Dear reader, if you believe a tenured professor has no right to complain about anything, ever, you will spare yourself much vexation by not reading any further. For those of you who are still there, this is a rant about money.

I recently received a contract for the coming academic year, which reflected a 2% cost of living increase over this year’s salary (better than the 0% we’ve gotten in the recent past), plus a $1500 raise for being promoted to associate professor. Altogether, my new base salary is about $52,000, not including benefits. Not bad, right? Everyone should have my problems! Let me say here and now that, unlike Ann Romney, I do consider myself wealthy []. But this rant is not about my relative position in the universe, which I’d say is excellent; it’s about my status relative to others who work on my floor.

I can maintain equanimity when I see that my base pay is a full $20K less than the nationwide average for female associate professors in private undergraduate institutions, which was $72,913 in 2011, according to the AAUP’s annual salary report []. (The average male associate earned $74,539, so it’s good to know that academe’s gender gap is keeping up.) Some of those people live in Los Angeles or Chicago or New York; others work at fancy schools with giant endowments and lots of wealthy, full-tuition-paying students; and a few of them may even be famous authors, or be curing cancer, or advising the president on Middle East peace. Considering where I teach and what I have to offer, my salary fits pretty well. I now officially earn more than half of the people in my county, the median income of which is $52,000.

What makes it difficult to be entirely cheerful about this is the fact that the average assistant professor at my own institution earned a base salary two years ago of about $1500 more than my future associate salary. Moreover, the average associate professor’s pay at my own institution is upwards of $60,000, a number that – assuming an annual cost of living increase of 2% for six years (since my institution does not offer any merit pay) – I will not be able to reach, no matter how hard I work, before applying for promotion to full professor, at which point I can look forward to earning about $3000 less than the average associate professor at my institution. Now an average is just an average, and it can tell only so much of the story. Knowing the median and the distribution might make AAUP’s information more useful. But even so, it irks.

I accept that governments, taxpayers, and even most of my students and their parents don’t attribute much monetary value to my work. The media tell us every day that most professors are lazy and/or overpaid. I accept that I don’t earn what financiers, surgeons, CEO’s, senators, plumbers, or advertisers earn. Their mistakes come at a very high cost, whereas my mistakes are mostly negligible (unless you count the left-wing indoctrination that Barack Obama and I have conspired to commit) []. I accept that I am currently, as an assistant professor, paid below the average among assistant professors at my school, because someone has to be below average. This makes sense simply because of numbers: there are a hundred Ph.D.’s applying for some jobs here, while there are very few applicants for others. Moreover, people in some fields could earn much more in industry than in academe. At hiring time, the college has little choice but to offer incoming faculty a wage that will get them to take the job; paying some of us more than others is a simple survival technique. Most people in highly competitive job markets, even if they are the cream of the crop, will take any salary they can get, and administrators know it. (And for the record, this is not strictly a Lilly Ledbetter issue; at least one of my male colleagues is also not getting “equal pay for equal work.”)

What is hard to accept is the idea that my work as an associate professor is worth less to my institution, on average, than the work of my assistant colleagues who teach the same number of courses I do, sit on the same committees I do, and get the same summers “off” that I do. But that is precisely what these numbers say. Or perhaps the numbers are saying that folks like me shouldn’t worry about money; we should teach simply out of love of the subject (or students, or mission), taking the rest of our compensation in thank-you notes and good vibes. But my higher-paid, lower-ranked colleagues also supposedly love their subjects, students, and mission, so why are they allowed to do it for the money? That seems unjust, as well as counter-productive in the long run.

In Economics for Humans [], economist Julie Nelson argues against a mindset that falsely pits “love-versus-money.”  Unequal pay is not a natural law that colleges must mindlessly obey; as Nelson writes, “money these days is entirely a social creation!” In so far as payments are a way to acknowledge someone’s goals and desires, as well as her accomplishments and contributions, “they reinforce and magnify the worker’s interior motivations and satisfaction.” But in cases where money payments signal a devaluation of a particular worker, they can be very deflating and create disincentives to future excellence.

Yes, higher education needs to pay attention to basic business principles. We must balance budgets and be conscious of economic forces like supply and demand. But when an institution of higher education ceases to differentiate itself from the for-profit world, when it becomes just another business that exploits conditions in the labor market (hello, contingent faculty!), we’ve lost something. It is the job of higher education to create the demand for the “product” we’re offering, to show people that what we do is unique and worth paying for. Perhaps this is a hard lesson that I, myself, must learn: if I can’t convince even my own administration that what I do is indispensable, then perhaps it really isn’t.

UPDATE: After sending a much shorter and more diplomatic version of this concern to my provost and president, they have decided to change the college’s policy on paying associate professors. There is now a minimum salary of $55,500 for associate professors (of which I will receive half next year while on sabbatical). So the good news is, institutional change can happen if people are willing to speak up and if administrators are willing to listen. Thanks, bosses!