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By Dave Umhoefer December 26, 2012

UW System president says salaries are 18 percent below national average

The head of the University of Wisconsin System says it’s high time for employee pay raises after several years of freezes, cuts and furloughs.

"We will all pay the price in lost talent and sliding reputation" unless UW starts closing a pay gap between it and peer institutions nationally, System President Kevin Reilly told the Board of Regents on Dec. 7, 2012. "No operation – public or private – can keep its talent if compensation languishes for too long."

Reilly, president since 2004, said the "gap between our UW employees’ compensation and that of their peers has widened in recent years, and that gap continues to grow."

He added: "Indeed, faculty salaries at UW System institutions have now fallen more than 18 percent below the national average."

We suspect, with the state budget season fast approaching, that we’ll hear that 18 percent figure again.

So let’s test it.

There are many ways to compare salaries at schools. Reilly chose to roll all the UW campuses into one, which as we shall see has limitations.

That said, Reilly made clear that his figure was system-wide, so ultimately we’ll focus on that.

We turned to salary figures collected annually by the American Association of University Professors, a member organization established "to advance academic freedom and shared governance, to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education, and to ensure higher education's contribution to the common good."

The group’s figures for instructional faculty pay, gleaned from its surveys of institutions for 2011-’12, are widely quoted, notably in salary comparisons compiled and analyzed by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Reilly didn’t make clear whether UW’s "peers" include competing private schools, or just public, so we’ll examine both.

For 11 of the UW System’s four-year campuses, the AAUP peer group is master’s-granting schools. The Madison and Milwaukee campuses are compared to a more select group, doctoral institutions.

The Chronicle of Higher Education site shows that all but one of the UW System’s 13 four-year campuses pay professor salaries that are "far below" the national median for full professors at public, private and independent institutions of similar type. Madison is the lone exception; average pay for full professors there ($114,690) is merely "below" the median for doctoral institutions. Figures are for full-time professors.

Pay at 11 of the 13 schools for another group of faculty -- assistant professors, which is considered the entry level -- was "below" or "far below" the national median. At the other two, it was above the national median -- Madison ($75,860) and Whitewater ($62,178).

At the UW System’s 13 two-year campuses, professors of all types collectively are paid "far below" the national median, the salary figures show. The two-year campuses include schools such as such as Rock County, Fox Valley, Waukesha and Barron County.

Let’s quantify the size of the gap.

At the flagship Madison campus, full professors collectively would need a 4 percent to 5 percent raise to reach national averages, depending on whether independent and private schools are included in the comparison, according to calculations we did using the AAUP data.

Assistant professors at Madison, by contrast, are 4 percent to 6 percent above the national averages.

But Madison stands alone as coming close to the national averages in both categories.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the state’s only other public doctoral institution, runs 24 percent to 27 percent below national levels for full professors, with average pay of $95,570. Assistant-professor pay there runs 6 percent to 8 percent behind.

The other 11 four-year campuses range from 15 percent to 33 percent below average for full professors. Full professor pay at the four-year campuses (not including Madison and Milwaukee) ranged from $67,008 to $75,857.

Assistant professor pay at 10 of the 11 fell short by 5 percent to 19 percent (with Whitewater the only school above the median).

Those two positions -- full professor and assistant -- don’t comprise the entire faculty.

Reilly’s specific claim was not about individual schools, or groups of schools, but that system-wide faculty pay has fallen 18 percent below the national average.

We asked AAUP’s research director, John Curtis, to calculate a system-wide figure, one that rolls up all the campuses into one amount, and includes all types of full-time faculty, including associate professors, instructors and lecturers.

Based on his figures, we found a collective 20 percent faculty pay gap between UW System salaries and those at similar public, private and independent schools.

The gap is 18 percent for just the four-year, public Wisconsin campuses (leaving aside the two-year schools).

Reilly’s office told us he, too, relied on the AAUP figures to reach his conclusion. His spokesman, David Giroux, provided detailed comparisons that also factored in a cost-of-living adjustment based on geography. In addition, Reilly’s approach compared schools with a select peer group rather than all schools of the same general type.

The bottom line from the UW-provided data: It reaches very similar conclusions to the analysis by Curtis. There was one major exception. Reilly’s analysis put UW-Madison professor salaries much further below the median.

Our bottom line: Reilly’s math appears to be on target.

Curtis cautioned that a system-wide number may signal a disparity in a broad sense, but really is not very meaningful for addressing pay institution-by-institution because the overall figure combines a wide range of institutions of different types.

A system-wide look does not shed light on pay differences by field, either -- history professors vs. engineering professors, etc.

Our rating

Reilly said "faculty salaries at UW System institutions have now fallen more than 18 percent below the national average."

The aggregate figure has its limitations as a precise guide for future action, but Reilly scores with this broad comparison, which suggests a significant disparity.

We rate his claim True.

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Our Sources

UW System President Kevin Reilly, transcript of remarks on pay, to Board of Regents, Dec. 7, 2012

American Association of University Professors, "2011-12 Report on the Economic Status of the Profession," accessed Dec. 11, 2012

American Association of University Professors, "Average Salary of Full-Time Instructional Faculty, University of Wisconsin System and National," spreadsheet created by AAUP, Dec. 11, 2012

Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac of Higher Education 2012, searchable tables based in part of data from American Association of University Professors, accessed Dec. 11-12, 2012

Interview with Bryan Kennedy, president of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, Dec. 11, 2012

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,"College professors earn less in Wisconsin, report finds," April 13, 2009

Interview with John Curtis, director of research and public policy, American Association of University Professors, Dec. 11-12, 2012

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, School Zone blog, "Professor pay story: Here’s a look at compensation," April 13, 2009

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,"UW pay raises needed, system president says – but when?" Dec. 8, 2012

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,"Better pay luring UW chancellors,"  May 4, 2008

Interview with David Giroux, executive director, communications & external relations, University of Wisconsin System, Dec. 11, 2012

UW System, comparisons to peer group median salary averages 2011-12, provided Dec. 12, 2012

Interview with Chronicle of Higher Education Managing Editor Scott Smallwood, Dec. 13, 2012  

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