Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Professors’ pay is down across fields, but law professors have taken bigger cuts than most (Michael Simkovic)

My previous posts have documented a very large 24 percent decline in real pay for law professors over the last decade, from 2013 to 2022 (see also here and here). Some readers have asked whether professors in other fields are also seeing their pay decline.  The answer, unfortunately, is yes.  However, the decline in pay for law professors is among the most severe in higher education.

Declines in average real pay for professors in different fields range from a low of 7 percent to a high of 27 percent over the decade.  Large fields that have fared better than law include the humanities, communications, economics, business, philosophy, the creative arts, nursing and other healthcare, mathematics, computer science and engineering. 

The only fields with bigger declines in pay than law are social work, criminology, and environmental science. 


For universities as a whole, real pay is up for “legal occupations” (i.e, lawyers, paralegals, and legal secretaries) by 0.6%.  Overall, universities are spending $100 million more (in real terms) on in-house legal services than they were a decade ago and have raised head counts in this area by nearly 20 percent.  This may be due to more onerous regulations, such as the Obama administration DOE’s reinterpretation of Title IX, which has exposed universities to more lawsuits.  It may also be due to universities’ ongoing pursuit of admissions and hiring practices to promote diversity that courts have repeatedly found constitute illegal discrimination.

Other than legal occupations, universities have also increased pay for their Chief Executives by 20%. 

They have increased average pay for food service workers and “personal care” workers, who are often unionized.  In the case of food service workers, this appears to be due to reductions in headcount that have targeted more junior and lower paid workers.  Spending on personal care workers is up by $41 million over the decade.

Average pay is down for “education, library, and instruction occupations”, which include professors, librarians, and academic support workers, by 16.8%.  Across all occupations at colleges and universities, average pay is down by 13% and total spending on labor compensation is down by 10%.

Every broad category of workers at colleges and universities has seen declining average pay.  Areas that have seen both declining pay and declining headcounts include groundskeepers and maintenance workers, administrative assistants, and—disturbingly--physical and social scientists, architects and engineers, and construction workers. 

Universities appear to be investing less in constructing and maintaining physical facilities and less in their core mission—scientific research.  Professors in scientific fields have also seen exceptionally steep declines in pay.

This raises intriguing questions which I’ll explore in subsequent posts:

  • Where is all the money going?
  • Is there a downside to universities or to students if universities pay their skilled workers too little to keep up with the cost of living and far less than they could be making in the private sector?
  • What could universities be doing differently to improve their financial position and boost pay? What specifically could law schools be doing?
  • How can faculty, alumni, and boards tell if senior administrators—university presidents, deans, department heads—are doing a good job? Under what objective criteria can their performance be evaluated? 
  • Can changing how we evaluate and incentivize senior administrators improve pay and other measures of university performance?


Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic | Permalink