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December 4, 2007, 06:19 PM ET

Fair Play for Humanities Faculty?

Rob Townsend of the American Historical Association tracks the statistical parameters of my professional discipline, and I almost always learn something important from his pieces in our newsletter, Perspectives. In the just-received November issue there is a piece entitled “Left Behind? Historians Lag in the 2006-07 Salary Report.” It is based on numbers provided by the College and University Personnel Association-Human Resources, and it shows history salaries lagging significantly behind the average for all disciplines (except the health sciences, which are not included in these statistics). The discrepancy is greatest in the lowest academic ranks (that is, entry-level salaries), where history salaries were 14.2 percent below the average — whereas full professors were 7.5 percent below the average.

What this means, of course, is that historians are now being paid at levels comparable to those of the other humanities disciplines — and for compensation purposes, history is clearly considered a humanties, not a social-science, field. History still does better at the lower ranks than literature, but it is now low enough to be included in the CUPA-HR list of “Disciplines with the Lowest Average Salaries.” And the humanities-social science distinction matters: Salaries in the social sciences are on average 7.5 percent higher than in history.

What these numbers tell us is not so much that we should feel sorry for historians, but that our universities are systematically discriminating against the humanities in setting compensation. We should not be surprised, should we, that an increasingly market-oriented higher education system should respond to market pressures? Or should we? Are we really to consider the humanities a throwaway part of the faculty and curriculum, to be less valued that income-producing ideas and behaviors? I hope not, but until humanities faculty complain loudly and systematically about being undervalued the situation will continue to deteriorate.

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