While most studies of university compensation look at average salaries, I have stressed that we need to examine wage inequalities. For instance, in the case of UC senate faculty, we have seen a growing disparity between the top earners and everyone else. A recent study of faculty compensation helps us to see that a major cause for this increased disparity is the use of off-scale salaries, which are usually negotiated between an administrator and an individual faculty member. This privatizing system not only creates a system of competing free agents, but it also decreases transparency by circumventing the peer review process.
The Academic Council’s report shows how the use of off-scale salaries varies from campus to campus; here is the percentage of professors with off-scale salaries on each campus: Merced 88%; UCLA 80%; Santa Cruz 73%; Berkeley 72%; Irvine 66%; Santa Barbara 66%; San Diego 64%; Riverside 59%; and Davis 52%. The fact that Merced is so high could point to the recent move to hire most professors off scale. Currently, in the system, “91% of assistant professors are hired off-scale, 94% of associate professors, and 80% of full professors. On average, 89% of new hires were off-scale.”
While some argue that this need for off-scale salaries is due to the faulty nature of the current professorial salary scale, others believe that by keeping the scale low, administrators and individual faculty members are able to justify making secret, private deals. In response to these issues, the Academic Council wants to create a new system, which would: “Maintain funding for merit actions based on existing merit and CAP review processes, such that faculty who advance to a new rank and/or step receive a new salary at least equal to the average of campus colleagues at the same rank and step.” Thus, instead of relying on off-scale salary negotiations, this new system would combine the current merit system with a new way of making sure that all faculty of the same rank would have similar salaries.
The major problem with this good proposal is that it is hard to imagine faculty members and administrators moving away from a system of private negotiations. Like the general economy, everyone thinks they are going to be the exception, so no one wants a more equal system. In other words, even the people who do not receive star salaries believe in the star system because they imagine that someday they will also be stars. So if this new compensation structure did go in effect, what would probably happen is that a majority of faculty would still receive off-scale increases, which would result in raising the average salaries for each rank, while still maintaining the large disparities within ranks and between campuses. The only way to change this system is to simply update the salary scale and get rid of most off-scale negotiations.
At the center of this question of compensation are the debates over equality versus individualism and public versus private. While many faculty members insist that they want to keep the university public, and they believe in pursuing social and economic equality, everything in the system is moving towards a more unequal and privatized structure.