AU ranks near bottom among peer schools in compensation for assistant professors
Professors at AU earn more than national average, but struggle with high cost of D.C. living
American University’s assistant professors earned an average compensation of $104,400 in 2016-17, according to the American Association of University Professors, a nonprofit organization that collects salary data from universities annually. AU’s average compensation for assistant professors ranks 10th out of 12 peer institutions. This is below the average compensation of $123,116 for professors of the same rank among the school’s peers, including D.C. schools like Georgetown University, George Washington University and Catholic University, as well as city universities, such as Fordham University and Boston University.
However, AU ranks above the national average compensation of $91,493 for assistant professors at more than 1,100 schools that reported employment data to AAUP in 2016-17. Compensation accounts for an individual’s salary as well as other benefits they receive from their employer, such as insurance. Faculty said AU’s salary can make it difficult to raise a family in D.C., but attributed the problem to a product of working as a professor.
“The problem isn’t AU,” said Dylan Craig, a senior professorial lecturer in the School of International Service, who relocated his family from D.C. to Malawi when his wife got an opportunity there for work. He is taking a writing sabbatical from his position at AU.
AU’s assistant professors can fall into one of two categories: term faculty or tenure-line faculty. Both are full time positions, but term faculty have one- to five-year-long renewable contracts, said Mary Clark, dean of academic affairs and senior vice provost. There were 156 assistant professors on campus in 2016-17. Most full-time term professors are professorial lecturers who may advance to senior professional lecturers or Hurst senior professional lecturers. Assistant professors make up a very small portion of the full time term faculty, and they may advance to a term full professor over time.
“AU is rather unique in the number of term faculty that have assistant professor ranks,” said Karen Froslid Jones, assistant provost of institutional research and assessment. “In many other institutions, they don’t have term faculty at this rank. They are more likely to be under the instructor or lecturer category. That impacts the AAUP data, especially the assistant professor category.”
AU’s compensation for assistant professors ranks in the 50th or 60th percentile nationally, said Froslid Jones. But the discrepancies between AU and its peers may be a factor of the fields that are represented on other campuses, Froslid Jones said.
“As you’re looking at comparisons between other institutions, it probably comes as no surprise to you that salaries vary depending on discipline,” she said. “When one is looking at salaries of faculty members — let’s say you’re comparing it to a place that has an engineering school or a medical school — those differences can really be determined in some ways by what an institution offers.”
AU’s most highly paid professors are generally those in the Kogod School of Business and the Washington College of Law, Clark said.
In a city where residents in need an annual income of $80,723 to live comfortably in the city, according to data collected by GoBankingRates, a financial website, faculty at AU said it can be tough to make ends meet on a professor’s salary.
Craig, who is living in Malawi until 2019, decided to take a writing sabbatical from AU when his wife earned the opportunity to relocate their family from D.C. to Malawi for work. The pair have twins and the financial burden of childcare in D.C. played a role in their decision to move. But he said he likely would have found himself in the same position at any university due to the typical trajectory of the professorship.
Many professors start their career in higher education as teaching assistants on hourly wages, Craig said. Those who work very hard may advance to become adjunct professors, who earn a few thousand dollars per semester, and those who choose to progress even further count themselves extremely grateful to earn one of a very limited number of full-time teaching positions in higher education, he said.
While full time professors who have not yet earned tenure may earn less than someone working a 9-5 job, Craig said the flexibility of the position makes up for the gaps in compensation.
“As a professor, you have an unparalleled flexible job,” Craig said, especially in terms of determining where to live in relation to campus and creating a schedule. He commended AU’s willingness to work with professors to schedule most of their classes on just two days of the week, which can ease the need for childcare coverage for some.
AU provides on-site childcare for professors with children ages 2-and-a-half and older, but by that point, families have already spent thousands of dollars on other care for their young children, Craig said.
“A concrete way that AU could do better is to have some kind of free or subsidized day care on-site for very small children,” Craig said.
Barbara Wien, a professorial lecturer in the School of International Service, is working to create a union for full-time professors on campus to address faculty concerns and to unveil more specific information about what professors of all ranks are earning across campus. Earnings data for professors is “very opaque,” she said, and should be more transparent.
“It’s really, really hard to send your kids to college and live in the Washington, D.C. area and buy gas and buy books,” Wien said.
Wien said professors’ salaries are “not commensurate with the cost of living in D.C.”
Wien has seen a lot of interest in the formation of a union thus far. She has met with professors at other institutions, including Tufts University, one of AU’s peer institutions in the AAUP data, to discuss the successes and challenges they have had in unionizing their faculties.
The Faculty Senate has also demonstrated interest in improving compensation for AU’s professors. While the senate plays no role in determining a professor’s salary, it can make a recommendation for a new professor’s compensation and can advocate for equity among professors across campus.
“Recently, there has been a greater sensitivity to faculty who have financial challenges,” said Andrea Pearson, chair of the Faculty Senate. “The University made some positive adjustments up to a kind of national average for a base salary for term faculty. The problem is that this is an expensive area. They gauged this base salary around this national average, which includes places all over the U.S.”
AU has dedicated more than $1.6 million in the past four years to “bringing up the floor of term faculty salaries,” Clark said, referring to the base salaries for term faculty.
Still, Clark said the administration has had no problem recruiting and retaining professors for the University.
“We’ve hired quite competitively, in who our new faculty are and how we have been able to do that,” she said. “We do seek to compete on faculty salaries, so it is certainly a strong factor. D.C. is also very attractive to them, so we’ve been able to compete on that basis also.”
This story was originally published in the Oct. 20 print edition of The Eagle.