For over a half-century, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) annually has provided data on the salaries of professors. The preliminary data for salary changes for those working in the current (2022–2023) academic year show that for the third consecutive year, average inflation-adjusted earnings declined. At least in part, this is a consequence of the increased and largely unanticipated inflationary upsurge after 2021. In the 1970s, during a similar but even more prolonged period of high price increases, inflation-adjusted salaries of professors fell for many years. Tuition fees and faculty salaries are set on an annual basis several months before the beginning of the school year, and an inflationary upsurge can lead to unanticipated real reductions in compensation because of the inability of colleges to adjust salaries and tuition fees more frequently.

But the current compensation decline is not just inflation-determined and is actually more long-lived. Compare the seven-year change in average salaries reported by the AAUP for the years around the beginning of the 21st century—the 1997–98 academic year through the 2003–04 year—with the change for most recent seven years, the 2016–17 academic year through the 2022–23 year. In the first period, average real salaries rose every single year by a healthy 7.94 percent over the entire period. By contrast, in the last seven years, salaries fell by 6.07 percent.

During the era around the turn of the century, enrollments were generally rising, and public support for higher education was relatively robust. By contrast, during the most recent years, enrollment has steadily declined, indeed it has done so every year since 2011. Although a variety of factors impact enrollment, including birth rates, inflows of immigrants and foreign students, and pandemics, I would argue that the general decline in public support for education, as evidenced by a recent Wall Street Journal/NORC survey, which showed a sharply declining belief that college provides positive net benefits, has manifested itself in fewer students on the typical college campus, and, with that, a decline in the number of teachers needed. The demand for faculty is falling, hence the average salary is facing downward pressures, particularly as relatively high-paid senior faculty retire.

Additionally, amidst generally limited growth in college revenues, colleges have continued to expand spending on noninstructional employees, most notably in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The more dollars devoted to DEI and other administrative staff, the less that is available for core instructional needs, such as paying professors. So DEI’s explosive growth has doubly hurt faculty: its obsession with race, gender, and other physical attributes has dissuaded some from attending college, reducing tuition revenues and sometimes state subsidies, and it has also reduced the share of university budgets going to pay faculty.

Faculty members often seem oblivious to what good jobs they have. Most are largely their own bosses, working at their discretion except for the 300–400 hours a year they are physically teaching classes and a few hundred other hours spent on obligatory responsibilities (advising students, grading exams, preparing lectures, and writing papers that typically few read). Some get consumed by college politics, which is characterized by a low ratio of constructive outcomes to time spent in strenuous machinations over campus policies. Others, like myself, spend a lot of time researching whatever subjects of interest they want in whatever manner they like. Many take off for a month or two in the summer or on occasion much longer paid sabbatical leaves. (How many nonacademics get “sabbaticals”?) They often earn lifetime job security (via tenure). To be sure, many do far more than the minimum requirements, but the demands of the job are not extremely onerous (spoken by one who did them for 57 years) and often are very enjoyable.

There are four tactics that faculty have used in the past to deal with declining real incomes. First, they ramp up lobbying legislatures and Congress for more subsidies, which during the COVID-19 crisis led to massive temporary inflows of federal funding, probably saving some schools from closing. Second, they sometimes unionize and threaten to strike if salaries and benefits are not maintained or increased. Third, they often moonlight, taking on teaching gigs at other schools or engaging in other employment, such as consulting. Fourth, some induce spouses or other relatives to go to work to augment household incomes.

Unionization of faculty has in the past typically been at best modestly successful, and despite the progressive orientation of a large proportion of college teachers, it has not had as strong as an appeal that it has had at the primary and secondary level, although, as I write, professors are on strike at both Rutgers University and Chicago State University. With decreased enrollments, secondary teaching opportunities are limited. For many professors, therefore, the prospect of some reduction in the standard of living is very real. They are facing the consequences of being either unaware or indifferent to the public anger arising from a growing perception that higher education, already too expensive and an increasingly risky investment for consumers, is suffering from the violation of its important role of serving as a nonideological environment where civil expression of a wide range of viewpoints inspires learning and discovery.

With a colleague, I once wrote an article for a relatively distinguished journal (Public Choice) entitled “War Between the Rent-Seekers,” wondering if, as various groups battle for a limited supply of resources, they will start fighting with each other. College professors will battle elementary teachers for education funding, for example. But it may actually be more like civil war—fighting within universities between the faculty and the increasingly powerful administrative bureaucracy. But as overall resources shrink with falling enrollments and an increasingly hostile public on which universities are utterly dependent for support, maybe all the campus protagonists will end up losers.