Why Assistant Professors Should Earn More Than the Tenured

Although it is far from the norm, a few colleges pay their assistant professors more on average than they do their tenured professors. Although such pay scales might harm the egos of tenured professors, they can benefit colleges.

Organizations often pay high salaries to (1) attract new employees, (2) keep existing employees, (3) compensate workers for unpleasant working conditions and (4) compensate workers for taking on risks. These four criteria support colleges giving relatively higher salaries to assistant professors.

Consider a college that has some extra money to spend on faculty salaries. In many fields, this college competes intensely with other schools for talented assistant professors. So the college could increase the quality of its faculty by using its extra money to boost assistant professors’ salaries.

Compared to assistant professors, tenured professors rarely switch jobs. Our hypothetical college probably won’t lose a significant number of its non-superstar tenured faculty if it doesn’t allocate its extra money to raising their salaries. (And the college can always cut separate deals with it superstars.) So to maximize the quality of its faculty, the college should create a pay structure in which tenure-track assistant professors earn more than tenured professors. As the following example shows, a college can do this without ever decreasing a professor’s salary even if the professor is promoted.

Year Tenured Professor’s Salary Assistant Professor’s Salary
2008 $77,000 $80,000
2009 $80,000 $83,000
2010 $83,000 $86,000

[If an assistant professor were promoted at the start of 2010 he would make $83,000 in both 2009 and 2010.]

Assistant professors in many ways have harder jobs than tenured professors do. They have more pressure to publish. They usually spend more time on class preparation because they have taught their classes relatively few times. And, keeping in mind their looming tenure bids, they often feel compelled to be more deferential to their senior colleagues than they would prefer. Those who care about economic fairness consequently should support the idea of assistant professors making more than tenured professors. And those who care about markets should understand that the less pleasant the job, the higher salary you must pay to attract top talent.

Job security is a large part of tenured professors’ compensation. So even if a tenured professor has a somewhat lower monetary salary than an assistant professor does, he probably, over all, receives more total compensation than his non-tenured colleagues. After all, I suspect few tenured professors who are not superstars or close to retirement would agree to exchange, say, $3,000 in extra salary in return for abandoning tenure.

Markets compensate intelligent risk takers. For example, investing in the stock market yields a higher average return than investing in safe government bonds does. Up or out tenure decisions foist enormous risk on tenure-track assistant professors. Ph.D.’s in practical fields in which many non-academic jobs are available should be willing to take on tenure risk only if they are suitably compensated for it. In contrast, however, being a tenured professor is one of the safest jobs on the planet, and consequently you would expect markets to pay tenured professors a negative risk premium that reduces their salary.

It’s relatively less risky for a college to increase its assistant professors’ salaries. For reasons economists don’t fully understand, employers almost never decrease their workers’ nominal salaries. So if a college gives a raise to a tenured professor, it is stuck paying this raise until the professor retires. In contrast, if an assistant professor becomes too expensive the college can simply not reappoint him.

I’m actually surprised that the academic market doesn’t induce more colleges to pay greater salaries to assistant professors than to non-superstar tenured professors. Tenured professors, however, have on average vastly greater bureaucratic power than their untenured co-workers and perhaps such power discrepancies explain why at most colleges tenured professors earn more than assistant professors.

Some might claim that not rewarding tenured professors for their long experience would harm their morale. But I wonder how many talented assistant professors have had their morale damaged (or indeed have even voluntarily left academe) because they are paid less than some of their less talented and less hardworking senior colleagues.

James D. Miller
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James D. Miller is an associate professor of economics at Smith College. He is the author of a newly published Principles of Microeconomics textbook.

Incentivizing Failure: AIG and the Academy

America is up in arms about bonuses for AIG executives who raked up astronomical losses that have (almost) brought our economy to its knees. While most Americans have to deal with the fear of (or actual) job losses, declining values of their homes, evaporating retirement funds, they see hundreds of millions of their tax dollars being paid to the very individuals who created this mess. Compensation practices at AIG and other Wall Street firms not only violated a common sense of fairness, they also turned out to be self-destructive: they rewarded excessive risk-taking and disincentivized responsible risk underwriting at AIG or responsible banking practices at Citibank, Bank of America and others.

Seduced by the enormous rewards associated with betting on derivatives, AIG executives (and the bankers at the other firms) sabotaged their ability to perform the important but more mundane tasks of insuring the homes and retirements of the average tax payer or lending to the businesses that employ them. And they never realized they were cutting off the branch on which they sat until they dropped.…

In higher education we might shake our heads over the insane amounts of money involved, but when it comes to warped reward systems that sabotage an entire profession’s ability to perform its most important function, we don’t have to look far.

A few weeks ago I talked with the provost of a large research university. When the conversation touched on faculty priorities, the provost explained the parameters that determine career progression and remuneration at her institution. They are not very different from those at most research universities in this country and might sound familiar to many. Her hierarchy (in order of importance) of what faculty should do to be considered successful and paid generously was something like this:

a) Win a Nobel Prize
b) Write a research grant that attracts millions of dollars from the government (if the money comes from the NSF or the NIH instead of the treasury it is not called a bailout, but a “research grant”)
c) Conduct research, publish profusely and speak on as many conferences as possible to generate publicity, win prizes and have their research quoted by others
d) Secure patents on their research
e) Write a textbook that becomes a standard in their field
f) Sit on a few doctoral committees to attract and nurture the next generation of researchers
g) Teach a basic undergraduate courses that prepare students for the more demanding classes in the junior and senior year or graduate school
h) Be an effective adviser

She pointed out that while a) - e) have direct financial rewards attached to them, f) - h) do not. But then she made an important point that shows that the warped logic of AIG’s compensation system is alive and well on our campuses: “The punishment for being a good adviser is that you get more advisees. That makes sure that you have less time to do any of the activities a) - e). The more you do for student retention and success, the more you cement your status at the bottom of the pecking order. And that is not lost on our faculty.”

The result? In this case a freshman drop-out rate of 18% (which is still below the national average of 25 percent, but much higher than it should be). If faculty are focused more on research than on the success of their students, they are behaving rationally and in accordance with the metrics used by their employer. On many campuses teaching and advising are considered to be hard or impossible to measure, ergo they do not get rewarded, ergo it is considered acceptable and inevitable that too little time and effort are invested in them.

But is this more than just a lame excuse? Systems to assess the effectiveness of teaching have been around for a while. And now there are systems that measure the effectiveness of advising, too. Yes, the effectiveness of teaching and advising can be measured! The true reason they are not seems to be that it is a lot sexier to chase the fast rewards of large research grants than to focus on the mundane tasks of making students successful.

Faculty embrace the value system of their employers as much as the executives of AIG’s Financial Products Division used to. Similarly, their bosses in the cabinets of their institutions seem to have lost focus on their core missions as much as the management committee of AIG had during the derivatives bubble. The coming lean years will show how much of the branches that support our higher ed institutions have been cut away in the past by a compensation system that incentivizes failure not only of students, but maybe also of entire institutions.

Christoph Knoess
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Christoph Knoess, is a higher education consultant and founder of Engaged Minds, a services company focused on increasing student retention and success. His Web site is at http://www.engagedmindsinc.com.

A Crisis of Ethic Proportion

The financial sector catastrophe and consequent worldwide recession are a crisis of “ethic” proportion, in Vanguard founder John Bogle’s words. Higher education’s own responsibility for the failures of ethical leadership in business, the gatekeeper professions, and government should trigger a careful self-assessment. Could it be that the academic profession, whose members both educate and serve as role models in the formation years for leaders in business, government, and all the other peer review professions, is falling short in its own ethical responsibilities?

A major theme of "The Future of the Professoriate: Academic Freedom, Peer Review, and Shared Governance," the first in the Association of American Colleges and Universities' new Intentional Leadership in the New Academy series of essays, is that the academic profession has been failing for many years in its ethical duty to acculturate new entrants into the tradition and ethics of the profession. The central argument in "The Future of the Professoriate" is that members of a peer-review profession cannot aggressively justify and defend their control over professional work when they do not both understand the profession’s social contract and internalize their responsibilities under the social contract. The social contract of each peer-review profession is the tacit agreement between society and members of a profession that regulates their relationship with each other, in particular the profession’s control over professional work. Essentially, in order for the public to grant a peer-review profession more autonomy and control over the work different from the control that society and employers exercise over other occupations, the public must trust that the profession and its members will use the autonomy at least to some degree to benefit the public in the area of the profession’s responsibility, not abuse occupational control over the work merely to serve self-interest.

The simple fact is that all the data available indicate that a substantial proportion of graduate students and faculty members do not clearly understand the profession's social contract, academic freedom, shared governance, and each professor's and the faculty's specific duties that justify the profession's claims to autonomy. Osmosis-like diffusion of these concepts and duties does not work. There must be required education on professional ethics for graduate students and entering and veteran faculty just as there is for law students in all states and members of the legal profession in many states. (Academic Ethics (American Council on Education/Oryx Press, 2002) outlines the content of this education.)

The governing boards of many colleges and universities represent the public in the social contract between the public and the academic profession. "The Future of the Professoriate" argues that the boards and their senior administrative teams have faced substantial market changes in higher education in recent decades; the current budgetary disaster driven by reduced taxpayer support for public higher education and reduced endowments is among the most difficult of these market changes. While members of all peer-review professions carry an ongoing burden to justify to the public (and the boards representing the public) the profession’s occupational control over the work, carrying this burden is particularly critical during a time of rapid market change.

The report's analysis is that during this period of market change, the academic profession has been almost totally missing in action in mounting a robust public defense of both how the public benefits from the profession’s autonomy and control over its work in the form of academic freedom, peer review, and shared governance and how the profession and its members are actively fulfilling their duties under the social contract. Paradoxically, while we are educators, we are not educating. The situation is similar to the failure of the medical profession to mount a robust public defense of its autonomy during the 1980s and 1990s when the health care market changed toward managed care that dramatically reduced the medical profession’s control over its professional work.

At a significant swath of institutions, the academic profession’s defense of the social contract has focused on rights and job security. As Eliot Freidson in Professionalism: The Third Logic (University of Chicago Press, 2001) has observed, when the peer-review professions defend their social contracts, they typically rely on a rhetoric of rights, job security, and “good intentions, which [are] belied by the patently self-interested character of many of their activities. What they almost never do is spell out the principles underlying the institutions that organize and support the way they do their work and take active responsibility for [the realization of the principles].” They do not undertake responsibility for assuring the quality of their members’ work. The academic profession’s anemic defense of its social contract confirms Freidson’s observation.

The predicable result of an anemic defense of a profession’s social contract during a time of market change is that the society and employers will restructure control of the profession’s work toward the regulatory and employer control typical for other occupations -- essentially the default employment arrangements in a market economy. This is what has been happening to the academic profession. The boards at many colleges and universities have been renegotiating a sweeping change in the academic profession’s social contract over many years to reduce the profession’s autonomy and control over professional work. "The Future of the Professoriate" details how the renegotiation is most evident with the dramatic increase in contingent faculty to the point that, by 2003, 59 percent of all newly hired full-time faculty started in non-tenure-track positions.

The academic profession must not resign itself to the current trend toward contingent faculty, but it cannot reverse the trends toward a higher proportion of contingent faculty and less occupational control over professional work by employing a rhetoric of rights, job security, and good intentions. However, professors cannot defend the social contract without both having the knowledge necessary to make the defense and actively meeting their duties under the social contract. The single most important step for the profession is improving the acculturation of graduate students and veteran academics into the tradition and ethics of the profession. The best starting point at each institution may be a simple faculty self-assessment of the degree to which the faculty is helping new and veteran faculty members understand and internalize both the minimum standards of competence and ethical conduct for the profession (the ethics of duty) and the core values and ideals of the profession (the ethics of aspiration).

If the academic profession at many institutions does not undertake these responsibilities, then this crisis of ethic proportion will continue, and the trajectory for the academic profession for the next twenty years will, in all likelihood, look like the trajectory for the last thirty years. Members of the profession will continue a slow transformation toward employment as technical experts subject to the dominant market model of employer control over work.

While many in the profession believe the battle is against oppressive governing boards, administrators, and market forces, the battle is actually for the soul of the profession. Imagine a world in which each professor at an institution had fully internalized the tradition and ethics of the profession. We are educators. From a position of knowledge and moral authority, not just self-interest, we could then convince the public -- and, most importantly, the governing boards and administrative leadership who are trustees for the public good of creating and disseminating knowledge -- that academic freedom, peer review, and shared governance best serve the institution’s mission.

Neil W. Hamilton
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Neil Hamilton is professor of law and director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas.

'Holy Grail' of Reform

Suppose you are an ambitious, gifted college student with a passion for your major and the potential to become a world-class college teacher. You are precisely the person parents and taxpayers want to be teaching tomorrow’s students. Furthermore, private and public spending per college student has grown faster than median household incomes for the past three decades, suggesting that people are willing to pay more for your services. You want this career, parents/taxpayers want you to have this career, and they are willing to pay for it; what wonderful prospects!

During your undergraduate studies you were introduced to several luminaries in your field who receive considerable attention from the news media and are often on the lecture circuit. They are well-known for their six-figure salaries and commanding positions in your discipline. So far, it’s all good. Except …

Unfortunately, the luminosity of the luminaries has nothing to do with their teaching prowess; it is entirely due to their scholarship. There is a thriving market for senior scholars in higher education -- a market that brings plenty of release time from teaching, along with high salaries and fame.

There is no corresponding market for world-class teachers. No one in higher education becomes famous or well-compensated for exceptional teaching. How could this happen, since the students, parents, and taxpayers (those who pay the bills) have only a passing interest in research, but an abiding and personal stake in high-quality teaching?

Before we address that question, it is important to note there are many social benefits to be derived from an efficient market for senior scholars; the existence of that market is not the problem. Only spite and envy would ban the market for scholars as some ill-conceived “fix” for the imbalance between teaching and research. The correct response is to learn why we have a market for scholars and no market for teachers.

The critical reason why one market exists and the other does not is the information available to potential employers. Potential employers of professors have sufficient information to judge scholarly productivity, but virtually no information that would allow them to judge teaching productivity.

Institutions seeking to hire exceptional scholars can identify productive scholars at other institutions. The information they need is provided by outside sources that are independent of the scholar’s home institution, the scholar in question, and the potential employer. That information comes from the journals where the scholar publishes, books they’ve written, citations by other scholars, and their reputation among other scholars in the field.

None of this information exists for gifted teachers, and as a consequence, a potential employer seeking gifted teachers cannot identify those candidates. This creates a real problem for the potential employer. The teacher’s home institution may know who is an exceptional teacher and who is not, but too many institutions don’t even bother to find out.

If the potential employer makes an offer to a candidate and that candidate is in fact a gifted teacher, the home institution will make a counter offer. If the candidate is in fact a poor or average teacher, the home institution will not make a counter offer and the potential employer is likely to hire a poor or average teacher. This leads to what economists call “adverse selection” for job offers to potential teachers. Since the prospective employer knows it is likely to hire a poor or average teacher rather than an exceptional teacher, it does not make offers designed to attract exceptional teachers, and the market for exceptional teachers does not exist. Clearly, this problem is made worse by tenure, since tenure greatly increases the cost of making a bad hiring decision. In short, the “market for superior teaching” has unraveled due to insufficient information about teaching quality.

What does this mean for our prospective college teacher? First, he or she will not be able to find a Ph.D. program that specializes in preparing world-class college teachers; all the Ph.D. programs try to produce scholars, even when their own faculty members are not good enough to adequately train a new scholar. Most of these second- and third-tier Ph.D. programs could succeed in training teachers, but they do not because all the rewards in the faculty tenure and promotion process go to scholarship.

Second, the lack of a market for teaching creates a real dilemma for a new Ph.D. starting an academic career. If he starts his career on the teaching track, his future employment opportunities are limited to the teaching track since it is the information attached to research output that enables outside job offers and he will not have time to do research. Further, if he gets tenure through teaching, he will never be able to move to another comparable institution with tenure; the tenured teacher is stuck at his home institution and his employer knows he is stuck. On the other hand, if he starts on the research track, there is a chance he can move up the quality rankings, gaining more salary and fame if he succeeds as a researcher.

Now, suppose we have two fully informed young people: one aspires to be a world-class scholar and the other aspires to be a world-class teacher. They are about to make their career choices. The fully informed potential scholar chooses an academic career and the fully informed potential teacher decides to apply her talents to some other career. The few talented potential teachers who choose college teaching careers are those who derive significant personal satisfaction from teaching (despite the lack of public acclaim or financial rewards) or are very risk-averse (they crave the economic security provided by a tenured position).

What does this mean for college prices and quality? Since there are few rewards for teaching, faculty members focus too much on scholarship. Rather aspiring to be well-balanced teacher/scholars, faculty members become slaves to scholarship. We have a similar result for institutions. “Mission creep” among colleges and universities is partially due to the imbalance in the rewards for teaching and research. Colleges and universities try to become research institutions, rather than world-class undergraduate teaching institutions. As great teachers are discouraged from becoming professors, and as professors are discouraged from focusing on teaching, undergraduate teaching quality declines steadily over time.

Some may argue that an active research agenda improves teaching quality, but the evidence proves otherwise. A meta-analysis of the studies looking at the relationship between research and teaching by John Hattie and H. W. Marsh finds that they are completely unrelated. Nor is it hard to imagine why -- more research means less time for teaching.

Why has this obvious imbalance existed for so long? First, the average faculty member has nothing to gain from correcting the problem. This is obvious if the average faculty member is a scholar, but, it is also true if the average faculty member is a teacher, as the average teacher is by definition not a world-class teacher (out of the entire population of potential teachers, the current system weeds out a disproportionate share of good teachers and encourages the rest to focus on research, meaning that the current crop consists of below-average teachers).

Further, teaching institutions have little incentive to correct the problem. If they compete for students by publicly promoting their exceptional teachers, they run the risk of having those teachers hired by another institution, and they strengthen the teacher’s negotiating position with respect to the institution. In other words, recognizing the exceptional teachers increases their mobility and raises the probability they will be hired by others. Even among teaching institutions, colleges do not invest in the personal reputations of individual teachers; they always tout the high-quality teaching of their faculty as a group (everyone is above average). While there are a plethora of campus teaching awards and recognitions, they count for little outside their home institutions. Prospective employers know that most institutions do not make a serious attempt to measure individual value added and that leads teaching awards to be more political than they should be.

Even if the home institution sincerely wants to compete on the basis of high-value-added teaching, it has no way of changing the environment it operates in. If it is the only institution to identify and promote their exceptional teachers, those teachers can be lured away by other institutions, and the rest of the faculty will resent the recognition given to exceptional teachers (current teaching awards do not lead to this behavior because no one knows what a teaching award at different institution signifies).

What Can Be Done?

The “holy grail” of higher education reform should be the creation of a market for exceptional college teachers. The vigorous market for scholars provides the keys to this project. First, the information required does not have to be perfect in order for the market to be efficient (the information about scholars is not perfect). Second, the source of this information should be independent of the individual teachers, their home institutions, and their potential employers. There is great hope that the Web will be the requisite outside platform. Intercollegiate teaching tournaments are another possibility, as are digital course offerings.

The key requirement is a mechanism for excellent teachers to establish their reputations independently of those who have a vested interest in the outcome. Once that happens, teachers will no longer be filtered out of the pool of professors, as they are now. As a result, great teachers will enter the profession in greater numbers, and existing professors will have incentives to improve their teaching as well.

Robert Martin and Andrew Gillen
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Robert Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College and author of The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality (Edward Elgar, Ltd., forthcoming). Andrew Gillen is the research director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

Newly Tenured ... at California Lutheran, Campbellsville, Middlebury, Northland

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The following individuals have recently been awarded tenure by their colleges and universities:

California Lutheran University

--Rainer Diriwächter, psychology
--Helen Ahn Lim, criminal justice
--Michael Pearce, art

Campbellsville University

--Richard E. Corum, business administration
--Beverly Ennis, education
--Donna Irwin Hedgepath, education
--Helen Mudd, social work
--Jeanette Parker, psychology
--Craig Rogers, psychology
--Brenda Tungate, biology

Middlebury College

Newly Tenured ... at Greensboro, Northeastern, Washington

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The following individuals have recently been awarded tenure by their colleges and universities:

Greensboro College
--Michael A. Dutch, business administration and economics

Motivating the Reluctant Retiree (Singular)

Smart Title: 
Colleges' incentives for older professors often woo those the institutions really want to keep. U. of Colorado found a way to single out individuals.

New Orleans, Back in the Fold

Smart Title: 
AAUP clears two New Orleans universities from its censure list, but cites Bethune-Cookman, Idaho State and RPI.

Layoffs and Turmoil

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Cuts in California's Ventura County Community College District infuriate professors and students.

Something for Everyone

Smart Title: 
A new contract at Temple will make tenure harder to get -- and provide new benefits for full-timers off the tenure track.


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