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Stark differences in collegiate professors’ salaries reflect real-world economic demands

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recently published the results of its annual survey in which it measures the salaries of various university professors and instructors. The published data includes the average salaries for full professors, associate professors, assistant professors, and instructors. The average full professor at Carnegie Mellon receives $138,900 per year, the highest salary of any university within a 100-mile radius.

Despite the salary freeze in faculty members’ pay, our university’s employees are quite well off. In order for Carnegie Mellon to maintain its status as a fairly prestigious school, it must attract prominent members from each academic field away from other prospective universities. And since these professors are in high demand, the university must offer a high salary to win over these brilliant minds.

Within each university, however, professors from different disciplines receive widely varying salaries. The AAUP’s data has confirmed what has long been intuitively known: that professors in fields of law, computer science, engineering, and business receive higher salaries than those in other fields such as humanities, art, and drama. While some people believe that the position of university professor should receive the same salary, no matter the field, we see this pay distribution as fair and consistent considering the different requirements and market demand of each respective field.

A professor in electrical and computer engineering, for instance, probably has offers to work for many universities, in addition to high-profit companies; both of which can offer significant salaries for their skills and knowledge. To attract them away from such opportunities, the university must also offer a competitive wage to these potential employees. Meanwhile, positions for humanities-centered jobs are not in as high of a demand. For instance, non-teaching jobs for historians specializing in 17th-century French history are probably very limited.
As a result of this low demand, a university does not have to offer as competitive a salary.

The difference in the demands for varying fields is the cause for the disparity in salaries. As unfortunate as it is that some professors receive a lower salary, despite all going through the same process to receive tenure, it is simply a fact of life that some fields are in more demand than others, and that professors in those fields are going to receive a greater salary than those in other fields. Equalizing full professors’ salaries within a university would be nice, but not economically viable.