The graph below is my reproduction of one I found posted on a bulletin board in the faculty mailroom. It’s from a flyer distributed by the California Faculty Association (CFA), the union of which I am a conscripted member. The point of the graph, as the title indicates, is to make California State University (CSU) professors boiling mad because we allegedly get paid less than community college professors.
Not that I’d mind getting a raise in pay, but there are at least two and probably three misleading things about this picture. First, notice the constricted vertical scale that begins at $45,000 (without even a squiggly mark to indicate the missing values). This makes the differences look much larger than they really are. Specifically, notice the seemingly huge difference between CSU Overall and CSU Full-Time Lecturers. It appears that the lecturers’ average salary is less than 50% of the overall average, whereas in fact it’s over 75%. Also notice that the difference between Community Colleges (all) and CSU Overall – presumably the most relevant comparison for the point they’re trying to make – already appears small in this picture, and it would look even more miniscule with a non-misleading vertical scale.
Second, the three leftmost bars are red herrings. The community college districts shown just happen to have salaries higher on average than all community colleges together, as shown by the fourth bar. Since these high-paying districts are included in the “all” category, there must be other districts paying less. Of course, if they’d shown those low-paying districts, it would have made CSU salaries look munificent instead of paltry.
Third, the CSU Overall category includes the CSU Full-Time Lecturers category. So if the CSU lecturers are making less than CSU faculty overall, there must be a lot of regular (tenure or tenure-track) faculty making more. Of course, it’s not at all surprising that lecturers make lower salaries than regular faculty; often they don’t have PhD’s or for other reasons don’t have the same alternative job opportunities. But the larger point is that lecturers presumably make less than regular faculty at the community colleges, as well. And if that’s true, then the comparison between the community college and CSU salaries overall (i.e., the difference between the fourth and fifth bars) depends crucially on the ratio of lecturers to regular faculty. If the community colleges have a higher proportion of lecturers than CSU, we might justifiably conclude that CSU faculty aren’t being paid as well as their community college counterparts. But if CSU has a higher proportion of lecturers, that could easily explain away or even reverse the alleged pay disparity.
(I don’t know what the relevant proportions are, but it actually would not surprise me to find out that CSU has more lecturers. It might seem logical that community colleges would have more lecturers, until you realize that many of their lecturers are part-timers and wouldn’t even count in these figures. The lecturers could constitute a relatively a small fraction of the full-time faculty at community colleges.)
Bottom line: Maybe CSU professors aren’t getting paid as well as they should, but this graph sure as hell doesn’t show it. What it shows is that someone in the CFA knows how to create misleading graphs.