Myth of overpaid professors


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Some students at the University of Iowa are fortunate enough to be unaware of Tim Pawlenty.

Pawlenty is the former governor of my home state of Minnesota and a 2012 Republican presidential hopeful. He’s also a self-professed tax hater who has oddly never met a “fee” he didn’t like. Imposing a statewide “fee” probably sounds better on his presidential résumé.

But those students who attended his speech at the UI on Feb. 7 may remember him as the clean-cut social conservative who said that our faculty are being paid too much.

These statements also shed light on a small but disturbing trend in campus discourse amid the backlash against proposed tuition hikes — namely, the idea that the state Board of Regents is requesting too much money because our faculty are overpaid. Protesting decreasing state funding for the UI and demanding lower tuition are righteous causes; calling for professors to take pay cuts is not.

This admonishment comes at a time when UI professors are being forced to take cuts in benefits and increased workloads that they could easily avoid by moving to more lucrative posts at private universities. Our professors are certainly not overpaid.

Of course, Pawlenty felt no need to support his rhetoric with actual facts.

If he had researched the issue, he might have found that the average annual salary for a full professor at the UI is $123,695, according to the provost’s 2010-11 annual faculty-salary report.

While this may sound like a lot, it’s important to note that this average is only for full professors. If the UI wants to continue attracting talented faculty, we will need to also offer competitive salaries for associate and assistant professors.

In the same report, the average salary for UI associate professors is $82,551, $73,853 for assistant professors. Certainly not a small amount, but these salaries are being paid to individuals who have achieved the highest level of academic study and research in their fields. Salaries for professors follow the norms of a competitive market.

Professors need to be paid well enough to want to stay at the UI, and their salaries reflect that.

Money is not the only factor influencing where professors decide to work, but it is important, as shown in a study in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2001.

The salary data in the study are outdated, but the principles remain true: If faculty have enough incentives to move elsewhere, they will.

In a ranking compiled by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the UI was ranked 54 out of 95 research institutions in average pay for full professors. In another ranking compiled by Ohio State University, the UI was ranked eighth out of 19, and in a similar ranking from Purdue University, the UI was in the mid-range again, ninth out of 14.

For associate professors, however, the UI was in the bottom half of rankings, ranked at 68th in the North Carolina compilation (along with 66th for assistant professors). Ahead of the UI in these categories were such schools as the University of Minnesota, University of Colorado-Denver, and Michigan State University.

Compared with faculty at similar institutions, UI faculty are not overpaid. Many may, in fact, be underpaid.

Their pay will probably not increase significantly in the near future, either; a 2010 study showed that professors’ salaries are increasing at their lowest recorded rate in 50 years.

If Pawlenty wants to find someone who is overpaid, he needs to look no further than Target Field in Minneapolis, where the Minnesota Twins are paying overweight, over-rated relief pitcher Matt Capps $7 million for what will certainly be a performance of magnificent mediocrity.

Of course, the success of the UI’s students and of higher education as a whole is more important than the success of the Twins. To give students the best education and to produce the best research, the UI needs to continue hiring the best professors. Let’s avoid throwing faculty under the bus in the crusade for affordable higher education and focus on fixing the budget in other areas to protect our tuition.

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