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Education: 2010: A Window for the Ivory Tower

by Robert VerBruggen

At state universities, faculty compensation should be more transparent

Are faculty members at state colleges paid too much? As states sort out their budget crises and students face ever-higher tuition bills, that question will become increasingly important in the coming years. After all, states spend about 9 percent of their budgets on higher education, and public colleges direct more than a third of their expenditures to professor compensation (and another tenth to administrator compensation).

But in many states, it’s hard for the public to find the answer. As the University of New Mexico’s independent Daily Lobo newspaper noted earlier this year:

The UNM salary book is only available in Zimmerman Library for two hours. The book is about two inches thick and lists each UNM employee in alphabetical order. No electronic copy of the book exists, so students, staff, faculty and community members interested in learning how tax dollars are being spent must sign up in Zimmerman and make sure to return the document in two hours.

Also, interested UNM employees at statewide branch campuses must drive for hours to Albuquerque and can’t bring it back with them to show interested peers. And since the book only lists employees by name rather than position, department or salary, representatives from peer institutions who are interested in doing salary comparisons must know the name of someone in the department in order to generate a meaningful comparison. Graduate and professional students use the book every year to research TA and GA salaries, but, since the book is only in print, the students have to rifle through pages of small text for hours to find the positions in question and then must create a new spreadsheet of the relevant data.

Fortunately, there’s a movement under way to change practices like this. Not only do some states post compensation data online, but one university system, Texas A&M, is pioneering a new way to provide information about how colleges spend taxpayer money.

The problem is that even in convenient digital form, raw salary numbers don’t tell the public much. Professors with better qualifications or greater teaching loads, for example, should receive higher pay. Without more information, there’s no way to know whether the public is getting a good deal for the money it spends. So Texas A&M is developing a formula to determine how much money each instructor in the A&M system brings in.

A&M isn’t using any information that isn’t public, and it’s able to do this because Texas already has an unusually high level of transparency. Last year, legislators passed a law requiring university websites to provide professors’ salaries, résumés, class syllabi, and even student evaluations within three clicks of the home page. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board makes a lot of other information available to the public.

To be sure, the A&M project is a work in progress. The proposal traces its roots to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which suggested dividing each professor’s compensation by the number of students he taught, and then factoring in his student evaluations, the number of A’s and B’s he awarded, and (for high-cost profs) the amount of research he published. The A&M project is a little different in its particulars: It subtracts each professor’s compensation from the tuition money he generates (a professor is credited for a portion of tuition from each student he teaches, weighted to give extra credit to profs who teach small, high-level courses), and also lists information about how much research money he brings in. This information shows which professors, departments, and universities are costing the system more than they’re producing. The numbers aren’t all finalized yet, but they seem to indicate that every university in the system is in the black, though some individual departments are not.

Critics have not been shy to point out that this setup leaves out plenty of important details. Professors receive no credit for writing books without external funding, helping students outside of class, or being evaluated highly by their students. And even a formula that somehow took account of all these factors would be open to the charge that it gave too much weight to some and not enough to others. (How much should state-run schools value research tasks as opposed to teaching tasks?) Further, while tuition and research money may represent funds brought into the A&M system, much of that money comes from federal and state governments anyway — and therefore, from a taxpayer perspective, it’s irrelevant whether the system is “in the black” by this measurement.

And the project has been a PR disaster. Though A&M brass swear they have no plans to use the formula to fire or compensate individual instructors (they just want to show the public what a great deal it’s getting), professors have complained to the Texas Tribune and other media that they’re being treated like widget makers on an assembly line. Also, when, in response to open-records requests from several media outlets, A&M made a draft of its report available online, numerous professors claimed the report overstated their salaries. On the university’s website, the document was replaced with one explaining that “in light of the feedback received, the data contained in the FY 2009 ‘Academic Financial Data Compilation’ is being reviewed and analyzed.”

Nonetheless, the folks at A&M are on to something: At public universities, not only should faculty salaries be transparent, but they should be available side by side with various measures of the value that professors provide to the university system. It may be a bit absurd for A&M to calculate every professor’s value in dollar terms, but it’s not at all unreasonable for the public to expect detailed and easy-to-read data about what its money is buying.

“It’s a great first step — the more data that’s available, the better, and the more policymakers and taxpayers can see where the money is going,” says the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s vice president, Justin Keener. “The data provided is fantastic, but there are ways to improve it, such as including the cost of overhead and administration.”

Also, greater transparency is the only way the public can play a role in reforming the higher-education system’s compensation structure. As Christopher Shea wrote in the New York Times, commenting on the book Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus:

Tenured and tenure-track professors earn most of the money and benefits, but they’re a minority at the top of the pyramid. Nearly two-thirds of all college teachers are non-tenure-track adjuncts like Matt Williams, who told Hacker and Dreifus he had taught a dozen courses at two colleges in the Akron area the previous year, earning the equivalent of $8.50 an hour by his reckoning.

The average compensation of a full professor at a public university, meanwhile, is well above $100,000, according to a survey conducted annually by the American Association of University Professors. Some professors make several times that, and with tenure, they’re difficult to fire when they underperform.

Of course, many highly paid professors pull their weight by bringing in research money, and others are leaders in their fields who make their universities more attractive to students. And if private schools wish to pay large salaries, that is their right. But when it comes to government-run universities, the public should know who the high earners are and why they receive so much money. Comprehensive transparency measures like Texas A&M’s will give the public a way to determine who’s earning his keep, and to put pressure on lawmakers to keep compensation under control.

Especially in tough economic and budgetary times, every aspect of government spending must be open to public scrutiny. University compensation data are no exception, and Texas A&M deserves praise for its innovation in this area — even if the exact method it developed needs some work.

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