Work at a Research University

Submitted to the fact finder in Feb. 2018, by Tom Streeter

            The United Academics full time bargaining unit is made up of more than 700 faculty; nearly all faculty at UVM outside the College of Medicine. The positions they occupy and the work they do varies enormously. Currently, about 150 of our faculty are full professors, about 170 are associates, and about 90 are in the “up or out” trial position of assistant professor. Those three groups together make up what is generally called “tenure track” positions, where research is a necessary part of the job. Close to two hundred are Lecturers or Senior Lecturers. Another hundred have more distinct positions like Library Associate Professor or Clinical Associate Professor. Salaries vary widely. The median salary is around $80K per year. About 35 faculty make greater than $150K per year. The main determinant of salary variation is discipline: computer scientists make much more than philosophers. Within disciplines, there are variations shaped by rank, time in position, and merit determinations. A few salaries are larger because of previously held administrative positions.

            Research productivity, usually measured in terms publications and other forms of peer reviewed work, is the most important factor for determining promotion on the tenure track. Whenever someone says to one of us, “it must be nice to have the summers off,” we roll our eyes in exasperation. We typically spend our summers and sabbaticals (not to mention many week-ends and evenings) working hard on research, whether it is studying medieval manuscripts or the genetic evidence for the evolution of grasses or the mathematics of complex systems. UVM promotes faculty research activity to the world on our website: for example, a biologist studying the mechanisms of diversity in ocean environments, or an anthropologist studying refugees and minorities in Europe. In short, research is critical to the survival of the faculty member and to the university.

            Research is a passion as well as a requirement. Lecturers are not required to do research, but many of them work hard to publish articles and books anyway. For them, like their counterparts on the tenure track, it is part of the calling. When faculty complain about workload, as they have in surveys we have conducted, they do not mean they are asked to do too much research. Rather, they tend to mean that they are asked to do too many things other than research. Increases in teaching responsibilities, committee work, and the like not only make us work longer hours, but make it harder to do the research that is central to our careers.

            Most faculty also devote much of their energy to teaching, of course. UVM sells itself as offering more direct contact than other public universities with professors engaged in cutting edge research in their fields. Taking classes with professors engaged in research offers students a unique immersion in fine grained forms of critical thinking. Students learn not just what the truth is, but how to pursue it. When UVM alumnus and two time Pulitzer-winning New York Times journalist Eric Lipton visited campus to discuss building a journalism program here, he insisted that his UVM undergraduate experiences with scholars writing books on political theory taught him habits of mind that were more important to his career than any technical journalistic skills. He insisted that, whatever we do, we make full immersion in a scholarly discipline a necessary part of students’ experience.

            Research faculty and research universities care deeply about an institution’s reputation. Reputation has real financial impact. Middlebury College charges a higher tuition than St. Michael’s College, not because it has nicer amenities, but because it has a more prestigious reputation. Reputations are interlinked with faculty salaries. It is a common experience for faculty at UVM to lose colleagues because they are offered higher pay at more prestigious institutions. Assistant professors especially, but most faculty at some point, scan the job postings on a regular basis, notice salary differences between schools, and sometimes apply elsewhere. When UVM faculty salaries declined relative to other schools in the 1990s, the decline in UVM’s overall reputation was noticeable.[*]

           One of the constant tensions in managing higher education, however, is that reputations develop slowly, over decades. Over the period of a few years, reputations are experienced as static. Enrollment managers and administrators thus tend to focus more on factors that influence attractiveness to potential students among schools that, at the moment, have similar reputations: when a student has narrowed their choices to a few similar colleges, things like a better cafeteria or sports facility indeed might swing them towards one school or another. Administrators are thus pressured to spend money on things that might influence short term marketability rather than the longer term, but no less real, factor of reputation. Administrators are prone to look at salary increases, which build in costs extending out into the long-term future, as limitations on their discretion, rather than an investment in the university’s future viability.

           United Academics, by directly representing the concerns and needs of faculty, provides a counterbalance to that shorter term focus that can consume the attention of administrators. In the pages that follow, we  make the case that UVM can, and in the long-term interests of the university should, invest in its faculty.


[*] While the US News and World Report rankings are generally recognized as an at best blurry measure of reputation, it may be worth noting that, between 2010 and 2013, roughly as UVM faculty pay relative to other schools peaked (as subsequent exhibits show), UVM rose 12 points in the US News and World Report rankings, to 82 among national universities. This past year, UVM ranked 97 in that category. See Nick Anderson, “U.S. News college rankings: The big gainers and big decliners over three years,” The Washington Post, September 10, 2013,