The ”Pay Cut” Crisis

Both the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have reported on a newly-released study regarding faculty salaries from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. Both articles highlight how, in the past year, around a third of professors around the country have seen their salaries reduced. (Only at private, research universities has the average professor enjoyed a salary increase in the past year.) Both articles also suggest that the decline might last for some time, because higher education tends to lag behind the economy in reviving from recessions.
It seems to me that both articles buried the lede. We live in a time of nearly-double digit unemployment. Nearly 20 percent of Americans are underemployed. Yet higher education has been all but immune from faculty layoffs.
That, of course, should come as little surprise: though faculty salaries (especially in the humanities and social sciences) might not be as high as many professors would like, job security is higher for the professoriate than for just about any other profession. It’s almost impossible to fire a tenured professor (unless he or she commits the type of massive research conduct associated with the likes of Ward Churchill), and only a college that wants to sacrifice all pretense of academic quality will dismiss untenured assistant or associate professors during economic downturns.
The AAUP, however, views the new figures as cause for grave concern. As the Chronicle reports, “University officials should seek faculty input on pay cuts, and state officials must chose priorities correctly, Mr. [AAUP director of research and public policy John W.] Curtis, said. ‘I do think we’re at a pretty critical juncture at looking at higher education as a public good and as a resource that contributes something to society. Unfortunately, a lot of governors and legislators are looking at higher education as only an expense.'”

This statement is dubious in at least two respects. First, what sort of “input” does Curtis want? Should colleges and universities put pay cuts up for a faculty vote? Perhaps the faculty could offer a list of positions—“traditional” U.S. history, Great Books, physics—whose professors should be first to receive pay cuts? If shared governance means anything, it means that just as administrators shouldn’t intrude on faculty responsibilities, so too should faculty not intrude on the responsibilities of administrators (and trustees). And the last I looked, the financial well-being of the university wasn’t a primary responsibility of the professoriate.
Second, Curtis complains—not incorrectly—that “a lot of governors and legislators are looking at higher education as only an expense.” Why might that be? Even if, as is perfectly clear, most members of the contemporary academy care little if at all about ensuring pedagogical or intellectual diversity on their campuses, self-interest should dictate at least token moves in that direction, if only to maintain needed political support.
If, on the other hand, colleges and universities insist on offering curricula dominated by extremist ideas and based on a race/class/gender agenda that would fall way to the left of the contemporary Democratic Party, why should anyone be surprised that, in times of crisis, politicians of both parties look on education as an expense rather than “a resource that contributes something to society.”


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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