Pay and the Professor

As he looks ahead to the ever-increasing undergraduate enrollment, BEARDSLEY RUML asks whether the teaching load and the deteriorating economic position of liberal college professors are being dealt with as wisely as possible. Mr. Ruml has a long training in financial problems, having served for varying periods with the Carnegie Corporation; as Director of the eighty-million-dollar Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial; as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York City and of R. H. Macy Company. He was Professor of Education and Dean of the Social Science Division at the University of Chicago from 1931 to 1933.



THE forward-looking school, the progressive school, at whatever level or however deeply committed to professional and vocational training, is necessarily concerned with what happens to liberal education. The liberal studies are the foundation of the liberal community. They provide the dimension that gives meaning to all other understanding and know-how. They are the explicit liberalizing force, creative in all free men everywhere.

With us, the liberal studies have found a home in the liberal college. But this is by no means a necessary, nor has it been a unique, home. In other times, in other places, even with us, the liberal studies have flourished outside institutional ivy walls.

Even so, the liberal college is a central instrument in expounding the standards and substance of liberal education, and for that reason if for no other, the liberal college is worth attention for its own sake. In this spirit, my remarks here are limited to the situation in the four-year liberal college, independent of university affiliation or responsibility. Nor will I attempt to include the special circumstances of state, municipal, or parochial institutions of a collegiate character. Let us look simply at the traditional liberal college, since to me the liberal college is the mind, the heart, and the conscience of liberal thought in our country — as it has been and as it will continue to be.

My title, “Pay and the Professor,”may be judged by many as being a bit vulgar to be used in association with so profound a subject matter as liberal education. But I have looked up the word “vulgar” in a very large dictionary, and I am convinced that my title, even if vulgar, is not inappropriate. All professors have income of some kind, and the common, vulgar form of income is pay. It is just one of those facts of life, common though it be, that for years and years has not been getting the fullness of attention it deserves.

The facts about what has happened to pay and the professor over the past fifty years are now known wit h sufficient accuracy for those who formulate policy. A year or so ago the Fund for the Advancement of Education asked Sidney Tickton and me to put together such figures as might be readily available on this subject, and the report which we made to them was published as a bulletin of the Fund under the title “Teaching Salaries Then and Now.”

Fifty years ago, a salary of $3000 a year was good, but not uncommon. Allowing for changes in the cost of living and federal income taxes, and assuming that the professor has a wife and two dependents, in 1953 he would have had to have $11,200 in order to have equivalent economic status with that of his professorial colleague at the turn of the century. The figures for 1956 would be about the same.

Fifty years ago a salary of $1000 for a professor was uncommon but by no means nonexistent. Today’s equivalent would be $15,580.

A salary of $5000 in those days generally went with some administrative responsibilities. Today we still have administrative responsibilities, and the salary would be $20,345.

In 1904, probably the top professor’s salary was paid at the University of Chicago, and there to only a few men. The rate was $7000, and today’s equivalent is $31,250. In those happy, not too distant days, a first-class professor was considered economically as worthy as a first-class anybody else who was working for pay and not risking his own capital.

I do not attempt to appraise the injustice that is revealed by these figures, although it must be large and wide. However, about one impression there can be no dispute: the economic position of the top personnel in the liberal college has been drastically downgraded in the past fifty years. Recruitment of new personnel, both in the quantity needed and of the quality which we would desire, is completely out of the question at present pay scales.

In my opinion, for the liberal college professor an average of $15,000 is required under prevailing cost-of-living and tax circumstances, and top salaries of $30,000 should be widely distributed among the liberal colleges of the United States. But these tops should be on a merit basis, with merit defined as talent and effort applied in the arts and skills of liberal reading, writing, and instruction.


AFTER the Fund’s bulletin on teaching salaries came out, there was naturally a considerable amount of discussion as to why what had happened had happened. There is an element of bitter comedy in the hard-won statistical series of the Twentieth Century Fund, the National Planning Association, the Committee for Economic Development, and the Council of Economic Advisors. They show how wonderfully we have done economically, with production per man-hour soaring, the hours of work shrinking from decade to decade, the death rate falling, health rising; and their projections of past trends to the future date of 1976, the two-hundredth anniversary of the Republic, all point to an increase in productivity and a decrease in working hours. But there are no projections for pay and the professor in thesc economic series. Can it be that at or about 1976 both pay and the professor will have substantially disappeared, along with other antiquities not easily mechanized?

The question of why what had happened had happened seemed interesting and important. Once again the Fund for the Advancement of Education made it possible to collect a few facts, not to do a research by any means, but merely to take a look at the old and new catalogues of a dozen or so of our most characteristic liberal colleges. This helped me to gain and clarify a number of impressions. Unfortunately the data and statistics are not really comparable, and I have no doubt that a truly systematic research might reveal a number of errors of substance and of emphasis as well as bring out much that I have overlooked. For this reason I shall not name specific institutions, much as that would add to the interest of this discussion.

What can be said in general with reference to the dangerous economic situation of the liberal college as clearly revealed in the shocking levels of professorial pay? Has the failure been on the income side? Endowments and gifts have risen greatly, perhaps not as much as the statistical indicators, but they have risen, particularly regular annual contributions from alumni.

During fifty years, tuition rates have gone way up, far beyond the statistical requirements, averaging increases of more than 600 per cent and going as high as 1000 per cent and 1700 per cent. The number of units required for gradual ion is virtually unchanged.

Enrollment is up, an average of perhaps 500 per cent, and of course it will go much higher. This increase in enrollment is sometimes given as a reason for a college’s economic hardships, but a decrease in enrollment would have been much worse. It is surprising that with large increases in enrollment, very large increases in tuition rates, and substantial increases in endowment, income and gifts, there should be any problem about pay and the professor.

When we look inside the college itself, the causes become apparent. Administrative expenses are up, but dollarwise they are not too important, particularly when it is understood that they are largely devoted to money raising and publicity efforts that generally produce a net gain, or for various types of student supervision which an earlier generation probably needed but did not get. In many colleges, a large part of this supervision, particularly for health and guidance, is paid for in student fees. Athletic deficits are frequently large, but are more or less unpredictable.

And so we come to the heart, of the matter, the teaching program. The teaching program is incredibly inefficient, and has not made the progress that might have been expected over the past fifty years. The pay that the professor gets today is the direct consequence of what he earns, now as compared with then.

The number of courses offered has doubled and trebled, even though the units required for graduation remain the same. The number of courses offered per member of the faculty has dropped by a third, although in some institutions it is still close to where it was. The ratio of students to teachers is also down a third — it now stands at about ten to one, sometimes less.

Where does the responsibility lie and what can be done about it? The question is more easily asked than answered.

It would appear that if we are to have academic freedom and professorial tenure, the responsibility is with the faculty. But when we examine the realities of the situation, the faculty as we imagine it simply does not exist. True, there is a group of men paid the same day out of the same bank and walking in the same procession at commencement time. But from an operational point of view, we have only a series of departments interested in the size, offerings, and prerequisites of their particular department, meeting together for departmental protection.

Since the faculty does not exist, so neither does the curriculum exist. It is nothing more than a listing of departmental offerings from which a selection is made by the student to add up to the requirements for a degree. The occasional required course and the course requirements for concentration are a consensus of departmental interests. Departments offer their own introductory courses and frequently these are prevocational rather than liberal. This device is useful in forcing selection upon students, increasing depart mental enrollments, and justifying the numbers on the department’s teaching staff.

Well, if the liberal college has neither a faculty nor a curriculum, the responsibility must be placed on the administration. Theoretically, this might be true, but practically it is completely theoretical. The big job of the administration is public relations. Its job is to put out fires, not to start them. The faculty, departmentalized though it be, will form a defensive circle and moan to high heaven at any aggressive initiative by an administrative wolf. The administration wants the support of the alumni, and perhaps of a foundation or two. Such support is not easily come by, especially if there is a question as to the public morals of the student body or the vocal loyalty of the paid leaching slaff.

So we come to the trustees. The trustees have powerful legal rights and, I suppose, the duties that go with them. Will the trustees act? Of course they will — they will back up the administration.


THE financial problem of the liberal college is therefore essentially one of internal disorganization. Bluntly, the liberal college is organizationally and financially bankrupt. It has been forced to raise its prices unconscionably, it cannot, pay a going scale of wages, it looks to committees of friends to make up its deficits, it talks at times as if it could not supply its growing market.

What the liberal college seems to need is the functional equivalent of a committee in receivership that would be responsible for preserving the body corporate and its liberal purpose. It would necessarily have the power of decision, the authority to tell departments, administrative officers, and trustees where the road to solvency lies. Or else it should dispose of the real estate.

It, is my opinion that an efficient receivership committee can be found in the personnel of every liberal college’s board of trustees, administration, and faculty. But, if not, a couple of alumni could be brought in.

Frankly, because of the great demand coming along for admission, the basic situation of the private liberal college today is very strong indeed. But it requires administrative discipline — a discipline that is sensitive to the fundamental issues of academic freedom and professorial tenure, but which at the same time can re-create a faculty with a common purpose, dedicated to re-establishing a curriculum whose central purpose is the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding in the liberal arts.

Of course we will not call it a receivership committee. We will call it a Joint Committee on Educational Policy and Administration. And we will get a few thousand dollars from some foundation whether we need it or not, just to sanctify its work. This is strictly ethical since it does the foundation as much good as it does the liberal college, and it provides at once a responsible outside audience to which the reports of the committee, neatly typed and bound, can be addressed.

The joint committee in each particular college will find particular conditions of their own that require attention. But I venture a guess that three situations will be discussed by all.

First, the number of hours spent by a student in class or otherwise under faculty supervision is too large. The common practice is fifteen hours a week, more if laboratory work is taken, sometimes less in junior and senior years. I suspect that this tradition springs from the Carnegie Unit which was established to equate educational institutions for professorial pension rights. Whatever the history, the burden on the student is too great and the cost of instruction is wasteful. If an hour in class should require two hours of preparation, which seems to me not unreasonable, then a twelve-hour classroom schedule instead of a fifteen would require thirty-six hours a week devoted to the curriculum. This is about, all that should be expected of the average adolescent boy or girl, who needs to eat, sleep, and make friends as well as spend many serious hours listening, talking, and writing on the formal subjects offered by the liberal college.

This reform, justified on purely educational grounds, would save some 20 per cent in faculty, which would help in a somewhat lesser amount in pay for the professor.

The second inefficiency that our joint committee will find is in the use of physical plant. A canvass should be made of just how many hours a year each instructional room is used, and a percentage figure should be computed against some definition of “full utilization.” It will be found that afternoon, evening, and Saturday use is very light, and that in many if not most of our liberal colleges summer use is for all practical purposes nonexistent. Full summer use may mean a change front a twosemester to a four-term basis of curriculum organization. Full Saturday use might mean the end of intercollegiate athletics, but it need not interfere with intramural sports.

Here the increase in capacity would be substantial and the increase in dormitory rentals from increased use in many cases would finance the modern lecture hall facilities which so many colleges lack. The yearly professorial schedules of nine months’ teaching should not be increased, but within administrative possibilities option should be given as to whether the professor’s time off campus would be taken in fall, winter, spring, or summer.

Finally our joint committee will take a detailed look at the proliferation of course offerings, the frivolous causes for many of them, and the shrinking ratio of students to the teaching staff. It will also observe whether tenure and title are being given instead of pay.

It seems to me reasonable that the ratio of students to teachers should be twenty to one. It also seems reasonable that the tuition paid by the students should go into pay for the professor. Such a rule would provide incentive for efficient instruction and would put trustees, officers, and alumni in the tenable position of offering to the faculty and students freely the instruments of instruction. At the present time in some liberal colleges, not one penny of endowment income or alumni gifts, except where specifically designated, goes into faculty salaries. Perhaps this is as it should be, but I do feel that the tuition paid by the students should go to their teachers in full.

This twenty-to-one rule, and 100 per cent application of tuition to teaching staff, means that the tuition rate could be multiplied by twenty to give the average teaching salary for any particular college. In general, this would turn out to be about right as an average and would make possible maxima that would be reasonable as compared with other professions.

The twenty-to-one rule, a ratio of one teacher to twenty students, is not taken seriously at the present time and when discussed is bitterly attacked. Most of the opposition comes as a result of misunderstanding, of a naive acceptance that a ratio of ten to one makes a better college than a ratio of twenty to one. It is thought that the suggestion depends on an increase in the size of every class. But the increase in ratio could come from restoring the formal lecture to its traditional place as a method of teaching. And very little lecturing will be required. A college with a faculty of two hundred will need only eight lecturers to bring the discussion and seminar groups to a maximum of fifteen students or fewer. The really wasteful teaching is done in the classes that have between twenty and sixty members.

I have heard it said that a twenty-to-one ratio does violence to the romantic ideal that the best liberal education would be Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other. But if Mark Hopkins had lectured three times a week, which he certainly would have been able and probably willing to do, and if in addition he would have been willing to sit on that log a couple of times a day, he would not only have been grossing his own salary, but he also would have been contributing to the pay of his as yet not so talented juniors.

There is nothing arithmetically or educationally incorrect in an over-all ratio of students to teachers of twenty to one in the liberal college. But it cannot be done under prevailing conditions of depart mental organization.

There is one important good development, and that is the inevitable rise in demand for admission. If the joint committee will see to it t hat t his demand is met by curriculum reorganization and without increase in faculty numbers, the problem of pay and the professor will have been largely solved.

Does this mean that the contributions of alumni, friends, corporations, and foundations will no longer be of help and a public good? Not at all. But these contributions will strengthen living institutions with their own intrinsic vitality and will no longer go to the support of the remains of an eroding educational tradition.

The community, national, state, or local, public or private—the community in a free society — has two kinds of interest in the education of its young people in the liberal studies. The first interest is to make sure that a large, a very large, proportion of each oncoming generation knows what freedom for the individual really is, that freedom is valued, that it will be respected, that it will be defended. The second interest is to give an opportunity for some thousands, or even hundreds, in each generation to be creative with respect to human freedom. We have not yet, nor shall we ever, come to the end of the road in our insights and in our institutions widening the frontiers of human freedom. The talent that can take us further along the way must, have the education and the opportunity to give to the community the leadership in freedom for which a free society is in being.