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As a grad student I was, for the most part, shielded from issues like high-level bureaucracy, departmental duties and politics, and long-term career advancement. Obviously these things become more important when you're looking for a faculty job.

Question: As a faculty member in the U.S., what are the most tangible differences between being at a public vs. private university?

I.e., how does it affect your day-to-day life, or alternatively, key events like promotion, student recruiting, etc.? Obviously the question depends a great deal on the particular department and perhaps its ranking; I am interested mostly in departments "near the top" [ed: of some fairly arbitrary ranking systems...], but broad answers are also useful.

Thanks!

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A few anecdotal observations. It must be said that these are trends, and exceptions to everything I say are plentiful.

  • As just-learning said, private universities tend to pay a little better. Also, they seem to have less faculty turnover (perhaps for this reason).

  • Public universities often have more BS committee work. For example, my university periodically mandates a lengthy process of "post-tenure review". Negative or positive reviews have no consequences, and therefore the process is a complete waste of time, but we have no choice.

  • At least among top-notch research universities, public schools are usually large, and many private schools are small. Large schools typically have advantages (big seminars, lots of courses that can be offered to students, etc.) and disadvantages (lots of grading, people can feel lost in the crowd, etc.)

  • A corollary to the above: public universities often influence their towns more, simply because there are more people working and studying at the university. For example UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke are excellent universities (public and private respectively) which are ten miles apart, and it is Chapel Hill that has the really outstanding K-12 school system.

  • Especially at public universities, there might be many clubs which are largely student organizations, but faculty members and others also participate in. Especially if you are not yet inclined to "settle down", this could be a huge positive.

  • The campuses tend to be different. Many private universities are surrounded by lush greenery, where at public universities it is more common that you can walk across the street and get something good to eat.

  • Sports culture is more prevalent at public universities (although it is also very big at many private universities). I am a bit of a curmudgeon, annoyed at the overwhelming football culture at my school. But those more laid back than me simply enjoy the games.

  • Student attitudes tend to be different. At wealthy private universities many of the students will be more optimistic, and more ambitious goals and dreams seem to be more common. The downside (from what I have heard) is that entitlement and grade-grubbing are also more common.

  • Public universities serve the public. My university enrolls a number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. I attended a graduation ceremony, and when many names were called there was a palpable and obvious joy on the part of large crowds in the audience supporting them. Witnessing this was a deeply moving experience.

  • 1
    These are all good points. Regarding the sixth: it really just depends on the location of the university. I agree that private universities, and especially private liberal arts colleges, are more likely to be located in very, very small towns (whereas the size of a public university places a lower bound on the size of the town that contains it). But for instance there are places like Columbia, which surely get optimal marks for "you can walk across the street and get something good to eat". – Pete L. Clark Mar 3 '14 at 19:30
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In the US, the private universities apparently tend to pay more to their faculty:

http://www.aaup.org/file/2012-13Economic-Status-Report.pdf

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/08/faculty-pay-survey_n_3038924.html

On the other hand, the private universities should, for obvious reasons, be less affected by the state budget cuts.

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