Faculty salaries poor compared with rest of Pa.

Ryan Brown, Managing Editor

If the saying “You get what you pay for” holds any truth, administrators at Pitt’s regional campuses shouldn’t expect much from their faculty.

Pitt’s four-year regional campuses, in Johnstown, Bradford and Greensburg, are among the lowest-paying universities of their type in the state, according to the most recent annual report from the American Association of University Professors.

“I don’t think any faculty member at Pitt who is primarily a teacher understands why Pitt salaries … are so low compared to peer universities,” said John Baker, an associate professor at Pitt-Oakland’s School of Dental Medicine.
In the reports, Pitt branches’ peers are four-year colleges with a focus on bachelor’s degrees.

Full professors at Johnstown, for example, made $76,000 on average last year. Only a handful of peer schools in the state – all church-affiliated – paid less.

Penn State branches on equal academic footing with Pitt’s regionals pay professors $23,000 more annually – more than 25 percent more, on average – with similar differences at lower job levels. Comparing Pitt’s regionals with state-owned schools like Lock Haven, the gap is even wider: professors there make six figures on average.

“There’s been a lot of thought given to that at this office,” said Andrew Blair, Pitt’s vice provost for Faculty Affairs. “It’s not something an institution has a lot of control over.”

Blair acknowledged that Pitt-Oakland and Penn State’s main campus offer comparable salaries, but said regional campuses’ salary differences are distinguished by the markets they serve.

“Comparing regional campuses, or whatever they’re called at a university, is very hard to do,” Blair said.

But with Pitt and Penn State both considered “state-related” – partly funded by the state government – it’s hard to find a clear explanation for why regional salaries would differ so sharply.

Two years ago, in fact, professors’ salaries at Penn State’s two-year associate-degree-granting colleges surpassed even higher-level Pitt branches by more than $10,000. Those schools’ data were merged into four-year schools last year.

The gap can be traced partly to comparatively low endowment donations and salary differences with the main campus, according to John Slimick, a computer-science associate professor at Pitt-Bradford and a state professors’-association officer.

“I don’t think Pitt has ever had the size endowment that people associate with our size,” Slimick said. “In the case of Bradford, I believe, the return from the endowment income goes primarily to student aid – rarely to faculty salaries.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, Slimick attributed the continuing salary gap to concerns that Oakland-based faculty might demand similar increases if they were offered at regionals.

“Large raises in the regionals would force large raises in Oakland … I don’t think anyone feels that that would be other than a bloody process,” he said.

Despite the clear salary gaps and apparent unlikelihood of major changes anytime soon, administrators insist there’s no adverse effect on hiring in what some national analysts call a “buyer’s market” for faculty.

David DeJong, Pitt’s vice provost for Academic Planning, boiled the salary gap down to a different approach to hiring – Penn State branches employ only 63 percent of faculty full time, compared with 83 percent at Pitt branches, he said.

“We’ve had a lot of success in hiring,” DeJong said. “Even when the job market has been very difficult, we’ve had a lot of success.”

Some division chairs at Pitt-Johnstown echoed his remarks.

“When we hire, it’s a national search,” Natural Sciences Division Chair Steven Stern said. “We don’t care what’s going on at other schools around here.”

Applicants rarely find themselves with a wide range of options nearby, Stern said, adding that Natural Sciences has had little trouble finding new hires in recent years. In the most recent round of campuswide hiring and promotion, conducted before the 2011-to-2012 school year, only a handful of slots remained unfilled.

But at least one expert questioned whether those slots will stay filled.

“They’re going to have some real difficulties in keeping people,” said John Curtis, the American Association of University Professors’ national research and public-policy director.

“They may be able to find some people who are willing to take a lower salary if they consider it an entry-level position, but (applicants) are going to continue looking around.”

Curtis said younger faculty members often continue job-hunting even after taking their first job, sometimes moving around the country in search of bigger salaries.

In Pennsylvania, those bigger salaries can be found at the 14 state-owned universities, of which three are considered academically comparable to Pitt’s four-year branches. Nearly all the state universities’ average faculty salaries surpass those at Pitt branches by $20,000 or more.

When it comes to hiring, those schools are considered competitive with regional peers like the Pitt and Penn State regionals, said Kevin Kodish, communications director for the state university system’s faculty union.

“We want to stay competitive with other schools in our region … Those schools are going after the same people,” Kodish said.

Kodish said the salary difference – with state universities surpassing both Pitt’s and Penn State’s regional campuses – is directly connected to their faculties’ 40-year union status.

“When times get tough you’ve got that contract to back you,” he said. “(At other schools), you get an offer, you’ve gotta take it or leave it.”

And Pitt can rely on its academic reputation to keep the most dedicated faculty, some of whom hold an almost religious loyalty to the institution, veteran English Literature Associate Professor Dave Ward said.

“Teaching here is a matter of faith,” Ward said. “That’s proof that faculty are more dedicated to their work than to their bottom-line paycheck.”

Nevertheless, Ward said he’s seen more than a few younger faculty members leave during his time here, drawn by better opportunities at other universities.

Ward expressed skepticism that Pitt’s regional salaries could ever reach competitors’ levels – the gap has grown since he first taught here in 1974, he said.

“Pitt’s outlook is very, very local and provincial,” Ward said.

“If you’re gonna have a school, you should make that school as good as you possibly can.”