Publication Date

May 1, 2004

A significant gap developed this past fall between the salaries paid at private colleges and universities and their public counterparts. Salary increases for historians at private institutions outpaced both inflation and the average for all fields, while raises for historians at public institutions lagged behind both measures.

According to the College and University Personnel Association-Human Resources (CUPA-HR), average salaries for historians at private colleges and universities rose 4.7 percent, to $62,488 for faculty employed in fall 2003. Average pay at public institutions rose just 1.2 percent, to $59,334(Table 1).1

Table 1

The divergent institutional tracks for historians at the broad level mask other significant differences below the surface. At public institutions, average salaries for faculty at the bottom rungs of the profession—new assistant professors and lecturers-fell in real terms from the previous year. Salaries for new assistant professors in those programs fell from $43,133 to $42,849. In contrast, at private institutions, while salaries for new assistant professors increased only by small amounts, salaries for assistant professors employed for more than a year in the program grew a remarkable 16.7 percent, from $44,145 to $51,539. And salaries for instructors at private institutions rose even higher, almost 19 percent, according to CUPA-HR.

The situation is quite reversed when we look at the statistics for the top rungs of the profession. In contrast to their junior colleagues, senior faculty gained more at public universities while they lost in private institutions. At public colleges and universities, full professors were the only members of the history profession who kept pace with inflation and pay adjustments for other disciplines-albeit with a modest 2.5 percent gain to reach $77,145. The opposite was true for full professors at private institutions, whose salary adjustments slipped far behind those for other ranks of historians as well as those for faculty at the senior level in other disciplines. Salaries for full professors in those programs gained just 2.2 percent over the year before to $76,925.

The latest findings show the continuation of a trend. History has been losing ground steadily over the past decade in comparison to other disciplines, as average salaries for the discipline fell behind the average for all fields(Figure 1). At private institutions this year the average salary for all fields rose by 3.5 percent, to $64,842. So even in a good year, history still lags almost $2,400 behind the average. At public institutions, an already bad situation managed to get worse, as the average salary for all disciplines grew 2.4 percent-double the rate for history-to $63,886. This leaves history salaries more than $4,500 behind the average in the public sector of the academy.

Figure 1

Ranking the Haves and Have Nots

Broad averages do not tell the whole story, however, as the salary differential between the top and bottom rungs of the profession has become quite acute. At both public and private institutions the highest paid history professor made around 12 times the salary of the lowest paid instructor. In public universities, the salary of the highest paid history professor was $204,200, as compared to $18,000 for the lowest paid lecturer. At private institutions the difference was $224,000 at the top rank, as compared to $17,646 at the bottom.

Fifteen years ago, faculty at the top of the pay ladder were only making five times those at the bottom. As recently as four years ago, the lowest paid lecturer in history at a private college was making one-seventh the salary of the highest paid professor. The widening salary gap reflects the recent growth of a “star system” in the profession (which is itself partly the result of the recent wave of retirements from the senior ranks and the consequent ability of some faculty to leverage their special qualifications to negotiate stellar salaries).

The CUPA-HR data does not tell us about salaries for the large proportion of historians (almost a quarter of those employed in the academy) who are employed part time. In our most recent survey of history departments, for the 2001–02 academic year, the average payment per course for a part-time teacher was $3,092.2

The issue of salaries for the lower ranks poses a long-term problem for the historical profession. As noted in the past few analyses of the CUPA-HR data, more than a decade of paying below-average wages to entry-level faculty members seems to be dragging down the average salaries of all historians, as underpaid assistant professors hired in the 1990s are promoted into positions as underpaid associate and full professors. Clearly though, the flow of dollars to the highest paid stars of the profession is not the only reason for a reduced flow of funds to junior faculty. The large gap between the number of new history PhDs and the available supply of jobs undercuts the ability of a new assistant professor to negotiate a higher salary.

Slight Improvements in Junior Hirings

On the job front, the CUPA-HR data does provide some modestly encouraging news. After a sharp decline in the number of new assistant professors reported hired over the past two years, fall 2003 saw a modest increase in hires(Figure 2).

Figure 2

Just over 30 percent (compared to less than 25 percent a decade ago) of the departments responding to the survey reported that they had hired a new assistant professor for the 2003–04 academic year. The 676 departments who responded to the survey reported hiring 290 new assistant professors in history. A much larger proportion of the history programs in public colleges and universities were hiring-nearly 40.9 percent as compared to 22.9 percent of their private counterparts.
The data also reinforces our findings from the most recentDirectory of History Departments and surveys of departments, which found a modest expansion in the number of full-time faculty.3 But within that growth there is a marked transformation in the composition of the departments, as programs that once consisted largely of senior faculty are now composed of a plurality of faculty at the junior levels (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Fifteen years ago, full professors comprised 50 percent of the faculty in U.S. history departments, and staff at CUPA marked out history as one of the most top-heavy fields in the academy. That has declined steadily, however, as large numbers of faculty hired in the 1960s and early 1970s began to retire in ever greater numbers. Full professors now comprise barely a third of the full-time faculty in the department, the same as assistant professors. This puts history right in line with the average for all disciplines.

—Robert Townsend is assistant director for research and publications at the AHA. He acknowledges with thanks the assistance of Miriam Hauss in revising the essay.


1. CUPA–HR, National Faculty Salary Survey by Discipline and Rank in Four-Year Colleges and Universities (published annually for the academic years 1986–87 through 2003–04). Salary figures are based on a 9- or 10-month academic year, full-time faculty only. Fringe benefits and summer earnings are excluded. Copies can be obtained from CUPA–HR at 1233 20th St. NW, Ste. 301, Washington, DC 20036-1250 or through their web site at

2. For more on this survey, see Robert B. Townsend, “The State of the History Department: The 2001–02 AHA Department Survey,” Perspectives (April 2004), available online at

3. See Robert B. Townsend, “History Jobs Take a Tumble, but the Number of PhDs also Falls,”Perspectives (December 2003), 7–11 available online at Perspectives/Issues/2003/0312/0312new1. cfm, as well as “The State of the History Department” article noted above.

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