June 27, 2012
Will Market Forces Affect Law Faculty Salaries?
The Wall Street Journal published a story on Sunday called Should Tenure For College Professors Be Abolished? It comes in the usual point-counterpoint discussion where two individuals lay out their case for and against. The standard arguments come up. Tenure preserves academic freedom is one. Tenure protects faculty who may be good at publishing but poor at teaching. Pick a side.
One quote from the pro-tenure side, represented by Professor Cary Nelson of the University of Illinois caught my eye:
Critics of tenure argue that the system rewards research, not teaching. But pay comparisons indicating that research is more highly valued can be faulty: Professors in some fields are simply paid more than those in other disciplines, regardless of the amount of research they do, and different fields lend themselves to different proportions of classroom and research time. So direct lines between pay and classroom time are difficult to draw.
That got me thinking. I wrote last August on the faculty salary survey from the Chronicle of Higher Education which showed law faculty as the highest paid in academics. The average salary for a full law professor is listed at $134,162. One of the common justifications for that high salary I’ve heard for as long as I’ve been in academics is that law schools have to pay market rates for faculty salaries as a school competes with the legal profession for the best talent. I grant that the statement is anecdotal, but I have heard law school deans say it more than once. I just wonder if they say that to university presidents. And I wonder if university presidents are going to start questioning that line of reasoning.
There is no doubt that the legal job market for new graduates is bad. There are plenty of stories that indicate that large firms are either deferring associate hiring or paying less for associate talent, or both. Essentially, the current market for legal talent doesn’t support the kind of salaries that firms paid out before the recession hit. There is commentary that suggests the situation isn’t going to change much even if the economy picks up.
As the number of LSAT takers and law school applicants has dropped significantly, at least 10 law programs have announced they are reducing the number of seats in their entering classes. That means reduced revenue which tends to lead to cuts in the program. Cuts in the program usually mean staff reduction. So I’ll just throw it out there: will law schools adjust their faculty salary structure in light of current market forces?
I’m not suggesting that law faculty do not necessarily deserve their salaries. I’m sure law schools consider their faculty offers and rates of pay on any number of factors. I would think, though, the current state of the legal market would be one of them, or will be at some point. My impression is that once cost cutting gets to the faculty, we’ll know that things are really getting bad for the schools. I’m looking forward to the next salary survey in the Chronicle to see where this is heading. Will faculty status defy economics? [MG]