What Are Faculty Paid, and Why?

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a Pope Center series exploring finances of the UNC system in order to better understand whether the system is properly acting as a fiduciary of taxpayer money.

Despite warnings from the AAUP’s yearly study on faculty compensation suggesting that faculty salaries are dangerously low, the fact is that professors in the UNC system earn generous incomes. On average, full-time tenured faculty make much more than North Carolina’s median household income, which was $44,670 according to the 2007 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau.

For example, a full professor at East Carolina University earns, on average, $94,893 per year. The person on the lowest level of the tenure-track ladder at ECU earns, on average, $65,819. These figures do not include the value of benefits, which add 20 to 30 percent to each salary, according to Academe, the American Association of University Professors’ monthly magazine. And their pay is for nine months. Those who are not on the tenure track, including instructors and lecturers, earn less. Their salaries are mostly above the state household average, but occasionally lower.

Average salaries of full time instructional staff

Keep in mind that these data only reflect full-time faculty. Adjunct professors and graduate students—who teach an increasing percentage of undergraduate courses—receive significantly lower compensation. When I taught my own course at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2005, the stipend for graduate teaching assistants was $7,000 per semester (and less than that if you taught over the summer). Adjuncts, often hired for specific courses, make even less, sometimes as little as $2,000 per course.

Individual professors’ salaries, by name, are available at the News & Observer’s database, here.

If teaching a class is worth as little as $2,000 to universities, and if many full professors teach, say, two to three classes per semester, how can professors at UNC-Chapel Hill make well over $100,000 per year? After all, the university could presumably spend $8,000 to cover the costs of their courses over a nine-month year.

At least part of the answer lies in the fact that many professors conduct research, in addition to taking on other non-instructional duties. And research funds sometimes allow them to “buy out” some of their teaching requirements.

Professors divide their time among various responsibilities. According to one official list, these may include teaching, scholarship, technological and managerial innovation, creative artistry and literature, and service. At land-grant universities—N.C. State and N.C. A&T—some professors have extension responsibilities, which consist of outreach to the community, reflecting the original mission of these initially agricultural universities. According to Betsy Brown, vice provost for faculty affairs at N.C State, most professors are actively engaged in three or four of the categories. Forty percent teaching, forty percent research, and twenty percent extension would not be an unusual division of time. For others, service might replace extension. NCSU uses a detailed contract called a statement of mutual expectations to formalize these responsibilities.

The extent of teaching by faculty is not determined by chance. In 1995, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted a law called “Rewarding Faculty Teaching” (HB 229, Section 15.9). It required the UNC Board of Governors to “implement a system to monitor faculty teaching workloads on the campuses of the constituent institutions.” The Board’s plan sets out expectations for teaching loads, with minimum course loads per year (two semesters) as follows:

  • Research Universities I (these are the most research-intensive universities): UNC-CH, NCSU, UNCG, NC A&T: 4 courses (2 per semester)
  • Doctoral Universities I: ECU, UNCC: 5 courses (2.5 per semester, on average)
  • Masters (Comprehensive) I: NCCU, WCU, ASU, UNCW, UNCP, FSU: 6 courses (3 per semester)
  • Baccalaureate (Liberal Arts) I: UNCA: 8 courses (4 per semester)
  • Baccalaureate (Liberal Arts) II: ECSU, WSSU, UNCSA: 8 courses (4 per semester)

Where do the funds come from?

The basic salary for most faculty members, particularly those on tenure-track appointments, is paid out of state appropriations. Some professors, mostly in the sciences, are also paid using grant funds from the federal government, private funds, or other state sources.

Faculty members with substantial grants can “buy out” some of their teaching time (thus teaching fewer than the expected number of courses). Stephen Margolis, a former department head at N.C. State, explains how the buy-out process works in the economics department. “For example, if a professor had a large enough grant and would be spending a lot of time working on it, she might have some part of her grant funds transferred to her department in exchange for some reduction of her teaching obligations.”

Such a professor might reduce her teaching load from four courses a year to three, and she would transfer 15 to 20 percent of her salary from the grant to the department, to be used to purchase teaching for that course. “The deals will differ across colleges and across departments,” says Margolis.

Margolis explains that departments have strong incentives to make such arrangements. Professors who buy out for research purposes still teach the advanced or specialized courses, “with the course reductions being the more generic courses that are readily staffed. So the department can keep the faculty members’ most valuable teaching contributions and usually get back more funds than they need to replace the lost teaching.” That leaves funds that can be used “to do things like support grad students.”

In some medical and clinical programs, faculty members are hired with the expectation that they will earn all their funding through grants. However, says Vice Provost Brown at N.C. State, that arrangement is very rare throughout the UNC system. “This type of arrangement occurs with non-tenure track faculty only.”

Available information suggests a few trends. Since UNC-Chapel Hill’s financial data are readily available, I’ll use Carolina as a case study to examine them.

To begin with, pay varies by field of study, as these data on full-time permanent tenured and tenure track faculty reveal. An assistant professor (the lowest level of professor) in the department of education makes, on average, $60,933, while an assistant professor in the Kenan Flagler Business School makes, on average, $147,000. Many assistant professors in health affairs make even more.

Within the College of Arts and Sciences—the largest school at UNC-Chapel Hill, with more than 600 faculty members—salaries differ among disciplines. For example, full professors in social and behavioral sciences (which include such departments as economics, psychology, and political science) are the most highly paid—an average of $133,542 compared with $122,667 in the natural sciences and math (departments such as biology and mathematics). But at the associate professorial level, the average salary in the social and behavioral sciences is $85,443, slightly below that of the average associate professor in the natural sciences and math, $91,898. Faculty in the arts and humanities are the lowest paid in all professorial levels.

A look at the state’s budget information about state appropriations at Chapel Hill, provided on Carolina’s finance webpage, provides faculty salaries in lump sums. In 2004-05, for example, the state appropriated $318,555,000, for “Regular Term Instruction” for UNC-Chapel Hill. In contrast, it reported a comparatively tiny amount—only $8,773,000—for “Organized Research.” The description of the budget indicates that the “regular term instruction” includes amounts devoted to research, although it does not spell them out. Departments’ reports that research constitutes 30 to 40 percent of faculty time suggest that a considerable amount of money appropriated for “Regular Term Instruction” pays for departmental research.

Federal data are also somewhat blurry when it comes to differentiating between teaching and research. Universities follow GASB accounting standards when reporting data to the federal government. These standards don’t require all professors’ public service and research activities to be budgeted separately. Thus, the federal data also give the appearance of more instruction than may actually be going on, in comparison with research. Andrew Gillen and Rich Vedder point out in their paper North Carolina’s Higher Education System: Success or Failure that “some ‘instructional costs’ likely include research activities, at least those funded by the institution through low teaching loads for faculty.”

Another observation from the UNC-CH data is that full-time tenure-track faculty members make more than their non-tenured peers—not a surprise to anyone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the last ten years, the average salary for Ph.Ds has dropped ten percent. Many graduate students spent countless hours obtaining their Ph.Ds only to find that universities are hiring fewer tenure-track professors. (My colleague, George Leef points out that universities are over-producing Ph.Ds, given the limited and declining number of tenure-track positions. Thus, many scholars with recent Ph.Ds cannot get tenure-track positions, so they seek adjunct positions, driving salaries down for these slots.)

In summary, available data show that most faculty members are well-paid—but that salaries vary considerably among disciplines. The outlook for future Ph.Ds may not be as rosy. Despite the fact that universities, the state of North Carolina, and the federal government make a lot of data available to the public, there are still some unanswered questions about how much taxpayers are paying for research.

The first story in this series on transparency was “How UNC Spends Its Money,” posted on December 17, 2009.