Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 43: Charges of underpaid UNC professors unwarranted, according to study

UNC-Chapel Hill professors are among the better-paid professors in the nation, according to a new study by the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. And they enjoy a comparatively high standard of living. Adjusted for the cost-of-living, total compensation for UNC-CH professors ranks 30th out of 86 Research I universities, 19th among 59 public universities, and 9th among UNC-CH’s self-designated peer institutions. Adjusted for the quality of life – the relative benefits of working and living in the Triangle – UNC-CH ranks 24th out of all Research I universities, sixth among the 59 public universities, and 9th among its peer institutions. The study, by Pope Center researchers Jon Sanders and George Leef, is a follow-up to an earlier Pope Center study in which Sanders argued that, adjusted for the cost-of-living in the Triangle, salaries at North Carolina public research universities are very competitive. But several UNC-CH professors said the study was flawed. Economics Department Chairman David Guilkey criticized the study for focusing on salary alone rather than on total compensation and because the study’s cost-of-living index omitted Chapel Hill. In a paper entitled “Comparing UNC-CH Faculty Salaries and Compensation Levels to those at Other Research Universities,” Guilkey and several other UNC-CH professors concluded that compensation at UNC-CH is comparatively low, ranking only 58th among Research I universities.

“Guilkey was correct in noting that the index we used was missing data for Chapel Hill,” said Leef. “However, it would be a mistake to look only at the high cost of living in Chapel Hill when evaluating UNC-CH professor’s compensation.” UNC-CH professors purchase goods and services outside of Chapel Hill regardless of whether they live within the city limits, the study notes.

The Pope Center’s new study focuses on broad metropolitan areas in adjusting for the cost of living. The index from VirtualRelocation.com, said Sanders, is preferable to the American Chamber of Commerce Research Association (ACCRA) index used in the center’s previous studies because it covers more areas and accounts for more factors. Housing costs, property and income taxes, auto insurance, electricity costs, rent, weather, crime, and median income are included. “It would be a mistake to look just at the high-cost enclave of Chapel Hill in evaluating UNC compensation without making similar adjustments for other universities where many professors happen to live in small, high-cost areas, something the Guilkey paper did not do,” reads the study.

The new study also casts doubt on the “brain drain” theory – the idea that professors will flee from UNC-Chapel Hill if salaries do not increase – recently employed by UNC President Molly Broad and several other university leaders. At a recent UNC Board of Governors meeting, Broad said that the faculty salary “problem” would effect UNC’s ability to keep good professors and adequately handle projected enrollment increases. She said that the UNC system needs an additional $28.3 million to keep faculty salaries competitive with those paid by other public universities. The new spending “is something we might reasonably expect to come from the General Assembly,” she told reporters.

“Our study found no evidence to support the brain drain theory,” Sanders said. “And for the General Assembly to persuade legislators to fund salary increases over other pressing state needs on the basis of an unproven and highly questionable theory would be shameful.”

Copies of the new study are available on-line at www.popecenter.org or by calling the Pope Center at 919-828-3876.