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A note on faculty salaries

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Yesterday’s post pointing out that average salaries for faculty in American higher ed have been almost completely flat for the past 50 years didn’t mention a few complicating details.

(1) These figures don’t take into account that while some things have become much cheaper than they were a half century ago — food, televisions, information technologies, etc. — three core items of a middle and upper class life in America — housing, health care, and (irony alert) higher education — have become much more expensive, to the point that a professor’s salary in 1970 could buy far more of all three than the same salary can buy today.

For example, when I moved to Boulder in 1990, the average price of a single family house was $125,000, a figure you can roughly double to account for inflation. Last year the same number was $1.4 million, that is, close to a six-fold increase in real dollar terms. This is becoming a huge issue in regard to hiring full-time university faculty, let alone everybody else who make the wheels go round at a 30,000-student campus.

(2) While average salaries have remained flat, the dispersion of those salaries is certainly far more extreme than it used to be. The superstar professor phenomenon pretty much didn’t exist 50 years ago — salaries for full time faculty tended to be much more seniority-based.

(3) The averages obscure massive variations of the following sort:

In 1970, senior Harvard Law School professors made about $209,000 in 2022 dollars. Today the comparable figure, although publicly unavailable is somewhere between two and a half and three times larger. (Eight law professors — not administrators mind you — in the University of California system made between $500,000 and $600,000 last year, not counting benefits. That figure gives us a pretty good idea of what senior professors at the very richest law schools are currently pulling down).

In other words, over the past 50 years in American academia, the rich have gotten much much richer, the middle class has been treading water, and the great underclass of lecturers, adjuncts, joint appointments without an actual salary etc. has lost enormous ground.

Which all sound very familiar.

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