A few months ago, in the midst of a very exciting battle of words at Windsor, I got into an internet discussion with a professor who was absolutely outraged by one of the administration’s proposals: namely, to put a ceiling on professors’ salary, including his, after 30 years of service.
To step back for a moment: collective bargaining agreements generally outline a grid: a series of salary scales (or ladders, or steps – pick your term), generally one for each rank, to determine compensation. Each rank’s scale has a floor and increments, usually corresponding to years of seniority. Occasionally, at places like Alberta, UBC, and Waterloo, the increments are conditioned on an annual merit review, in which case it’s possible for a faculty member to see no increase in a year, or jump more than one step in a single year, but basically the principle is the same. Compensation increases as faculty move up the scale, and the whole scale gains value every year to compensate for cost-of-living. (For more on the Progression Through the Ranks system, see an earlier post here.)
Anyways, this professor was peeved at the thought that his salary (apparently he had 30 plus years as a full professor) could never grow by more than a cost-of-living increment. “What’s my incentive to even show up to work?” he asked seriously, while making north of $150,000 per year. I suggested that salary ceilings were pretty normal, but he claimed this was nonsense. So I asked one of our policy analysts, Jonathan Williams, to figure out who was right.
Jonathan reviewed collective agreements across 54 Canadian universities to identify the prevalence of maxima, or ceilings, on scale compensation, and the maximum number of steps for Professors, Associate Professors and Assistant Professors. He then compared results across institution types, using the Maclean’s classifications of medical/doctoral, comprehensive, and undergraduate. Those institutions in our sample, but not in Maclean’s (e.g. Athabasca, Vancouver Island), we have left as “unclassified”. Since this is meant to be a short and convenient morning email, we’ll spare you the more detailed methodology report, but feel free to email us if you’re really curious.
Anyways, turns out the answer is slightly complicated, because while most collective agreements do have ceilings, they don’t always have them for all ranks. As a result, in Figure 1 we display results not only by institution type, but also by rank. Across all institutions, over two-thirds have ceilings for Full Professors, and four-out-of-five have them for Assistant Professors.
Figure 1 – Percentage of Institutions With Pay Ceilings, by Academic Rank and Type of Institution
Now, Figure 1 simply measures the number of collective agreements where there is some kind of pay maxima. In practice, however, some of these scales have so many steps that almost no one will ever hit the top of the scale. For example, there are some collective agreements where there are more than 35 increments on the pay scale for Full Professors. Given that most people don’t make Full Professor until at least their mid-40s, only 80 year-olds would ever hit such a maxima (which, even with the elimination of mandatory retirement, seems a bit extreme). We therefore did a second analysis in which we counted scales containing 30 increments, or more, (i.e. incorporating 30 years of service, or more), as being equivalent to not having a ceiling at all.
Figure 2 – Percentage of Institutions With Pay Ceilings, by Academic Rank and Type of Institution (Assuming 30+ Years Per Rank Equivalent to no Ceiling)
Across all institutions, this brings down the percentage with maxima by about ten percentage points. However, the effect is concentrated at comprehensive universities (like Windsor, as it happens). Of the 15 institutions where 30 or more steps existed, ten were in place at comprehensives.
However, these are, to some extent, outliers. If we look at the mean number of increments per rank, the numbers are considerably lower – most agreements have between 14 and 20 increments per rank – which is probably absurdly high for Assistant Profs, but are otherwise about right.
Figure 3 – Mean Number of Pay Increments, by Academic Rank and Type of Institution
We can also examine these patterns by region. Ontario turns out to have the fewest institutions with maxima, especially when it comes to Assistant and Associate Professors, as shown in Figure 4. Institutions in Ontario also, on average, have about five more pay increments per scale than institutions in the rest of the country.
Figure 4 – Percentage of Institutions With Pay Ceilings, by Academic Rank and Region
It should be noted here that shorter times to maxima are not necessarily positive or negative, either for institutions or faculty associations. Agreements with fewer increments tend to have larger increases per increment, meaning professors may earn higher salaries more quickly. Conversely, more years may reflect more modest annual increments.
So there you have it. Most institutions do in fact have pay grids with ceilings, although in some cases these are more abstract than real. This was a lot of effort to settle an 8-month old internet argument, but perhaps some of you will find it useful.