David Nickerson ’97 has several comments on the topic of salaries at Williams. I’ll start with the one most directly related to Mike’s post below.

Suggesting a set pay scale for professors is foolish.

Well, someone has to set a pay scale of some type. We can be sure that the President and the Dean of the Faculty spend a great deal of time on this. As best I can tell from a distance, they do a fine job. I am especially impressed to hear, from a faculty source, that Williams explicitly sets its junior faculty salaries to be, in general, no less than 45% or so of those for senior faculty. Prior to hearing about Morty’s salary, I didn’t think that compensation at Williams was in any way a problem. I now consider the President’s salary to be, potentially, the proverbially canary in the coal mine.

Imagine that the College announced tomorrow that it was doubling the salaries for all members of the faculty. After all, Williams wants to attract and retain the best professors, the faculty is the most important resource for current and future students, the College has a significant endowment, blah, blah, blah.

I am not saying that Williams will do that. I am just pointing out that there is a potential conflict between those who work at Williams currently and those whose primary concern is Williams’s success over the very long term.

If Williams wants to attract the best educators in a field, it will have to bid against other schools for the candidates. Market forces will push salaries well above national average (indeed, my father was impressed that a small college could pay its professors more than he makes at a state research university).

It is not clear to me that the “market” is a meaningful construct with which to consider faculty salaries at Williams. How many tenured members of the Williams faculty, especially in the humanities, could get a similar job (tenure with the same pay) at another institution? I would guess that 20% would be a very generous estimate. There are simply way too many (highly qualified and dedicated) professors out there chasing too few jobs. The true “market clearing” salary would be much lower than it is now.

This is less true for junior faculty, of course. In that case, there is a job market in which Williams does compete. And part of the competition in that market is about how Williams treats its senior faculty. But, big picture, there are dozens and dozens of applicants for virtually every opening at Williams.

Adding a few disadvantages in geography (finding a job for a spouse is not easy) and the premium price for professors only increases.

This is a fair point. Of course, I would turn this around into a virtue and try to recruit faculty couples. (The College already does this, to some extent. I think that there are at least a couple of married faculty members.) Many faculty spouses (does anyone know how many?) also work for the College.

Again, it would be one thing if Williams were really having trouble hiring excellent teachers. But as Morty notes, “The caliber of our newest hires is extraordinary, as we have been able to attract our first-choice candidates in one field after another.”

Again, my point is not so much that Williams’s faculty pay is out of line. From a distance, it seems reasonable. My concern is with the top end and the effect over time that largesse there will have on the institution.

The pay scale would not even work within the college. Chemists have numerous and lucrative exit options, while historians are more or less confined to the academy. In order to pay all assistant professors the same salary, the College would either have to hire mediocre chemists (a la lower tier liberal arts colleges) or pay history and literature professors salaries well above the market rate (ala Caltech). Idiosyncratic academic salaries are a sign of efficient pricing not institutional waste.

Again, this is a fair point. Perhaps Williams does need to pay the chemists more than the historians. This will certainly be a popular opinion in the chemistry department. For the most part, though, I suspect that the differences that Williams actually has are so small that the costs (in terms of rancor) are less then the benefits. If a chemist would rather go to school X than to Williams because school X pays all its chemists 15% more (and more than its historians), then good luck to her. Williams should focus on getting faculty who think that Williams is special.

Indeed, just as an idea, I would suggest that the College consider the pay philosophy of another very successful 200 year old non-profit institution: the US military. In the military, two things are true about pay, with very few exceptions. First, pay is public. Everyone knows what everyone else gets paid. Second, pay depends on rank and time of service. If you are the best colonel in the Marine Corps, you’re reward is not to get paid what a “similar” civilian job would pay or to get paid more than other colonels. Your reward is to get promoted and/or to get the coolest job that a colonel can get.

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