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Published April 22 2012

Is $100,000 too low for an NDSU professor's salary?

FARGO – It isn’t lost on North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani that his professors aren’t flirting with the poverty line. After all, the average full professor at NDSU earns about $100,000 a year – a salary that has jumped $42,500 in the past dozen years and is twice as much as the median North Dakotan household income.

So when he says his faculty is underpaid, he acknowledges it may be a difficult argument for some in the public to swallow.

“People would probably say, ‘Wow, you’re paid a lot,’ ” he said. “Our faculty would probably say, ‘Wow, I could get another job and get paid more.’ ”

Nationwide data on faculty salaries updated earlier this month by The Chronicle of Higher Education underscores the dueling narratives: North Dakota professors earn a living many people would consider quite comfortable.

Yet if their colleagues at comparable institutions are the benchmark, they’re probably in line for a raise.

Pay at NDSU leads the way in the state, with the University of North Dakota just behind at $95,000 for full professors.

Six figures sounds like a lot, Bresciani said, but it only puts NDSU in the 18th percentile for full professor pay at doctoral institutions. He said the percentile overstates the gap, but that the school is still 7 to 8 percent below average.

Full professors at the University of Wisconsin at Madison make $114,000 a year on average. At the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, they make $125,000.

Bresciani said those schools make for tricky comparisons because of differences in the cost of living. But to compete for top-tier faculty, he said, NDSU must close at least some of the gap.

“If you want a top-flight faculty member, that can cost dearly,” he said.

Within NDSU, faculty salaries vary widely, from music professors who make $61,000 a year to about a dozen professors who make $160,000 or more – many in the hard sciences, where jobs outside of academia command top dollar.

The university’s highest- paid faculty member – Satish Chandran, director of the Center for Biopharmaceutical Research and Production – makes $236,000. NDSU lured him here two years ago from an executive role at Pfizer.

John Girard, the faculty adviser on the state Board of Higher Education, said those kinds of hires are essential for a top-tier university system.

“People say to me, ‘Do we not have enough high-quality faculty in the state?’ ” said Girard, a business professor at Minot State University. “The answer is, ‘No, we don’t.’ ”

Salaries have been rising for NDSU faculty over the past decade-plus, increases Bresciani said were due in part to efforts to ramp up faculty quality.

Chronicle of Higher Education figures show professors’ pay since 2000 has increased steadily, with full professors going up the sharpest. Starting at about $58,000 in 2000, the average salary for an NDSU full professor has gone up by nearly 75 percent.

Girard also said that reflects a catch-up period and echoed Bresciani’s assessment that if the state wants to live up to the board’s stated vision of “leading the nation in educational attainment,” it still has a long way to go.

“It’s hard to reconcile how we will ever get there if we don’t plan on rewarding our faculty,” he said, adding that faculty “have been very fair” in years when the state wasn’t as flush as it is today.

In recent years, the university system has brought compensation for presidents and its chancellor up to snuff, he said. He said those gains were fair and he doesn’t begrudge them – but “if we’re able to fix it for the presidents, then let’s put a plan in place to fix it for the faculty as well.”

Ever-tightening belt at MSUM

If the outlook is frugal but hopeful in North Dakota, it’s downright grim across the river at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

State budget cuts there have forced the school to hold salaries flat for several years and entice highly paid faculty into early retirement.

Largely as a consequence of those retirements, the average salary for a full MSUM professor has fallen from $82,000 three years ago to $79,600 today, putting the school in the 30th percentile for its peer group.

The alternative would have been widespread layoffs, said President Edna Syzmanski.

“It’s depressing for these guys,” she said.

It’s none too sunny for the school, either, which worries it’ll lose faculty to richer rivals. Defections have been relatively rare so far, but Syzmanski fears they’ll become more common as the economy improves and the job market loosens.

She said a drastic reduction in state aid is at the root of the problem.

The school gets about as much funding from the state today – $23 million – as it did in 1996. In real dollars, that represents a cut of about 40 percent.

The school touts its tight-knit, student-centric culture as an intangible benefit, but at the end of the day, culture can’t raise a family or service student loan debt for professors who spent years earning their degrees, Syzmanski said.

At Concordia, meanwhile, full professors make $76,000 a year – squarely in the 50th percentile for comparable colleges.

Pay has remained flat over the past four years, which Provost Mark Krejci attributed in part to cost controls during the economic downturn.

He said the school would like to pay better and is working on a plan to do so.

Average faculty salaries for 2011-12


Full professor: $100,100

Associate professor: $75,600

Assistant professor: $68,000

Instructors: $53,300


Full professor: $95,600

Associate professor: $79,400

Assistant professor: $64,700

Instructors: $48,600


Full professor: $79,600

Associate professor: $62,600

Assistant professor: $56,500

Instructors: $41,700


Full professor: $76,600

Associate professor: $64,700

Assistant professor: $52,800

Instructors: $45,400

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education

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