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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney
3. The Economic Status of Biology Faculties
While the substance of the biological curriculum was undergoing dramatic change, so also was the economic status of university faculty members particularly in science faculties in major universities. My beginning appointment at Michigan, with a brand new PhD and as an assistant professor, was something of an anomaly in 1951, and a symptom of economic changes in higher education. I believe that mine was the first appointment immediately from graduate school to an assistant professorship in life sciences at Michigan, but such appointments became common for the next several years. Earlier appointments of new faculty were characteristically at the level of instructor, and assistant professorships were deferred for 5-7 years. This more rapid climbing of the academic ladder for new teaching staff was primarily a response to post-war demographics. Universities were unprepared in staff and facilities for the influx of the students at the termination of World War II in 1945. Ill-prepared students - such as I was - were accepted in graduate programs as teaching assistants. Graduate students were rushed through their training and were eagerly sought by university recruiters even before their theses were typed. As the supply of trained scientists improved, the time in training and the time in rank gradually stretched. The instructorship title was not usually reinserted as a normal tenure-track rank in the sciences, but was reserved for adjunct teaching staff.
Gradually, as the supply of PhD s increased, more and more graduates chose to improve their desirability by obtaining postdoctoral experience, which improved their bibliographies, enhanced their research skills and grantsmanship capabilities. Postdoctoral appointments eventually replaced instructorships as prerequisites for tenure line appointments in major universities. When the universities became fully staffed in the 70s, long-term postdoctoral careers and even “permanent” postdoctoral status, came to be common categories. The very function of a university professor, indeed of an American university, was eventually modified by shifts in the sources of funds, particularly by the steady growth of national research agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Education remained as a significant but secondary function of the “comprehensive university”. “Distinguished Professors” sometimes came to be appointed who had little or no contact with undergraduate students, little interest in curricular development, and limited participation in university governance.
The augmentation of faculty salaries was tied to the same demographic forces. The first position I was offered in 1951 as a new PhD. in Zoology was an instructorship at Michigan at $3600. I declined that offer for complex reasons, but one of these was that the National Research Council postdoctoral fellowship I was offered at Cal Tech for the same amount was tax-free. Two days later Michigan offered me an assistant professorship at $4600, and a reduced teaching load; I would not have to teach the big introductory Zoology course. The Michigan department head proudly assured me that in 20 years “if you keep your nose clean” the full professorship just vacated by my predecessor in genetics A. Franklin Shull - would be waiting for me, along with his salary of $8,000. In fact, when I left Michigan only 8 years later I left a salary of $8,000 and accepted a full professorship at Illinois that was 50% higher. Post-war inflation certainly accounted for some of the salary increases for faculty, but the infusion of funds from federal granting agencies and from industrial corporations was the major factor that erased the near penury of university faculties that was the heritage of depression years and neglect during WWII.
The improvement in faculty salaries was not, however, uniform across disciplines. Illinois had embraced enthusiastically some of the features of the General Motors market mentality that had been claimed for Michigan, and was willing to pay competitive salaries for desirable rare species of academicians relatively soon particularly in disciplines with taps on grant funds. Other university systems retained for a longer time the ideal of economic equality across disciplines. When I was approached with an offer in the California system in 1958, I was told that my salary at Michigan was already off-scale for California.