Recently hired professors may have less experience in UNC classrooms — but their salaries don't show it.
Professors discussed the lagging salaries at a Faculty Executive Committee meeting in January. They said new hires earned significantly more than established employees, who also receive minimal pay increases.
“A tenure-line person can come in having never taught a day in their life, and they’re making $15,000 to $20,000 more a year than I am starting out,” English and comparative literature professor Jennifer Larson said during the meeting.
The salaries of recently-hired professors tend to be higher when separated by position, according to data from the UNC General Administration for the 2019-2020 school year.
When separated by department and rank, some new hires have lower average salaries than long-standing faculty members. The salary data, which is provided by the UNC System, does not include bonus, overtime, annual leave, longevity or summer pay.
Professors belong to one of three ranks: assistant professor, associate professor or professor.
Assistant professors experienced the most salary lag. During the previous school year, assistant professors hired at the end of the last decade earned about 40 percent more on average than those hired at its start. This is a difference of over $45,000 annually.
Professors and associate professors also experience salary lag, but it is less severe. Last year, those hired at the decade’s end earned on average about 22 and 13 percent more respectively than those hired at its start.
Provost Bob Blouin said salary lag occurs because UNC cannot compete with higher salaries offered by peer institutions with more financial resources. UNC has faced this problem for the last 10 to 15 years, he said.
“When you bring in a new person, in order to be successful in recruiting them, if they are a high-quality recruit, and they have options and they can go to your peers that perhaps don’t have the same level of salary discord, then you often have to offer them a disproportionately higher salary in order to successfully recruit them,” Blouin said. “And that is the essence of salary compression. You end up with people who have less time on the clock, less service here at the University.”
Although the data did not enable comparisons between fixed-term and tenured or tenure track faculty, Blouin said Larson’s perception was generally correct. In addition to salary compression issues, the market for tenured faculty or tenure-track faculty is more competitive — and their salaries tend to be higher outright.
“They are often thought of as the so-called triple threats,” Blouin said. “They are asked to engage in all aspects of the mission of the University: research, education, service to the University. Fixed-term faculty, they tend to be hired around a more central, singular mission. So, most fixed-term faculty are hired for their teaching abilities, or they’re hired because they might be a researcher, but are not interested or are not ready to take on a full triple threat job like a tenured faculty might."
Fixed-term faculty serve on contracts ranging from one to five years. Tenured faculty have permanent employment, and they receive more protection from being fired without cause.
Tenure-track faculty start at the assistant professor level, Blouin said, and after their sixth year of employment at UNC, they enter a period of review. If they do not succeed in obtaining tenure after this period, he said they must leave.
Misha Becker, chairwoman of the linguistics department, said teaching-track faculty should be paid significantly higher than they are now, since they also work more than 40 hours weekly — just like tenured or tenure-track faculty.
“Is one harder than the other? I don’t know — I think it depends on each person and it depends on what you’re doing,” Becker said. “Certainly, a teaching track person who is teaching three or four classes per semester is working really hard. How hard you work is not linked to salary anywhere in the world."
Becker began researching faculty salary disparity for personal reasons. She said the linguistics department is the lowest-paid at UNC, and its faculty salaries lag behind linguistics departments at peer universities and UNC departments in the same division.
Becker found that male faculty members had higher mean salaries, and these disparities were more significant at the full professor and associate professor levels. She said instances of discrimination 40 or 50 years ago still impact salary disparity today.
“It’s still a problem and when you get a raise, your raise is a percentage of your current salary,” Becker said. “And so if you’re behind your peers now – your male peers — you’re never going to catch up as a female professor.”
Blouin and Larson referenced more recent instances of salary lag. But the data — which includes information about professors hired as early as the '60s — revealed more severe disparities when salaries were grouped by decade.
Among all ranks of professors, those hired during the 2010s made at least twice the earnings of professors in the earliest decade of hiring.
Associate professors experienced the starkest divide. Those hired in the 2010s earned on average 1.34 times more than professors hired in the 1970s. This is an annual average salary change of $90,000.
When asked how the University has attempted to address salary lag, Blouin said they are always periodically trying to find a way to catch up to peer institutions when additional resources are available.
“But because these are recurring dollars, and these commitments are persistent for the life of that faculty member, some of these short-term solutions are difficult to sustain," Blouin said. "And so, it’s really only when you can back a lot of these sources up with hard state money does it really improve the long term picture of the situation.”
Although the North Carolina General Assembly does not set salaries, they can provide raises to UNC System employees, N.C. Sen. Valerie Foushee (D-Orange) said in an email. Foushee cited Senate Bill 835, which would have given UNC System employees a five-percent raise.
"Unfortunately, it is one of the countless bills that was never brought up for a hearing," Foushee said. "There are people working on salary increases for all state employees, but those bills almost never see the light of day under the leadership of this Senate.”
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