When it comes to faculty salaries, there's little doubt that public higher education is at a real disadvantage these days. Private institutions pay more. According to the most recent salary data from the American Association of University Professors, private pay is more in all sectors of higher education. At doctoral universities, the average for assistant professors at privates is more than the average for associate professors at publics. Full professors at doctoral institutions that are private earn, on average, $30,000 more than those at publics. At baccalaureate institutions, the gap is about $14,000.
Even the most prestigious public institutions -- like the University of California at Berkeley -- worry about the issue. But while Berkeley landed a $113 million grant  to deal with the problem, that's unlikely to be the case for most publics. So have public colleges lost?
A study released Monday by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education  (or COACHE) suggests that public colleges may have some advantages, at least once money is set aside. COACHE, which is based at Harvard University, has conducted a series of surveys of thousands of junior faculty members, trying to identify factors that make them satisfied (or not) with their jobs. Much of the analysis  of the data has focused on the way female and minority faculty members are less likely than their white, male counterparts to feel good about their positions.
But a new look at that data finds that on a number of key factors related to tenure, public institutions outperform private institutions in the eyes of junior professors. Professors at public institutions were more likely than those at privates to consider that the tenure process and tenure standards are clear, and that expectations about job performance were reasonable. In addition, public college faculty rated four of five categories of questions on work/family balance more favorably than did their private college counterparts. While the data are not broken out to allow for comparisons only of universities, COACHE has previously reported that on many of these job satisfaction categories, smaller colleges outperform larger universities. Many of the small colleges in the survey are private, suggesting that they may be boosting even lower scores from private universities.
The findings could be significant because other studies from COACHE have found that junior professors place increasing importance on factors like the clarity of the tenure process  in evaluating their employers. These findings go against the long-standing tradition in higher education that institutions that pay well and have impressive reputations need not think much about how professors (especially those without tenure) are treated.
"While private institutions tend to receive higher scores overall from junior faculty, in certain critical areas, the publics are surpassing private institutions," said Cathy Trower, COACHE's director. "Private institutions may learn from what the public institutions are doing right in terms of tenure clarity," said Trower. "Demystifying tenure, by making the standards more clear and the expectations more reasonable, helps to reduce unwanted turnover among tenure-track faculty."
There is evidence in the data that suggests that the financial advantages held by private institutions extend beyond salaries. For example, private college professors are more satisfied than their public counterparts on the number of courses they teach and on the number of students they teach, presumably favoring smaller courses and fewer of them. Mission differences between public and private may also favor private higher education. Private institutions' professors are much more likely to be satisfied with student quality.
But COACHE researchers said that the fact that there are significant areas where the publics have the edge is important -- both for institutions trying to retain talent and for new Ph.D.'s starting their careers.
Kiernan Mathews, assistant director of COACHE, said that he hoped all kinds of institutions would try to improve where they are weak. But for people considering where to work, he said, the message was "not every institution is right for every person."
Professors weighing job offers need to "make an informed decision," and that data may suggest questions or issues to explore, he said, stressing that averages by definition won't reflect the realities of every institution.
Why do publics do better in certain areas? Mathews speculated that faculty unions and open records laws -- both of which are a factor at public institutions but generally not at privates -- help. Unions push for more detail on job expectations and evaluations, he said. And the threat that procedures could be reviewed through an open records request is a good motivating factor to keep materials clear. But Matthews stressed that there was no reason private institutions couldn't catch up.
"Private institutions can't assume that better compensation is going to buy them faculty," he said.
Betsy Brown, special assistant to the provost at North Carolina State University, said that the new data show the importance of tenure clarity and other policies. While COACHE releases only total averages, participating institutions in the survey can find out about their individual performance, and Brown said that her faculty members gave the university one of the top scores on tenure clarity. While Brown worries about the ability of North Carolina State to match private universities in salary and benefits, she said it is important to push in every area where a university can make faculty life better.
On tenure clarity, for example, Brown said that the university's faculty rewrote procedures to make them more clear. Perhaps more important, every new hire receives a letter from his or her chair outlining specific expectations on such issues as the teaching/research split of time, and measures that will be used to evaluate performance. "The statement of mutual expectations is explicit," she said.
Brown did not discount the importance of pay. "Compensation is clearly important," she said. But factors like tenure clarity can make a professor less likely to get into a bidding war that may be difficult for public institutions. "It is harder to lure a faculty member away if they are satisfied with these other dimensions."