Five Dollar BillBy Nels P. Highberg. Last week, the Chronicle published a series of articles about faculty salaries (go to this page, and you will find a list of links to the series of articles on the topic). I cringed when I saw them. Initially, I just decided to ignore them and move on to the end-of-semester tasks needing my attention. But the topic of faculty salaries kept needling at me, and I finally realized why. Academics have long been talking about ways to represent the reality of life as a graduate student, adjunct, tenured or tenure-track faculty member, or administrator to others fairly and ethically. We want to make sure that students know what they are getting into if they pursue a PhD. We want to make sure that legislators know what we actually do on a day-to-day basis as they enact laws and budgets shaping university life. We often feel like the realities of our lives do not align with what others think about our lives. And my concern is that articles about salary averages in any kind of general sense contribute to the warped image of life as a university professor.

Here’s the thing. As a tenured department chair in the humanities, I make between $50-55K per year. Some of you will read that and wish you made that much.  Some of you will look at that and think, “Poor guy.” My thought: does it matter?
Surveys of faculty salaries do matter to those who study academic culture at large, and such information can be useful in certain contexts. But, in general, I do wonder if such discussions do more harm than good. Faculty salaries vary greatly for a host of reasons we could barely list in an hour of brainstorming. And what counts as a “good” salary will vary, too.  But isn’t that true of all fields? I am married to a lawyer who is quick to point out that attorney salaries vary incredibly from the $22,000 one makes annually in a nonprofit to the million another makes in a private firm. I have heard doctors say the same thing. And accountants. And engineers. I think it is pretty safe to say that you can pick almost any field and point to examples of those who make very little and those who make a lot. And whether or not that matters depends on the person and their own circumstances. Married, single, or in a polyamorous relationship?  One child, two, none, adopted, biological, by marriage, toddler, or adolescent? Parents alive and able to help out financially or needing money themselves, dead and left behind an inheritance, debt, or nothing? Renting, owning, subletting, roommates, alone? Student loan debt or entering the job force late because of going to graduate school part-time while working to avoid debt?
C’mon, people. We know salaries matter, but we cannot know how they matter because of all the other factors involved. I am well aware that many universities have jobs in my field this year where the starting salary is higher than what I make now. I am also aware that my sister, who never went to college, makes three times more than I do with my PhD, two MAs, and BA. We do need to make it clear to anyone thinking of entering the professoriate that not only may they struggle to find a job, they cannot predict their salary if they get a job. Because of that, I wonder if we get too caught up in stories of averages and use them the wrong ways.