Salary taboo

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Mon, 4 Dec 1995 00:40:57 -0600

Well, some strange ideas about U.S. culture do seem to float around the
rest of the world.

Yes, there is some kind of close relationship between money, status, and
power here. (Max Weber would not be surprised. Karl Marx would be even
less surprised.)

Talking about it, however, in terms of "My salary is x dollars per year;
what's yours?" is a big no-no in most professional settings. Unions may
very well be about reducing such marginal distinctions, but most people
who have "professions" or "occupations"--certainly not such a low-status
thing as a "job"--would be more shocked at such a statement than they
would by a discussion of personal tastes in sexual encounters. And we
are, generally speaking, uptight about talking about sex in terms of
"this is what my wife and I do, but this is what I prefer with my girl
friend." In public life, anyway, we're prudes. But we say even less
about what we earn!

Once, without thinking about the long-term consequences, one of our
would-be faculty collective bargaining organizations ("union" is just a
dirty word on our campus) tried an experiment. We are part of the
government of the state of Illinois; our budget is a public document.
Among other things, it lists the annual salary of every faculty member
down to the penny. So the -- all right, the union -- distributed copies
of the salaries paid the previous year and the raises given to each and
every member of the faculty. They saw to it that every member of the
faculty got a copy. Mind you, this is public information; anyone who
wants to take the trouble of looking it up in our campus library can get
the figures.

The scandal was temendous. It took years for the bickering to die down.
We NEVER mention exact salary amounts (except when complaining about what
is paid to the university's president). Our system usually keeps that
information out of the process of making recommendations about salary

As a member and then as the chair of our department personnel committee,
for example, I was never told who was paid what. The committee's
evaluations and recommendations are the primary driver of each year's
salary adjustments, for heaven's sake, but we operated without ever
mentioning who got how many dollars. We made recommendations on a
combination of scales of points from 1--highest--to 5--lowest--for
teaching, scholarship, and service, combined into an overall 10-point
scale that represented the final recommendation. There was no way to
discover how many dollars difference there might be between 1.9 points and
2.0 points, since that depended on previous salary and rank for each
individual. (Yes, we actually did go to tenths of a point. False
quantification has its own inevitable logic, stupid as it looks.)

One of the things I discovered when I later had duties that involved
looking at all the salaries of the 500 or so members of the professorial
staff in our college (Liberal Arts and Sciences) was that keeping quiet
about salaries, even though the information was in the library, was
functional. It's the only way to explain the ridiculousness that still
sticks in my mind, fifteen years later: I discovered that in a department
where there were 30 associate professors, no two profs at that rank got
exactly the same salary: they were separated by increments of $45 per year
(or $5/month on our nine-month contracts). The range between the highest
and lowest paid associate profs in that department was $180 per month, or
$1620 per year. At the time, we had a stringent rule in force that
required six years' service as associate professor before one might be
promoted to full professor. Those 30 assoc. profs had from one to 17
years time in grade. Until I suggested that the micro- distinctions were
utterly beyond human capacity to differentiate, it appears that nobody had
ever questioned the exceedingly fine cuts we were making. They didn't
change, either.

Footnote: We had an extremely elaborate appeals process for those who
weren't satisfied with the point-recommendations about their coming
raises. (Remember, nobody knew how many dollars a point might mean.)
I guess nobody but me ever figured out that the largest difference an
appeal actually made, during the four years I served on the council that
reviewed such things, came to $90 per year--a mere $10 per month.

The only way such a ridiculous system could operate at all was if all
discussion of actual dollar salaries was confined to rumors whispered in
locker rooms and in back alleys. The guy who suggested distributing the
salary table to all faculty members, and the union board who backed up
and implemented the idea, became pariahs. Apparently, discovering that
one was paid $5 per month less or more than one's neighbor had so much
devastating potential that nobody distributed the salary list again.
(Unofficially, anybody who actually does go to the library and look up
the salary figures is the subject of immediate gossip, since you have to
seek a librarian's assistance to find the damned things.)

Out there in the non-academic world, I have held many jobs. Often it was
official company policy that discussing salaries, or revealing your own,
was not permitted. At a few places where I worked, revealing your salary
to a fellow employee was grounds for dismissal.

Dollars are important, it's true. What our usual secrecy about *salary*
dollars conceals--FROM US!--is that most of us have salaries that are not
materially different from those of our colleagues. Maybe the differences
aren't as ridiculously small as $45/year, but effectively we're not that
far apart with a difference of 100 times that amount, or perhaps even 1000
times that amount. I know, $45,000 sounds like a huge difference, but if
you were to add that much to my (rotten!) salary I couldn't trade my
14-year-old car for a brand new one, let alone a new one every year,
unless that were the only change I made in my style of living. (I'm not
talking Rolls-Royce here, either: remember that increased taxes and
retirement contributions would cut that hypothetical raise by a third.)

Even the best-paid professors don't make a helluva lot of money. I study
Mexico; Raul Salinas de Gortari, brother of the last President of Mexico,
managed to steal--er, accumulate--at least a couple of billion dollars
during his brother's presidency. There are very few universities in the
U.S. that have total endowments that are that large.

But in the U.S., it would be shocking to say exactly how much I get.

I don't care if it IS publicly published information; I never tell
anybody what I'm paid except my wife.

Mike Salovesh <>
Anthropology Department, Northern Illinois University
De Kalb, IL 60115 U.S.A.