A worrisome dip in faculty salaries

As the state of Minnesota begins to tighten its collective budgetary belt, the University is already looking leaner. In a study presented to the Board of Regents last week, the American Association of University Professors reported the University had fallen two spots in the amount paid for full-time professors’ salaries. Although not the only criterion a potential professor considers, this data is an objective measure of faculty recruiting and could be a harbinger of darker days.

It is natural to expect the best and the brightest to go where they are best compensated. Indeed, according to the survey, the highest-paid faculty belongs to none other than Harvard University. And although students learn more with well-equipped libraries, research opportunities and modern classrooms, in the end the quality of their education, in important ways, comes down to the quality of the person on the other side of the podium. It is through the professor that the material is learned, that the subject is made the student’s own. The University has no more valuable resource. To ensure the quality of the University’s education, the University must be capable to compensate its faculty as they deserve.

There are factors other than salary that faculty take into account. Professors seek prestigious and renowned programs with which to associate themselves and enhance their own reputations. They desire stability and job security. They want to be part of a vibrant campus. So salary is not completely determinative. However, the current budget crunch also potentially damages the University in these other areas. University President Robert Bruininks has promised to evaluate all departments and consider nothing sacred when it comes to cuts. Although economically necessary, this instability would be a minus factor – on top of the reduced salary – for a faculty member considering joining or leaving the University.

As the legislators in St. Paul preach fiscal responsibility, they should bear this in mind: The University is already falling behind. Although the change is not yet drastic, to maintain itself as a premier research institution the University must retain its excellent faculty. If salaries become even less competitive and departments are unstable, the University could become a body without a spirit.