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Biden: “Some faculty salaries are too high” (!)

BREAKING: A top Obama administration official said some public employee salaries were too high. Hell immediately froze over.

Last week, Vice President Biden remarked to a Pennsylvania crowd that high faculty salaries were one of the reasons tuition costs were skyrocketing:

In Pennsylvania, Biden responded to a question about why college costs keep going up by noting that it was a “puzzle” and that there was “no one thing” responsible. But among the factors he identified were increases in faculty salaries. “Salaries for college professors have escalated significantly,” he said. “They should be good, but they have escalated significantly.” Further, he explained that there is “a lot of competition for the finest professors. They all want the Nobel laureates.” And Biden said that many colleges are spending too much on items that don’t relate to student learning. As examples, he cited efforts to improve campus stadiums and the beauty of campuses generally. (The White House has not released a transcript of his talk, but the speech and Q&A may be viewed on YouTube,with this exchange starting around 47 minutes in.)

Inside Higher Ed doubted the veracity of the claim:

It is of course true that leading universities continue to pay top dollar for faculty members and to recruit Nobel laureates, but the reality is that most colleges and universities (and the institutions attended by most institutions) haven’t been pushing faculty salaries up substantially in recent years. And at most non-elite public campuses, one is more likely to find leaky ceilings than a Gehry building.

Sure, the typical lowly-paid English professor isn’t breaking any banks. But Biden is correct to observe that top professors and administrators–those whose salaries already exceed $150,000–continue to receive big, big raises year after year. During the course of a study I conducted for the Goldwater Institute last year, I discovered that the biggest raises at Arizonan public universities went to the most generously compensated employees–and that many of them weren’t even teachers.

This was also true in my home state of Michigan. An investigative report by The Detroit Free Press found that Michigan universities had increased spending on administrative positions by 30% over the last five years.

In other words–and I don’t find myself saying this very often–Biden is on to something. I’m with Biden.

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  • BuddyPC

    Where does Dr. Jill rank on the tenured salary scale? Too high? Too low? Just right?

  • Really – wonder how many of those profs will voluntarily give up tenure and salary for the greater good of the great unwashed, who are so eager to learn at the feet of their mentors. lol

  • crypticguise

    Yes, salaries and perq’s are too high, but the real escalating costs are caused by the unnecessary administrative costs, expensive physical assets of today’s colleges and universities – Too many Centers for Various Multicultural Studies.

    Continuing, too many unnecessary non-academic studies programs and their tenured multi-cultural studies professors and instructors. Too much FLAB. It can not be sustained.

  • margin of error

    It is important to distinguish faculty from administrators. Adding administrators is what has been happening and is responsible for the increasing higher ed costs.

  • Andy Freeman

    We hear a lot about the ratio of CEO salaries to those of other employees.

    Perhaps we should cap professor salaries at 5x the median salary of their graduates….

    • Perfesser33

      I’ll take a salary 5x that of my undergrads (= $300,000) but that still leaves me in the 99%.

    • Ross

      That would work for me and seems pretty darn fair. I don’t if there are any faculty that are making more than that but if there are I doubt it is many. I would suggest that we extend the rule to administrators as well though. Then you would get some cost savings.

  • LHog

    I would like to know how we determine when someone’s salary is too high. What is too high? Can someone tell me a dollar figure that is too high please?
    And then tell me if you reach that level are you then paid too much?
    It’s a little like defining Fairness isn’t it? If it’s fair to pay someone $30,000/year as a carpenter why is it fair to pay someone else $30,000/year in unemployment benefits and welfare?

  • James B

    You might as well blame increasing housing prices on the cost of fancier faucets or new flooring. Biden (and you) missed the fundamental problem here. The cause of rising prices following the housing market analogy: consumer demand + unchecked money supply (in the form of student loans and grants) = bubble. Remember in 2005-2007 when people who had no business getting a home loan were getting them…often without any verification that they had the means to repay the loan? The student loan fiasco is even worse: you’re giving loans to 18 year old kids who, instead of having no proof that they can repay the loans, actually have no way to repay the loan. Only a subset of the people you’re giving loans to ever graduate…and then only a subset of the graduates go on to earn a decent wage based on their degree plan.

    Just as with the housing market, unlimited money supply leads to unjustifiable price increases. Yes, administrative costs are ridiculous now. Yes, every story about the fancy new living quarters at University X that are better than the house I own is ridiculous. But these are all just symptoms of a system where there is no means-testing for money spent.

    At some point we (the taxpayers funding this bubble) also have to realize that we can’t depend on the schools to effectively weed out the bad investments (students). It’s not in the schools’ financial self-interest to do so.

    I’m all for upward mobility, many of my college friends who are successful today were enabled to do so by the student loan program. But this is clearly a bubble that must be addressed in the same way that the housing bubble was: not by putting cheaper faucets in the house, not by building the 2-car garage instead of the 3-car garage, but by tightening up the money supply. Once you do that, costs will fall into line.

  • Jay

    1% Elizabeth Warren can’t have it both ways

    Lizzy has suggested she believes it takes a village to get rich. Her experience indicates it actually takes a part-time job at Harvard. In 2009, her salary was $350,000 and she earned $429,000 for 2010 and 2011.

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  • Dr. Dave

    Andy, I’d take that in a heartbeat. I teach engineering, and my grads start in the $55K to $75K range. Median is at least $60K. Yeah, I could squeak by on $300K.

    I KNOW I could get at least 50% more in industry than I do on campus. How do I know that? Because I’m a retired guy teaching because I thought I’d enjoy it more than sitting at home. I know what I was making in the Real World, and I know I could go back to that level in the current market.

    I also know that the range of value of professors is much larger than the range of value of engineers in industry. It is possible to bust your tail in both worlds and be valuable. In industry, the substantial number of prima donas and sloths on faculties would get fired. Therefore the range in industry is from pretty good to very good. In academia it is from really terrible to very good. Academic pay doesn’t reflect this range.

    • Ross

      Well put.

  • Fen

    Prices are high because of their assumption the government will give “free” money to students to pay the salaries of over-educated administrators (the Vice President of Diversity and Global Warming).

    $80k for a degree in gender studies? Really?

  • significant margin of error

    I will second margin of error. One needs to carefully distinguish between faculty, both research and teaching, and administrators. One also needs to be careful when comparing overall spending versus spending per position. Much of the increase in spending is due to the increase in the number of administrators. While some individual administrators have witnessed large increases, much of it is due to the shear number of new administrative positions that have been created.

    Many of my students start at 45k per year, which means that my associate professor salary is only 80% greater. Many of them will out earn me in 10 years.

  • KR

    It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation: administrators are overpaid, and faculty can also be overpaid (especially the lazy, middle manager careerist faculty types). And on top of that, too much is being spent on cushy buildings and services to attract the sucker undergrads to keep fueling the ponzi scheme. I have no problem with targeting overpaid administrators, but that shouldn’t detract from focus on politicized, privileged professors who seem to think they have the toughest job in the world in their insular and ideological little bubble. It’s time for tenure to GO. Join the “American dream” out here, the lot of you. Time to put the entire structure of higher ed under the microscope.

    • Ross

      I am a fairly newly tenured faculty member. From this side of the fence I think tenure is flawed but necessary. I can stand up for the students against the administrators because of tenure. I can still be fired, but it would be hard to do.

      One thing that I did not consider before going into academia is that if you like living in small to medium sized communities then there will usually only be one institution of higher learning in that community. If you lose your job you have to move your family to a new community or you have to change careers. Add to this that fact that most searches for academic jobs are national and you are talking about a significant disruption to your families life.

      I enjoy teaching and am not complaining about the job. I agree that the current tenure system is flawed. I have a few colleagues who are pretty much retired in place. It would take about 3 years to fire them and they are about 3 years from retirement so it is not worth the effort. If you totally get rid of tenure though you will make the job less attractive. That would mean that you will either have to pay more to get the same quality or you will have to have lesser quality faculty overall.

  • Andy Freeman

    > Andy, I’d take that in a heartbeat. I teach engineering, and my grads start in the $55K to $75K range. Median is at least $60K. Yeah, I could squeak by on $300K.

    That was a cap, not a minimum, but the intent was a couple years out.

    After all, colleges claim that they provide education for a lifetime….

  • Paddy

    Sounds like a good idea, but with one proviso. Before regulating academics compensation, All member of congress and and all major executive positions, including the president, VP, cabinet officers, Department heads should all have their compensation reduced to $1/year. After all, they are public servants.

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  • MarkJ

    Factoid: I think it’s safe to say that easily 80% of the “overpaid” faculty and administrators voted for Obama/Biden in 2008.

    As Eddie Dane in “Miller’s Crossing” might opine, “You are so goddamn smart. Except you ain’t.”

  • Gee

    So, based on your evidence primarily on adminstrative salaries, you’re with Biden regarding faculty salaries.

    What was your grad in Logic 101?

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