No excuses for media mistreatment of UNC-CH salary study

A recent study of faculty salaries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has revealed a significant salary gap between white male faculty and minority faculty. Now that this pay gap has been proven, it’s time for the university to address this obvious pay bias.

The next step is hard but clear: UNC-CH must take corrective action to pay white males more. The good news is at least they’re now getting paid more than females.

Sound shocking? Well, don’t get your dander up. The preceding paragraphs were merely a spoof of actual media treatment of the report.

It’s true that the study, “Report on the 2002 Faculty Salary Equity Study,” prepared by Drs. Lynn Williford and Bernadette Gray-Little, did find that white male faculty were paid significantly less than minority faculty — to the tune of $1,680 overall. The focus of media attention, however, was on the finding that women earned an average of $1,332 less than white males on campus. Their reaction reveals the rather curious lenses through which the media view issues of race and gender.

The UNC study “should spur the UNC system to determine whether women academicians are being fairly paid at its other 15 campuses — and if not, to take corrective action,” opined The News & Observer in a house editorial. “The good news from Chapel Hill is that the university has overcome a pay disparity that had affected its minority personnel.”

“UNC Salary Gap Found — But How to Fix It?” asked a headline in The Herald-Sun. In the accompanying story, reporter Eric Ferreri asks UNC-CH officials about how their reactions to and plans to address the salary inequity — the one between women and men. Provost Robert Shelton says “corrective action” is needed. Faculty Chairwoman Sue Estroff said the gap is “not insignificant” and that “It’s unacceptable for a university of this magnitude to have such a discrepancy in pay for female faculty.” UNC-CH Women’s Center head Diane Kjervik says the report “does confirm what we [female faculty] suspected.”

Ferreri also reports, “The women’s center will join with the Association of Women, Faculty and Professionals and the Faculty Council’s committee on the status of women to sponsor a series of discussion groups for female faculty in the coming days and weeks.”

“We have a problem, and it needs to be remedied,” Estroff says in the statewide Associated Press story on the report — again, referring only to the female salary disparity. She is quoted twice more about the “serious problem,” which “is systematic, and it is significant,” before the story mentions, in its eighth paragraph, that “The UNC-CH study showed a different picture for minorities.”

The fun thing in all this is that not only does the 14-page report downplay those same findings, its two-page executive summary does the same. Yet the media downplay — flat-out ignore, actually — that aspect of the report.

The report uses multiple regression analysis with a professor’s nine-month salary as the dependent variable, and it includes measures of education, discipline and market forces, professorial status and administrative roles, experience and service length, and career level along with gender and ethnicity as independent variables. As the report’s executive summary explains, “the strongest predictors of salary were those variables that we normally expect to be related to higher salaries: full professor rank, distinguished professorship, administrator of a large unit, tenure track appointment as opposed to fixed term, and specialization in a relatively high paying discipline.”

Furthermore, the summary explains, “After adjustments for the variables expected to be related to higher salaries, the variables gender and ethnicity contributed very little to the overall prediction of salaries” (emphasis added).

The salary gaps were covered in the next paragraph, which reads, “However, examination of the coefficients indicates that status as a minority member was positively related to salary in all but the School of Medicine analyses, where a very small negative differential was observed. Average female salaries lagged behind the average for the white male reference category in every analysis, ranging from a deficit of $1,169 in the College of Arts & Sciences to $9,293 in Clinical Medicine.”

The key paragraph, however, was the next one (emphasis added):

“Although the models developed are quite robust, the results indicate that between fifteen and twenty-five percent of the variability in faculty salaries was not explained by the analyses. This remaining variability is quite likely due to differences in the quality of faculty contributions that are not accounted for in the regression analyses. Therefore, the results of this study should be treated as preliminary only. Further analyses at the school/department level might focus on individuals with large negative disparities between their predicted and actual salaries in an attempt to determine what productivity differences or other factors might account for the observed gap.”

In short, the UNC-CH report found pay disparities between females and males and between minorities and white males. It also made clear that it cannot explain 15 to 25 percent of the variability and suggested that it’s likely due to the quality of productivity differences and other factors the study did not include. For that reason, the study explicitly explained that its results should be treated as preliminary only.

Regardless, the media have chosen to highlight just one of those disparities and ignore all of the report’s caveats. Why? Try to think of a single, good reason.