So You Want to be a Professor?

Tom Shipka

Every year in the spring the American Association of University Professors, an old and respected national organization of higher education faculty, publishes a report on the economic status of the profession. This year's report deals with two issues, faculty salaries and shifts in staffing. (1) The report was authored by economist Saranna Thornton of Hampden-Sydney College who chairs the AAUP Committee on the Economic Status of the Profession.
On faculty salaries, the AAUP report has plenty of bad news for current and prospective faculty:

  • Faculty salary increases have lagged behind inflation in three of the past four years. (p. 9)
  • The pay gap between faculty at private and public institutions continues to widen. In 1971 full professors at public institutions earned 91% of the salary of full professors at private institutions. Today that percentage has dropped by 15% to 76%. (p. 11)
  • At universities with I-A football programs (2), head football coaches now earn 10 times more than the average full professor at those institutions. (p. 11)
  • And, over the past ten years, the average salary increase of college presidents was more than 6 times the average salary increase of faculty. (p. 13)

What is more worrisome to would-be professors than data on salary, however, is the staffing trends cited in the AAUP report. Over the thirty-year period starting in 1976, as enrollment in American higher education grew by 60%, the number of employees grew by 84%. But the lowest growth - 17% - was in tenure-track faculty positions. The segments of the work force which grew the most were full-time non-faculty professional staff, which grew by 281%, and full-time administrators, which grew by 101%. (p. 16)

There were significant increases in faculty but only in part-time and non-tenure track positions which are characterized by low pay and a lack of job security. (3) Over the same period, the number of non-tenure track faculty grew by 223% and the number of part-time faculty grew by 214%. (pp. 15-16)

Simultaneously, American colleges were containing labor costs by outsourcing.

Many full-time jobs in food services, maintenance, grounds, janitorial services, and other areas - jobs which typically carried good wages and benefits - disappeared as private vendors came on campuses with employees at or near the minimum wage. (p. 17) Institutions which employed personnel in the skilled trades such as carpenters, electricians, and plumbers, reduced their numbers significantly and in some cases to zero. This trend prompted a comment many years ago by a YSU skilled trades worker who said: "When I came to YSU we had one provost and three plumbers. Now we have three provosts and one plumber." (4)

What can we gather from all this? One clear implication is that newly-minted Ph.D.'s will face heavy competition for tenure-track positions. After long years of schooling, they will likely find the academic marketplace cruel and hostile. If they insist on college teaching, many will have to settle for non-tenure track or part-time positions. (5) If they opt for part-time, they may find themselves working at three or four campuses and spending twelve to fifteen hours a week, or more, behind the wheel as academic nomads. What a far cry this is from the romanticized lives of professors furnished by Hollywood.


  1.  Where Are the Priorities? The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2007-2008. See References herein are by page number.
  2. The designation I-A was changed several years ago to "Football Bowl Subdivision."
  3. The AAUP estimates that many institutions can employ as many as eight part-time faculty, each teaching three courses a year, for approximately the same cost as one full-time tenure-track faculty member. (p. 17) Usually part-time faculty members have no insurance benefits.
  4. This was said at a campus meeting called by a professional search firm who had been hired by YSU to identify suitable candidates to fill a vacancy in the post of provost.
  5.  Full-time non-tenure track and part-time faculty are now called "contingent" faculty.

© 2008 Tom Shipka