Faculty salaries at major universities across the nation remain unaffected despite widespread budget and general economic woes.
Salaries for professors across the country rose by 3.9 percent last year, well above the inflation rate, according to the American Association of University Professors. According to USA Today, Weill Cornell Medical College Prof. Zev Rosenwaks, obstetrics and gynecology, allegedly earned a paycheck of $3.1 million last year, the fifth highest salary at any U.S. college.
The median salaries at the endowed colleges during the 2008-2009 school year were $93,500 for assistant professors, $109,800 for associate professors and $154,300 for full professors, according to data from the AAUP.
According to Provost Kent Fuchs, Cornell has attempted to sustain professors’ salaries.
“We are having a salary freeze instead of a salary cut,” Fuchs said. “We need to keep up the salaries to remain competitive with our peer institutions.”
“I don’t think the professors are paid too much,” Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, economics, said. “The [multimillion dollar salaries] for the medical school professors also include income from their clinical practice and the sports coaches get funding from the media in addition to their salaries. We need to keep up with what our competitors are doing. We do not want to give people the impression that things are worse here than elsewhere. That way, they will start looking for jobs and it would become difficult to retain them.”
[img_assist|nid=37276|title=Faculty Salaries Across the Ivies|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
However, some faculty members believe steady faculty salaries are straining the University’s budget.
“The budget cuts in the University have mostly been portrayed as repercussions of the economy and the shrinking endowment,” Prof. Thomas Ruttledge, chemistry, said. “That doesn’t seem true. Information for faculty says major parts of the deficit come from poor spending decisions in the past several years,” he added.
According to Ruttledge, administrators such as Provost Kent Fuchs have been having frank conversations with faculty members about Cornell’s financial situation, discussing matters such as the spending decisions that are public information but not published on paper. Expensive construction projects and high faculty salaries are two major factors, Ruttledge said.
“Cutting [salaries] is painful, but I wonder if we need to compete with institutions like Chicago, Harvard, and Stanford at all [in terms of salary levels]. Those schools are located in urban areas with large costs of living relative to Ithaca.”
According to data from ACCRA, the composite cost of living index for New York City is 212.1, but for Buffalo — another upstate New York city similar to Ithaca — the index is only 98.8.
Ehrenberg has suggested to the U.S. News and World Report that the faculty salaries used to calculate the rankings should be adjusted for relative cost of living of the city which the school is located in; however, USNWR ignored his suggestions.
Although faculty salary expenditures are large at Cornell, reducing these costs is a complicated problem. According to USNWR’s national university ranking methodologies, 7 percent of the school’s assessment score is devoted to the competitiveness of its faculty salaries. A decrease in salaries relative to peer institutions would therefore decrease Cornell’s rankings.
Cutting professor salaries would also discourage students from pursuing research and Ph.D. studies, Ehrenberg said. In fields such as engineering, science and economics, this is a smaller concern because there are enough lucrative alternatives for Ph.D. graduates to still make Ph.D. studies attractive; however, in the humanities, few competitive options lie outside academia, and an across-the-board decrease of salary prospects in academic would seriously impact the quality of the next generation of scholars, according to Ehrenberg.
Reducing the number of faculty members is also difficult, according to Ehrenberg. There is no buyout plan available for faculty because most faculty members are very attached to their jobs, and the retirement incentive they need is too large. Due to the financial downturn, retirement accounts suffered huge losses, reducing professors’ wealth and making retirement even less appealing.
In addition, according to Ehrenberg, the common interpretation of “tenure” includes a stable salary, thus the salaries of the tenured professors will only decrease under unusual circumstances. Due to the 1987 amendments to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, there is no longer mandatory retirement for tenured professors, which means professors are welcome to stay at their jobs for as long as they wish, and the administration cannot legally interfere without “just cause”.
“Personally, I don’t think there should be tenure without mandatory retirement,” Ehrenberg said. “We need to work on making [the position of] Professor Emeritus more desirable,”
Cornell’s salary ranks one of the highest at the assistant professor level, averaging at about 10th place in the past decade. The relative salary decreases steadily for associate and full professors, according to Ehrenberg’s book, Tuition Rising.
“As professors become older and tenured, they become less mobile,” Ehrenberg said. “I’ve been here for … 30 years? I wouldn’t want to leave all my friends and colleagues.”
Cornell also has a different tenure scheme relative to some comparable institutions. According to Ehrenberg, approximately 50 to 70 percent of Cornell’s assistant professors will eventually receive tenure, therefore Cornell must maintain a competitive assistant professor salary in order to attract the young professors with the most potential. Schools like Princeton, however, rarely grant tenure. Princeton’s full professor salary is so high, according to Ehrenberg, because the majority of their full professors are bought from other institutions rather than internally promoted, which is very costly.
Faculty in areas with multiple competitive schools such as Boston (which is home to Harvard, MIT and BU) or San Francisco (home to Stanford and Berkeley) do not have to relocate their families if presented the opportunity to change their jobs. Therefore, schools in these areas must offer salaries high enough to prevent top notch faculty from transferring to their neighboring institutions.
“Of course I hesitate to say anyone is making too much, but when we go on elusive chases with [schools in urban areas with higher costs of living and more peer competition] [while] we are in an unique situation where we are in [an isolated,] lower cost area, we would be at a disadvantage,” he said.
According to Ruttledge, many staff members have expressed willingness to take on a 5 percent pay cut in order to prevent staff layoffs.
“I am willing to go on the record and say I am willing to consider a cut in my salary if it will have a positive effect on the University,” Ruttledge said.
The staff members that are laid off are tremendously valuable to Cornell, according to Ruttledge. In the chemistry department, teaching associates, professional teachers who lead labs and recitation sessions will be replaced by graduate students next year.
“Some of these [associates] have 20 plus years of experience,” Ruttledge said. “I’m sure some grad T.A.s will do a superb job, but they lack the depth of experience of the associates. [Experienced associates] allow faculty to concentrate on pedagogy, and teaching at Cornell will be compromised.”
“A lot of difficult decisions have to be made [by the administrators], and I have met a lot of faculty members who are willing to discuss areas where savings can happen,” he said. “The answer is not staff contraction. Redesigning and laminating the system is possible in any organization the size of Cornell,” he added.
“I’m glad that we have a cardiologist as President,” Ehrenberg said. “Doctors constantly make difficult decisions, and the current situation is [certainly not painless].”