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Tenure protects a faculty member's job from many threats; however, does it also generally guarantee a minimum salary?

I am especially curious about fields, such as engineering, where there may be an expectation for the faculty member to bring in a certain amount of funding. If a faculty member did not bring in funding, would his or her salary be adversely impacted. Similarly, if a faculty member brings in lots of funding, would his or her salary be supplemented?

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  • If you have grants (that allow it), you can pay yourself 'summer salary'. More common for STEM perhaps than other fields.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 18 at 20:48
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    There’s no extra protections that don’t already exist before you’re tenured if that’s what you mean. But all regular faculty positions, tenured or not, have some base salary they pay regardless of grants or other measures of performance. So the answer is “yes (but not because of tenure)”.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 18 at 20:58
  • This will depend somewhat on 'hard money' vs 'soft money' appointments, and whether there is a tenured faculty union, what strength that union operates with, and details of bargaining contracts.
    – Alexis
    Jan 19 at 22:17

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I think there is no formal guarantee of a minimum salary, but, equally, it is my impression that in the U.S. there are few situations in which faculty have any formal contract whatsoever. For better or for worse.

University administrations can unilaterally "furlough" people, or reduce salaries, for whatever reason they wish. As (perhaps not unreasonably) at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Likewise, insurance plans, etc., can be unilaterally degraded.

An extreme case some decades ago, that apparently went through the courts, was a person on the medical school faculty somewhere in Chicago, who kept their position, but was given no salary. The courts decided that tenure did not entitle them to a salary... Happily for everyone, such a scenario does not seem to play out very often.

(Also, in my R1 univ, there's no cost-of-living increase, anyway, ... Even after tenure, there's incessant adversarial stuff about "merit", which has an increasingly short-term, objectifiable sense... apparently mostly designed to give an excuse to higher-ups to not give a better raise.)

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    I've seen that scenario play out a number of times at a number of universities-- not all the way down to zero salary for research faculty, but certainly dramatic pay reductions for faculty in grant trouble. Jan 18 at 21:49
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    There is minimum wage, but professors usually aren’t close to that line.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 18 at 21:50
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    @JonCuster Some of them might be, if the $15 minimum wage happens. I know that some of them are minimum wage (or darn close to it) down here in Australia, where the minimum wage varies depending on the field, qualifications, and amount of experience of the worker (the "award" system).
    – nick012000
    Jan 18 at 22:03
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    How can they not have a contract? There must be an agreement between the employer and the employee that the employer will pay the employee a certain amount. I'd accept that in some casual labour situations this contract would be verbal (if I employ a friend to help paint the house I might not have verbal agreement, but even then a contract exists). I can't believe that a university would not have normal written contracts just like any other business.
    – James K
    Jan 19 at 14:24
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    But surely the company agrees to pay the employee... and the employee agrees to work for the company? This isn't really about labour laws. If you don't have an agreement to do some work and get paid, then you don't know what to do or if you'll get paid! The agreement might say "we can fire you any time..." but that's still in the agreement
    – James K
    Jan 19 at 21:22
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It depends on the position.

Generally, tenure-track and tenured faculty positions with a teaching load are "hard money" - the university is paying you to teach classes, and you will be paid your contract salary, year in and year out, whatever it may be. You have the ability to supplement that salary - most research universities will pay on a "9-month" basis, which can then be supplemented with external funding for the remaining 3 months. You may also have the opportunity to take on additional compensated responsibilities, although more common are additional uncompensated responsibilities. It is generally accepted that salaries for tenured teaching faculty are protected as a requirement for accreditation.

Other tenure-track or tenured positions are "soft money", where you are responsible for bringing in enough funding to cover your salary. These positions are almost exclusively research-only with no teaching responsibilities. In general there is a commitment for salary from the institution, although it is contract specific and is generally reflective of the level of the PI. In some cases, this can be quite substantial, as federal money has a hard salary cap (I believe this year is $174k), and well-established and well-funded PIs often have large monetary commitments from universities in order to exceed the federal hard cap. In other cases, the committed salary from the institution may be little more than a pittance. As there is no oversight body exerting pressure for fairness (like the accreditation agencies for teaching faculty), the contracts for these positions can vary wildly, even within institutions.

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  • I'm pretty sure "soft money" and "tenured" never describe the same position. Jan 18 at 23:30
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    Incorrect. Granting agencies frequently use tt/tenured as a PI requirement and therefore soft money positions are often tt/tenured.
    – user152275
    Jan 19 at 0:35
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    Maybe this is specific to medical research? Jan 19 at 13:35
  • Also, the "generally speaking" about "hard money", etc., is correct ... except not entirely: at the advent of the pandemic, many universities unilaterally "furloughed" hard-lined faculty, and/or unilaterally did instituted pay cuts. Any other "sufficient financial exigency" can lead to the same unilateral stuff... Jan 20 at 2:03
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While there is probably a minimum for any given institution and you wouldn't be reduced below that for any reason, future salary increases depend most places on performance. There might also be a maximum. The limits might change from year to year, generally moving upwards for various reasons, such as inflation and cost of living. And there are wide differences between institutions and even between departments within a given university.

Chairs and/or deans usually have some discretion on awarding increases, but likely little in lowering salaries unless a person requests reduced duties also. This assumes there is no misbehavior, of course, which is more likely to result in dismissal than salary reduction.

I don't know, but suspect, that some laws affect the possibility of lowering salaries. In particular, there are some discrimination laws that might apply.

Most salaries are set on an annual basis and some grants might provide some additional funding for an individual. Salary may depend on an annual (or similar) evaluation or self evaluation.

However, at State Universities, the budget is influenced by political action. The budget for a department might be reduced, requiring difficult decisions to be made. But this isn't a performance issue, but a political one. Some departments are abandoned, though tenured faculty then are usually offered positions in other departments to the extent possible. And, at private universities, the budget may be dependent on outside factors that also require difficult decisions. But such things often involve faculty input in some way.

Moreover, I think that salary reductions, if known would be disruptive and a stain on an institution for other than misconduct or financial exigency. And both of those often result in hits to institution's reputation.

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University managing bodies are rarely committed strongly to academic traditions and ethos, and will gladly chip away both at your tenure - collectively and individually - and your employment conditions, salary and otherwise.

Whatever guarantee you may have - if it is not upheld vigorously and in an organized fashion, it will disintegrate and be lost; and conversely, guarantees you need or desire, and are currently missing, can be fought for and won, although naturally at great effort.

Thus, in modern times, and in most research institutions in most world states, the only thing guaranteeing your rights and privileges as a faculty member is a strong union:

  • At the individual institution, whether for academic staff only (craft union) or for all university employees (industrial union); and
  • At the country-wide/national level, both for academic staff at all universities and research institutes, and the general strength of organized labor.

PS - I realize OP is asking about the US, while my answer is more general. but as @AnonymousPhysicist points out, the USA is an example of weak academic staff unions and deteriorated employment conditions, including, apparently, no reasonable all-US/per-region pay scales.

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    @Buffy Do you have experience with a strong, national union? Jan 19 at 21:53
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    Since the question is about the USA, this answer is essentially "No, there is no guarantee, because there is no strong union." Which is a good answer. Keep in mind, though, that a union provides no protection if the university has no money. Jan 19 at 22:00
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    Academic faculty started from a position of shared governance required by independent third parties, and have, in almost every institution, lost all tangible power associated with that privilege. I don't know why you think the people who collectively blew that could ever manage to put together a union with any power.
    – user152275
    Jan 19 at 22:11
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    "Keep in mind, though, that a union provides no protection if the university has no money." <- It provides a lot of protection if the university "has no money": 1. Usually, the university only "has no money" in the box of what it expects to be paying; 2. If the university is owned by the state, then there is no such thing is "no money" - money can be re-allocated by taxation or by printing/minting; 3. When money is short, a strong union can focus on non-monetary objectives, whether it be personal employee benefits or a stake at controlling toe university. ...
    – einpoklum
    Jan 19 at 23:22
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    ... 1.5 A strong union is necessarily for achieving budgetary transparency. 4. If a university is collapsing due to "no money", a strong union arranges mutual support and aid amongst its members; tenured faculty might have less need of this, but some will.
    – einpoklum
    Jan 19 at 23:25
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Faculty in the US are covered by university policies, their contracts, including a letter of offer of a position, state law, and Federal law.

Federal law and any state law specifies a minimum wage. The minimum wage law applies to all employees, including tenured faculty. So yes, there is a minimum wage for them.

Some faculty are expected to raise all of their salary and fringe benefits as well as other costs through sponsored research. This is a matter of university policy or their contract. It is likely that they are still owed the lawful minimum wage as long as they are an employee with the obligations of employment.

Tenure does not guarantee employment. Every university has procedures for terminating tenured faculty, though the process might require several months.

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