Job losses and falling salaries batter US academia

Nature
Still life of deteriorating one dollar bill on wet pavement.

US faculty members are being hit by the first real fall in wages in nearly a decade.Credit: Getty

Average salaries for full-time US college and university faculty members fell by almost 0.5% in the 2020–21 academic year when adjusted for inflation, according to a survey by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in Washington DC. It is the first time in nearly a decade that faculty members’ real wages have fallen.

The study also documented job losses and termination or non-renewal of faculty members’ contracts across both graduate and undergraduate institutions in the past year.

The survey, which gathered data from 929 institutions, found that average salaries, when not adjusted for inflation, rose by a single percentage point compared with the previous academic year. Even so, that was the smallest year-to-year increase since the AAUP began tracking salaries in 1972.

The numbers suggest that further pay cuts and future job losses loom as higher-education institutions continue to grapple with the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutions “were scrambling to make payroll and figure it out any way they could”, says Glenn Colby, a senior researcher at the AAUP. “I think it’s going to be worse in the autumn and the years to come.”

Another survey, of 793 institutions across the United States, by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) in Knoxville, Tennessee, found that the median salary for full-time faculty members rose by 0.7% in the 2020–21 academic year. That is the lowest annual salary growth documented by the organization since 2010. Jacqueline Bichsel, director of research at CUPA-HR, notes that her organization uses median salaries because average salaries can be skewed by a few outliers.

Cost cuts and job losses

The salary stagnation is likely to continue, if not worsen, Bichsel says. “Faculty salaries never really rebounded from the last recession [in 2008–09] and the budget cuts that followed,” she says. “Faculty have lived with little or no salary increases for over a decade. I’m not expecting salaries to rebound quickly in the years to come.”

The surveys also documented a modest number of job losses, perhaps a harbinger of bigger losses to come. In the AAUP survey, the number of full-time faculty positions decreased by 0.3%, mostly through redundancies and not replacing staff following retirements. The number of faculty members rose on the whole at universities with extensive PhD programmes, but smaller colleges (including four-year undergraduate institutions) lost around 2% of their positions as part of widespread cost-cutting measures. More than 20% of all institutions reported terminating or not renewing contracts for non-tenure-track faculty members. More than 5% said they had taken similar steps with tenure-track faculty members.

In the CUPA-HR survey, the number of tenure-track positions declined by more than 2% and the number of non-tenure track positions dropped by more than 1%. Some of the greatest overall losses were in biological and biomedical science, which saw more than 500 positions disappear. “It’s too early to know if these are permanent losses or if they are going to be regained as the economy recovers,” Bichsel says.

Financial distress

The CUPA-HR survey also collected data on part-time, ‘adjunct’ instructors for the 2020–21 academic year. Compared with the previous year, the number of those precarious positions shrank by nearly 5%. The losses were especially pronounced (8%) at liberal-arts colleges and other institutions that mainly offer bachelor’s degrees. “Adjunct instructors can be fired or hired in an instant,” Bichsel says.

Colby notes that salary cuts and job losses were far from evenly distributed across places of higher education. “Premier institutions were not suffering with enrolment problems and were able to keep their full-time employees,” he says. “Other places were struggling and laid off a bunch of people.” In one notable example, the University of Akron in Ohio announced the termination of nearly 100 unionized full-time faculty positions in July 2020.

Colby says that he has received leaks from insiders suggesting that a significant number of colleges and universities are quietly planning redundancies in the next academic year. He adds that many institutions’ boards of trustees meet in May to make decisions about the following academic year, and he predicts that faculty reductions will be announced following these meetings.

Many institutions showed signs of financial distress even when faculty positions and salaries held relatively steady. For example, nearly 60% of institutions in the AAUP survey enacted salary freezes or cuts in the last year, and about 30% reduced or eliminated benefits such as contributions to retirement savings accounts. “My impression is that institutions got through this year by digging through their reserves,” Colby says.

The AAUP plans to release its full annual report on the economics of higher education towards the end of May. Among other issues, the report will examine the massive debt loads with which many institutions have been saddled. “In the last 10–15 years, institutions have been funding their operations more and more by going into debt,” Colby says. “It’s alarming. If I were a junior faculty member or somebody coming out of a doctoral programme and thinking about where I want to work, I would look at an institution’s financial health — in particular, their debt situation.”

Both surveys showed lingering gender disparities in salaries and status, disparities that are in danger of growing even wider as institutions struggle to regain their footing. In the AAUP survey, the average annual salary for male full professors at doctoral institutions was just above US$165,200, about $17,800 (12%) more than for female full professors. For lecturers, the gap was about $7,200, with men earning nearly $73,300 and women earning about $66,100 — around 10% less.

The CUPA-HR survey found that women accounted for 43% of all tenure-track faculty members, down slightly from the previous year. Meanwhile, those who are members of minority ethnic groups held 25% of all tenure-track positions, a 2% increase over the previous year. White men continue to be over-represented at the highest levels of academia. Although they accounted for 32% of assistant professors, they held 52% of full professorships.

Advances in equity could be at risk

Members of minority ethnic groups who reached the tenure track enjoyed some degree of pay equity. The median salaries of Black assistant or associate professors were slightly higher than those for white assistant or associate professors. However, Black full professors earned a little less than white full professors.

The proportion of women and of people from minority ethnic groups in tenure-track positions remained relatively stable over the past year, suggesting that under-represented academics weren’t especially targeted in the first rounds of layoffs. Still, Bichsel worries that recent advances towards equity could be quickly undone if institutions continue to cut salaries and jobs.

“Recovery from recession is always slower for women and minorities,” Bichsel says. “Many institutions have diversity, equity and inclusion goals. We don’t want institutions to be making cuts in jobs that disproportionately impact women and minorities. They need to keep those goals top of mind.”

Bichsel expects that the overall response to the pandemic will vary greatly from one institution to another. “About half of the campuses have a plan to get back to normal as soon as possible,” she says. “Others are using this time to reformulate what they conceive of as normal. They may rethink how they hire people. Some employees may be remote. There will be a whole spectrum of perspectives of what a return to normal is.”

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