher than in 2011, the year when funding was the lowest in the past quarter century, when per student funding was (in 2022 dollars) US$7,011.

However, the study also shows that even at US$9,470 per student, funding is 7.2% lower than it was in 2000 when per student state funding was (in 2022 dollars) US$10,143.

A further caveat about the increase in state funding that the AAUP report makes clear is that the increase in funding since 2001 is due in large measure to an infusion of funds from the federal government to the states in such bills as the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021, that either have or will soon wind up. There are no bills currently before Congress that would extend billions of new dollars to the states for higher education.

What Fails To Explain The Gendered Pay Gap

When I ask Saranna Thornton, Elliott Professor of Economics and Business at Hampden-Sydney College in central Virginia, why the salary-equity ratio between male and female professors persists, she summarises some of the theories that purport to explain the pay gap that its persistence has eloquently debunked.

“When Title Nine [Pay Equity] was passed in 1972, a lot of people thought that equity in faculty salaries would happen immediately. It didn’t. Then, a lot of people thought it’s just a pipeline problem: ‘It’s going to take some time for new women, PhD students, to become full professors.’ But it’s been 50 years now, and we still don’t have salary equity.”

According to Thornton, the argument that women are more likely to become English professors and men are more likely to become accounting or engineering professors fails to explain the salary differential because the same disparity occurs within disciplines in which professors receive higher compensation than the university median.

“When you control for the number of publications women have, you still find that there’s a salary differential,” she says.

Nor is the pay differential explained by the argument that male graduate students tend to be hired by a more prestigious university that is able to pay them more.

Another argument Thornton says does not hold water is that the differential is because women are more likely to work in the part-time staff, who are paid less. “But, if you control for that by looking at salaries of full-time faculty, you still see the differential,” Thornton says.

What Really Is Behind The Pay Gap

The causes of the pay-equity gap are manifold, explain Thornton and Foster.

The gap begins at the beginning of the female professor’s career. I’m aware of appointments of new male and female professors with comparable graduate student and publishing records in which there were thousands of dollars’ difference in their starting salary, Foster says. This difference is compounded over time, especially because men are more likely to go to their chairs and demand raises, Thornton told University World News.

Thornton also points to a differential in mentoring. Being mentored is important in the advancement of junior faculty towards tenure, which, in addition to providing job security, usually comes with a large salary increase.

“There is some data that shows that mentoring opportunities for women tend to be lower in terms of having senior faculty reach down and mentor young women professors versus young men professors,” she says.

Neo-liberal Rhetoric

Foster explains how neo-liberal economic rhetoric is used to elide the obvious gender disparity. Neo-liberals say that the salary differential between men and women professors – eg, accounting professors are in higher demand than English professors and, hence, can command greater pay – is nothing more than an example of market forces at work. This, Foster underscores, helps to explain the disparity across and within STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.

“It’s not just a question of the gender of individual faculty members; it’s also a question of gendered assumptions about which academic disciplines are defined as more valuable than others, as in the case of some STEM departments. In other words, it’s not just the faculty members who are gendered as people, but the disciplines themselves are gendered and ranked, regardless of the faculty members within them.

“This gendered ranking of occupational fields within higher education – or what sociologists would call, internal occupational gender segregation – is one of the primary drivers of faculty salary inequities. Administrators in these departments are primed to pay men more because they are influenced by the gender segregated structure of the university and the labour market as a whole. The AAUP report suggests this in the finding that regardless of rank, a gender salary gap persists.”

The neo-liberal argument hides the gendered division of labour present on America’s campuses, Foster explains. Disciplines like psychology or foreign languages, where women faculty predominate, are feminised and are devalued in the sense that they are linked to traditional women’s work.

“This sounds a lot like the ‘separate spheres’ argument of old, based on ideologies of natural gender difference which held that women’s place was to run the home and men went out into the world of work. Only now, what we see in the problematic justification for the salary differential is not even the pretence of ‘separate being equal’ but rather ‘separate and unequal’ and we’re led to believe it’s because of a presumably gender-neutral market – not gender discriminatory administrative decisions.

“Because of the ubiquitous presence of neo-liberal economic rhetoric, we take it for granted that faculty that are in disciplines associated with masculinity (eg, engineering and physics) should be rewarded with higher salaries than are faculty that are teaching in disciplines that are feminised (eg, the humanities) regardless of the gender of the people in those departments,” says Foster.

“Neo-liberal rhetoric ensures that there is a resistance to examine the income differential by such variables as rank, gender, race and ethnicity, starting salary, and also academic discipline. Rather, it has normalised market-based arguments that people just get paid differently across and within departments and that women are paid less not because they are women, but because supposedly they are just doing different jobs.”

Equity In Community Colleges

The one sector in which female and male professors’ salaries are almost equal is the community college, where the gap is 6.3 cents. There appear to be two reasons for this.

The first is their ethos. Community colleges, which have traditionally offered two-year associate bachelor degrees, are now increasingly offering four-year bachelor degrees. They are not organised as research institutions and lack the hierarchy of associate, assistant and full professorships. There are no funded chairs and the prestige that goes with receiving large research grants.

“It would never fly in a community college to pay STEM faculty exorbitant salaries and humanities faculty lower salaries,” says Colby, who has taught in a community college as an adjunct faculty.

Even more importantly, since the vast majority (1,047) of America’s 1,415 community colleges are public, most community college instructors are unionised. Women may be over-represented in the faculties of community colleges, Colby notes, but they are more equitable in terms of hiring and pay because they are unionised and have contracts.

Foster, who heads the union at Monmouth University, also stresses the importance of unions in establishing salary equity because contracts can establish not only floors in salary bands but also acceptable salary differentials within any single rank.

“It is really apparent that the free market rhetoric that has been used to dismantle so many other institutions is being used to justify inequalities in faculty salaries. Countering this is a re-energised academic labour movement that is fueled by people who realise the problem with the normalising market-based arguments that take for granted that people get paid differently across departments and women professors routinely are paid less.”

2023 University World News


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