The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently had to discipline a professor after The Charlotte Observer reported that the professor didn’t teach a summer school course he was paid $12,000 to teach. The 19 students who enrolled in the course were to learn about North Carolina’s legacy of racism and slavery. According to The Observer:
[Professor] Nyang’oro did not hold classes or require any exams. His one-page syllabus said that because of the “compact nature” of the summer schedule, the students would spend that time largely on their own to find one or two black leaders in North Carolina to be the subject of a research paper due at the end of the session.
After the paper reported on the incident, UNC conducted an investigation. Among the findings: Nyang’oro may have pulled this stunt as many as 45 times over a four-year period from 2007 to 2011. Why didn’t the university figure this out before a newspaper reported on it?
The UNC incident may seem isolated, but if we started pulling the lid off U.S. higher ed, we’d find more of this sort of rot. For example, buried in the same piece we learn that the money Nyang’oro was paid for teaching summer school courses was in addition to his annual salary, which reached $171,000 last year before falling to $159,000 (not including benefits) after he stepped down as chairman of UNC’s African Studies Department.
$159,000. Let that sink in for a moment.
Our overpaid professoriate
Apart from the professor’s fraudulent switcheroo, why are taxpayers being asked to pay all these academics’ six-figure salaries? Tar Heels are not alone. Our overpaid professoriate is a national problem — a massive, entrenched interest group.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the average U.S. associate professor earns $114,100. Full professors earn $197,800 (2011-12). Note that full professors often have tenure, which means they are nearly impossible to fire. Tenured professors normally also work less and publish less than untenured professors. It’s the kind of seniority-based system you’d only find in the oldest old-boy network.
How much do they teach? The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy found North Carolina faculty aren’t overworked in the seminar hall: “We discovered that teaching loads are a lot less than the figure cited by UNC. Our high measure yielded 2.68 classes per professor per semester system-wide, while our low measure yielded only 2.03 classes per semester.”
Why are university faculty earning so much and working so little? Universities will argue they have to attract and retain the brightest faculty to stay competitive. And it is true that under normal labor market conditions some faculty might be able to command such high salaries. But most university pay schedules are exorbitant and unsustainable. If state governments are looking for places to cut, there are worse places than within the ivory tower.