Looking at Inequality in Faculty Pay

Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Company once had a policy that the CEO could not make more than five times the amount earned by the lowest entry-level employee, capping the CEO’s salary at $81,000 in the early 1980s. By 1995, though, that policy had been eliminated. It turns out that it was difficult to attract a qualified person to head what had become a $150 million company at that kind of salary.  But even this lesson from most idealistic hippies of the Green Mountain state does not seem to have deterred many liberals from promoting wage ratios as the key to solving economic inequality.

The most recent example comes from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a public honors college. Professors at the school are trying to tie the salaries of everyone from the vice president to adjunct faculty to the same scale. The problem with this is not only that it’s difficult to compete for good administrators when compensation is severely restricted. It’s also that faculty in different disciplines are worth different amounts. Professors in the STEM disciplines or in business, economics, and law have the option of going into the for-profit world. So tying their salaries to what an adjunct English professor makes is a recipe for ensuring that quality math and science professors will look elsewhere for employment.  Though the professors at St. Mary’s use the rhetoric of “community” as the basis for their proposal, the fact is that their college still operates within a wider marketplace in which everyone is searching for better opportunities.

If the faculty are worried that some in their ranks are not getting a “living wage,” then they could call on their institutions to cut back on many of the needless administrative positions that have been created in recent decades; or they could try to eliminate some of the special departments or programs that have similarly evolved in recent decades to serve political agendas of one kind or another but serve few students and have little or no educational rationale.  Speaking of getting back to teaching, the adjuncts, who do indeed have trouble getting by on what most colleges pay them, could be getting a lot more money if schools rewarded faculty for teaching instead of research. Even at liberal arts colleges and large state universities, the people who spend the most time in the classroom tend to be the lowest paid.

Finally, the St. Mary’s proposal does nothing to combat one key source of inequality in higher education—tenure. It merely prescribes that tenured professors can only make so much more than their adjunct colleagues. But it is the job security of tenure and the two-tiered system of higher education that creates the greatest inequality on campus.  Tenure creates a “club” whose members are more equal than anyone else on campus.  It would be as if the managers of an ice cream company had guaranteed job security while the truck drivers or packers in the warehouse could be fired at a moment’s notice.    Academics would be up in arms at any such situation, and perhaps rightly so, but they ignore a parallel situation in their own industry.

The professors at St. Mary’s College are perfectly free to try out their experiment.  No one will stop them.  It will be interested to see how it works or how long it lasts.  One guesses that, just as at Ben and Jerry’s, it will prove to be a short-lived experiment.



  • James Piereson

    James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and president of the board of directors of Minding the Campus.

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