Selective Raises in Higher Education

Last week the head of the Utah State Board of Regents proposed pay hikes for all of the college and university presidents in the state system, as much as by 24% in one case.  The reason cited was that the state has trouble keeping good university presidents.  The past two presidents of the University of Utah now make far more heading large universities elsewhere, and the president of Southern Utah University is leaving to take the head position at Eastern Kentucky University at double the salary he made in Utah.  Keeping Utah education “competitive” makes sense, so far as it goes.  The problem is that it stops with the upper administration.

Faculty salaries at state universities were frozen from 2008 to 2010, and faculty members have received raises of one percent per year for the past two years, with another one percent increase scheduled for the coming school year.  This wouldn’t be all that bad, given the current economic climate, except for the fact that the salaries of existing faculty members have been frozen for something like six of the last twenty years, and annual raises have exceeded 2% only in about three of those twenty years – and faculty salaries on average are in the lowest twenty percent nationwide.

A number of Utah universities have dealt with the salary cap by filling the positions of departing or retiring faculty, partly by hiring more adjuncts and partly by setting a much higher salaries for new faculty, so that longer term and more loyal faculty effectively get penalized… and so that good professors who don’t have to worry about spouses’  jobs or family connections have a tendency to depart for greener pastures, none of which helps improve faculty morale or higher education.  

Yet the Utah legislature, which continually touts education as a priority, spends so little per pupil on elementary and secondary education that even Idaho – the next lowest in the United States – spends nearly  20% more on each student than does Utah.   Utah’s public school spending per pupil is 43% below the national average, and the fact that it has the most crowded classrooms is just one reflection of that.  So is the amount of remedial help high school graduates need when they reach college.

The same sort of mentality applies to the legislature with regard to higher education as well. There’s a great deal of lip service, but a real reluctance to provide funding.  And when university presidents raise money from private donors for needed facilities, the legislature balks at providing the funding for operating and maintaining such facilities.  At the same time, part of the universities’ annual state funding is based on enrollment growth.  So… let’s get this in perspective.  They want more students with less funding for each student, and they require tuition increases, adding to the burden on students, while underpaying faculty, effectively forcing universities to court donors for funds to build needed facilities that the legislature doesn’t want to maintain  … but they want to reward the university presidents.

Does that sound familiar?  Of course.  It’s the current big business model.  As one critic suggested, Utah really shouldn’t be applying the “big business” model to education, not if it wants to improve education.

But then, does the legislature really want that… or just to create the impression that it cares about real educational improvement?  After all, it’s easy to pay the CEO more… and much, much harder and more costly to fix the larger problems.

2 thoughts on “Selective Raises in Higher Education”

  1. Kathryn says:

    A lot of these decisions are, basically, lip-service. They get in the news about it and people think “Oh, they’re paying them more, that must mean they’re good”. It’s like when one of the top people in a major UK retail chain announced he was donating £2m of his earnings to the staff… except only a few were eligible (they had to have a certain length of service; beyond that of the majority of the staff) and they gained just 1% increase – meaning the managers and higher-rung staff saw the benefit and those doing the actual ‘grunt’ work got nothing. But customers went in and told staff they thought it was good and kind of him.

    So you’ll always get things like this. They’re essentially vague PR tricks that have a real-world benefit for a few (mostly those at/near the top as you say) and no benefit – if anything, a loss in morale – for those below.

    I have to agree with the critic you cited. Education is an investment. It’s something you put money into in order to benefit the populace and, realistically, see gains from in a few decades once the populace starts earning and getting higher-paying jobs. It’s not like a business where you can just shift money around and leave in the hands of over-promoted, selfish, incompetent wastes-of-space who couldn’t even do the lowest rung’s work (i.e. they have no understanding of what’s involved, or if they do then it’s years out of date).

    Universities should perhaps be the last group involved in such funding, because you need to have the solid, stable foundation of good education before you can venture into a degree and hope to truly succeed.

  2. Brian says:

    The moves are largely cosmetic and good PR to appear to be doing something when not really doing anything at all by rewarding essentially a bureaucrat while those doing the real work of educating students are ignored.

    In regard to some of those who are burdened with doing a lot of the real work at some universities, a friend sent me the following article from “The Economist”: ‘Doctoral Degrees: The Disposable Academic’. Although it is from December 16, 2010, he assured me that not much has changed.

    It seems to mirror the private sectors’ increasing use of temporary workers, too.

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