April 27, 2001





The principle of “equal pay for equal work” has always been hard to apply in academia. Because some fields of study are far more attractive to the outside world than others, differentials in workloads and salary levels among divisions (broadly speaking, in favor of the sciences over the humanities) seem to be inevitable.


Within any single department, however, salary ranges are determined by a combination of negotiating power, happenstance, history, and university policy. At present, these salary ranges can be extremely wide, and are seemingly unchecked (except by reviews designed to avoid any appearance of bias based on sex, race, or age).


The “free market” argument, emphasizing the beauties of unbridled capitalism, is often used to justify such uncontrolled salary ranges. On this point we offer two observations. First: While markets in the larger society are never perfectly free, markets in academia are even less free (since tenure prevents the university from “reselling” professors, and the corresponding “have gun will travel” stance often can’t be maintained by people with local commitments). Second: While markets in the larger society are free up to a point, they are ultimately constrained by other values (since a social safety net must be kept in place).


Therefore, held in balance with the “free-market” argument should be the fact that universities rely, to a degree often underestimated, on personal dedication and institutional loyalty. Faculty members must constantly do things that they are not (and cannot be) specifically forced to do, or supervised while doing. A sense of the university as a community, based on a measure of mutual concern and social justice, is an indispensable part of the loyalty that makes people willing to use their own time and energy for its improvement.


We want to offer two proposals that would contribute to this balance. They would establish criteria for salary ranges at both the bottom and the top of the instructional hierarchy.



Any rational administrator would prefer to maintain flexibility at all costs, and save money if possible, and thus would use non-tenurable instructors to the maximum extent feasible. Use of such “other ranks” of instructors is widespread within the university, and is set to increase further. Whether this is a good idea or not is outside our present purview. For the present, we want to focus on the very difficult situation of our Language Lecturers.


Language Lecturers are employed by a number of departments to organize and teach language courses, at elementary and intermediate and sometimes advanced levels. Many Language Lecturers also work with graduate students. Most have Ph.D. degrees. Many publish academic articles and books; most attend conferences and prepare teaching materials. All have course loads heavier than those of professors in their departments. While they are just beginning to be offered a few perks, compared to their professorial colleagues they are treated as second-class citizens in every way.


Salary ranges for Language Lecturers are at present extremely low, mostly in the 30-40 thousand dollar range (and often in the lower half of even that range). Obviously, these salaries need to be raised--especially since opportunities for promotion are very limited, so that Lecturers often remain at these salary levels for many years. We have found much agreement with our call for an increased salary range, and no disagreement. Beyond this simple proposal, however, we suggest a further measure.


We suggest that within each department, we work toward a situation in which no Language Lecturer is paid less than, say, 85 percent of what the lowest-paid Assistant Professor in that department is paid. Such a pegging of Language Lecturer salaries to professorial ones would contribute to the professionalization of the position of Language Lecturer, and enhance our ability to attract and keep good people. It would also emphasize our determination not to end up with an invidious two-tiered system in which colleagues who spend more time teaching are valued less highly than those who spend less time teaching. In short, we are invoking the principle of “equal pay for equal work.”


Some of our colleagues in the Faculty Caucus have other ideas as to how we should determine the proper “floor” level for Lecturer salaries. One possible approach is by comparing our salaries with those of our peers. At present, we do not compare too well. We have recently learned of one case in which, within the same department, a Language Associate (the comparable rank) paid by Barnard receives a significantly higher salary than a Language Lecturer paid by Columbia, for the same courseload. We hope to work with the Faculty Caucuses and the Faculty Affairs Committee during the coming year on this and related issues. For example, as part of an enhanced professionalization, should the title of the position be changed from “Language Lecturer” to something like “Professor of the Practice”? We are only beginning to explore such questions.



At present, we know anecdotally of at least one A&S department in which the salary range for senior professors approaches two to one: that is, the highest-paid full professor is paid about twice as much as the lowest-paid full professor, for the same workload and the same kinds of work. We have not been able to discover how common this situation is, but we don’t think it’s a desirable one. We have heard that its demoralizing and friction-generating effects (since people often do end up knowing salaries within their own department) are considerable.


The question is one of proportion: nobody would argue that all people of the same rank should be paid exactly the same amount, but neither would anybody argue that, say, three-fold or four-fold salary ratios were manageable within the same rank and the same department. Where is the line to be drawn? Wherever it is drawn (and not to decide is also to decide), the decision can only be made by political will and institutional choice.


We suggest that something like a fifty-percent differential should be the normal maximum permitted. That is, within any one department, the highest-paid full professor should be paid not more than about one and one-half times as much as the lowest-paid full professor. This range is ample to allow for a variety of special individual circumstances, and if it is in danger of being exceeded, an inquiry should be triggered, to see whether some extraordinary factor is involved, or whether some kind of appropriate salary adjustments should be made.


Many issues are involved here, and not all our colleagues are ready to agree with us about our proposal. We hope this question too can be explored in more depth during the coming year. We want the Senate to be a place for genuine discussion of issues that affect us all.



We are now more aware than ever of how difficult it is to obtain data about salaries. At public universities, salaries are part of the public record; there’s no evidence that this openness has destroyed their institutional integrity or intolerably invaded people’s privacy. Thus the extremely tight control maintained over information about salaries at Columbia is not the only possible policy that could be adopted. We would favor at least somewhat more openness.


Fran Pritchett, Subcommittee Chair