Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Problem With Data: Faculty Salary Reporting and the Management of Perception

 (Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2015)

Universities, and faculty organizations like the American Association of University Professors and the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT), have published variations of faculty salary surveys for some time now.  The AAUP publishes its Annual Report on the Status of the Profession (the 2013-2014 Report may be accessed HERE).  SALT publishes its salary survey (the 2012-2013 Report may be accessed HERE). Universities usually make theirs available in some form their their faculty senates (for Penn State, see SENATE COMMITTEE ON FACULTY BENEFITS 2013-2014 Report on Faculty Salaries (Informational); tables may be accessed HERE). .

These are meant to serve a useful purpose--as an important contribution to informational transparency.  This transparency, in turn is meant to paint a picture of the state of faculty earning that can be used, as an authoritative data set, to further  positions and negotiating strategies,  of university administrators, faculty, legislators and the like.  It is also a valuable mechanism for managing public opinion about the state of the university and the privilege (or lack thereof) of a key university stakeholder.

All of this is well and good, and fair game, in the context of the politics of university administration, public policy development, and the operation of wage labor markets for university faculty labor talent.  Yet, data is a relational as well as an objective measure.  For policymakers, and especially for engagement, the choice of relational elements--the way data is packaged and the choice of data types to place in relationship to each other--will have a profound impact on the way on which the data is read and understood. More importantly, if done with some calculation, the careful presentation of relationships among data (including some excluding others) can be used to manage conclusions as well. This no doubt is usually inadvertent, but perhaps not always so. 

This semiotic insight is both powerful and so deeply embedded in our culture that it tends to go unnoticed.  This post considers how the way in which these relational markers work affect the presentation and utility of faculty salary surveys.    It also suggests the ways in which they might be managed and exploited.