Behind the Scenes of the 2013 AAUP Survey

Annual report gives the low-down on the highest-paying universities in academia.

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Ever wondered how much professors are paid for their efforts? Well, there’s a survey for that.

Each year, for at least the past five decades, the American Association of University Professors’ research office has collected and compiled self-reported data on full-time faculty salaries and benefits from private and public universities and colleges throughout the U.S.

The data collection for the AAUP survey usually runs from November until February, according to Samuel Dunietz, an AAUP Research Associate. The data is then synthesized by a committee of less than five people, led by AAUP Director of Research and Public Policy, John Curtis.

The survey is a well-known, go-to resource that faculty members, colleges and universities, and the general public can use to inform themselves about the compensation faculty members earn, set within the wider economic context for higher education.

“We’re looking at the state of the academic profession so faculty members can know what they can expect to make if they’re coming into academia or have been working many years … and also to see how much the academic profession is worth compared to other industries and the general public,” Dunietz says.

Longevity of the AAUP survey has enabled it to capture a snapshot of wider trends in faculty salaries through comparison of the current survey with past surveys, such as when the economy has struggled or prospered, Dunietz explains.

For at least the past decade, the AAUP has shared its data with The Chronicle of Higher Education, the number one source of news, information, and jobs for college and university faculty members and administrators, according to The Chronicle’s website.

The publication’s staff, including Database Reporter Jonah Newman and News Designer and Web Developer Brian O’Leary, tabulates and presents online the results of the survey, adding to it the Department of Education’s Integrative Post-Secondary Education Data breakdown of full-time versus part-time professor salaries. AAUP works with The Chronicle to ensure the information provided is presented accurately online, Dunietz says.

Users of The Chronicle’s web survey interface can filter by highest-paying schools, state, faculty rank and gender as well as access more detailed information about each institution, along with trends over time.

Although, the reported numbers vary from year to year, the 2013 survey included data from more than 1,200 higher education institutions. The analysis of the data revealed that after three years of average salary increases trailing behind the rate of inflation, the overall increase last year was relatively comparable to the hike in consumer prices—but barely. The rate of inflation last year was low enough for faculty salaries to keep pace, according to 2012-2013 AAUP’s Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession.

Compiling the AAUP survey each year is no easy task. It requires strong analytical skills and some technical expertise not only to create a system to collect data, but also to extract that data meaningfully so it can be used, says Dunietz, who has helped with data analysis of the AAUP report the past three years.

“My sociological background had a huge impact on my position here,” says Dunietz, American University Public Policy master’s student who earned his sociology degree from University of Maryland.

Once the data is compiled by AAUP and shared with The Chronicle of Higher Education by mid-March, Newman cleans up the data, organizes and formats it, so it can be presented online — in less than two weeks. He is also responsible for calculating percentiles that ranks which colleges and universities pay well among their comparable group. For example, the 2013 AAUP survey has revealed that University of Los Angeles in Calif. is the highest paying public university with full professors earning on average $167,000 a year.

Newman is a data guru, of sorts. He is the all-important-link between data and presentation, making sure the data from the AAUP survey is as correct and reliable as possible.

However, when Newman joined the publication straight out of undergrad from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, he had to up his Excel game.

“I think I had basic Excel skills that most people in my generation have. I’ve grown up using Excel. There were a lot of things that I didn’t know,” Newman says.

He says he has improved his Excel skills through learning from his colleagues and attending sessions like last year’s National Institute of Computer Assisted Reporting’s “My Favorite Excel Things,” which revealed unconventional Excel tips and tricks.

“I learned an attention to detail,” Newman says, “The percentile thing was a process of doing something over and over and I had to make sure I was doing it right and doing it carefully and not introducing any errors into the data.”

Furthermore, Newman says he has learned the importance of planning ahead, collaboration, and communication so that everyone on the survey team knows when the deadlines are and when everything launches online. The Chronicle of Higher Education usually publishes the AAUP survey results in April.

Before the AAUP survey can go live, The Chronicle’s designer and web developer Brian O’Leary must decide which design features will carry over from the previous years’ surveys as well as confirm that all components of the survey continue to work, and modify as necessary. For O’Leary, it’s an ongoing process of deciding which page elements need to change and which are left unchanged.

“I think that’s something we’ve always taken very seriously,” O’Leary says, “And we’ll continue to try to raise the quality of what we present and try to make it better and more intuitive. But it’s a negotiation between improving and keeping things consistent and useful.

O’Leary’s studies in English in undergrad and poetry at the master’s level, makes him an unusual choice for executing The Chronicle’s web design and development, although he has spent two stints there doing just that.

“I largely taught myself,” he says, “I don’t necessarily recommend it for everybody, but for me, it worked well. I learned flash and kind of got it on my own and decided I wanted to learn more and that sort of led to my entry into programming.”

If any bumps in the road crop up while Newman and O’Leary work to take the AAUP annual report live, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Interactives Senior Editor Josh Hatch has their back.

Hatch says he relies on his journalistic perspective and underlying understanding of technology and design considerations, grasped from his journalism degree from the University of Richmond and time spent at USA TODAY in multimedia storytelling, to set priorities and guide his team.

“I think it’s having an understanding of all the different disciplines, maybe not a master of them all; but I understand them enough and at a deep enough level that I’m able to weigh them all together in my mind.”

Hatch, who also teaches part-time at American University in Washington, D.C., says he works closely with Newman and O’Leary to ensure the AAUP survey content is easily digestible for the reader.

The Chronicle presents the AAUP survey annually because salary compensation is of intense interest to its readers, many of whom are faculty members or administrators, according to Hatch. The survey consistently drives traffic to The Chronicle’s website.

“I think it’s our most trafficked thing that we have on our website,” Hatch says.

Despite the iterative nature of the AAUP annual report, there’s fresh learning opportunities for everyone involved in the creation process. For example, Hatch says his team has developed technically and socially — not without spirited debate.

“It’s been a very rewarding experience. I’ve learned a lot and it’s something that even though it’s largely the same process year after year; each year is different. There are new things I’ve learned and each year, there are changes that have to be made, even if they are not obvious,” Dunietz says.

It’s that time of year yet again — Newman has already met with a colleague to begin planning analysis for the 2014 data.