Resentment and Statistics

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In last Sunday’s Oshkosh Northwestern, Andrew Austin, an associate professor and chair of the Democracy and Justice Studies department at UW Green Bay, wrote a spot-on commentary concerning Governor Scott Walker’s misleading use of statistics as he continues to demean the state’s university system-

His office shared with the media that UW-Green Bay full professors (the highest teaching rank attainable in higher education and a small proportion of the faculty) averaged $70,700 in salaries in the 2013-14 academic year, a figure he contrasts with the average annual pay for all workers in Brown County, which was, according to Walker, $44,894 in 2014 (roughly a third of the governor’s salary).

Walker is cherry-picking the highest rank of professor — full professor — and comparing it to the average for all workers, professional and non-professional, regardless of rank, an average that includes workers at McDonald’s, Walmart, and Family Dollar (who, I hasten to add, are underpaid).

Comparing apples to apples, that is professionals to professionals, the median salary for full-time tenured and tenured-track faculty at UW-Green Bay in 2015-16 (most of whom hold a doctorate) was $57,259. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2014 median earnings for workers in Brown County who have a graduate or professional degree is $61,092.

Has Walker complained about the salaries of other professionals? Has he railed against physicians (who make a good deal more than professors)? What is it about teachers that riles the governor?

In addition to noting Walker’s cherry-picking of the data, Austin astutely battles averages with medians, since averages are highly unreliable indicators of general trends. Consider 10 people in a bar, each making $50,000 a year. In walks Donald Trump, whose annual income in a good year has been estimated to be around $362,000,000. Now, if you wanted to know in general how most people in the bar were doing, financially speaking, it would be far less misleading to say that they tend to be earning $50,000, the median, than to say that they tend to be earning a whopping $32,954,545, the average. A few highly paid academic “stars” can similarly skew average salary data. But Walker’s office clearly isn’t concerned with misleading the citizenry.