Texas Exposes the Salaries of Its Professors

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Data released by the public university system have sparked questions about what faculty are worth and how they should be compensated

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The University of Texas published salary and benefits information for every last professor on its campuses earlier this month, a move hailed by transparency advocates and lamented by folks whose pay is now public. Beyond sparking all the controversy you'd expect, the numbers are provoking some interesting questions about how faculty attributes should be valued at public universities. Consider the business school professor highlighted by the Austin American-Statesman:

John Sibley Butler, who holds the Gale Chair in Entrepreneurship and Small Business at the McCombs School of Business, earns $372,000 in total compensation but taught only 106 students between fall 2009 and the summer of 2010, according to the spreadsheet. That's hundreds fewer students than taught by many of his colleagues in the business school, who were paid much less over the same period.

Yet according to the document, Butler, who is the director of the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship, also has won more than $1.5 million in research grants over the past five years.

It turns out determining how much he's worth is a thorny question.

The highest earners are typically the focus when these sorts of reports are released. In some ways, however, the gulf between the well-compensated tenure-track faculty and everyone else is most noteworthy. Full-time, permanent professors often make six figures. Inside Higher Education has given a platform to one of the non-tenure track instructors, who wrote:

Like most Americans, I am finding ways to do more with less. What I cannot afford to do without is the respect and confidence of my students. I worry about the conclusions they may draw if they learn what I am paid: $2,500 per course. Put differently: that's $12,500 for five courses a year, when a 3-2 courseload would be considered full-time at many institutions... What the figure doesn't show is the number of hours I spend preparing for those classes -- reading, planning lectures, updating statistics, reviewing notes, tweaking and grading assignments.

Would students respect this man less if they found out his salary is lower than they imagined it to be? I'd be interested in knowing. Lucky for him, the data is presented in an 821 page PDF document. It's doubtful many members of the public are going to thumb through it. If they did -- if we really had the public conversation about faculty compensation that professors at UT fear -- I'll bet the populist impulse would be to give tenured faculty somewhat less, adjunct faculty substantially more, to preserve research positions in the hard sciences, and to reallocate resources away from research and toward better teaching, especially in the humanities.

What is the impulse in the Texas state legislature going to be? That's harder to speculate about. For now, however, UT professors embarrassed that the neighbors now know their salaries can take solace that they aren't on the faculty at Texas A&M. Earlier this year, when that institution put out a similar document, it listed everyone's salary next to the amount of money they brought into the institution.

Some names were printed in black, others in red.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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