The Toxic Two Percent

After months of delay, the budget numbers are now in. State lawmakers have approved a pay package that boosts UW System faculty and academic staff pay by 2 percent for AY 2007-2008, 2 percent again for AY 2008-2009, and another 1 percent in April 2009. For reference, faculty salaries systemwide are about 8.5 percent behind peer colleges and universities, and academic staff salaries are about 20 percent behind, according to System President Kevin Reilly. Clearly this package will do little to close those gaps. And undoubtedly, there will continue to be handwringing over a brain drain as some of the best and brightest on this campus get recruited away by universities willing to pay substantially more.

Saving the University (so far) from a far more severe haemorrhage of talent is a surprisingly simple fact: Many of us still love the University of Wisconsin and the city of Madison enough to ignore the lure of higher pay.

Take me, for example. Seven years ago, I was fortunate enough to get an offer from UW-Madison after ten years on the faculty at another Big Ten university. I didn’t have to think twice. I jumped at the chance to move to Madison even though I knew that my net compensation would not change appreciably after allowing for the higher cost of living here.

Of course, I could not have anticipated that most of the next seven years would also bring miserly pay raises in the range of 1 to 2 percent. Had I simply stayed where I was, I would most likely be about 10% further ahead — a significant difference when facing kids’ college expenses. Nevertheless, I still don’t regret my decision to move here.

More to the point, since my hiring, I haven’t submitted a single application for another position. Why not? Well, because (a) I don’t intend to move, and (b) having served on many recruitment committees, I can’t bring myself to waste people’s time at another university in a bid to extract a grudging pay raise from my home institution.

So, from the State of Wisconsin’s perspective at least, where’s the problem? Plenty of folks like me are sticking around despite uncompetitive salaries simply because they like Madison. It makes perfect economic sense for lawmakers to capitalize on that loyalty by keeping pay raises as low as possible.

Or does it?

There’s a not-so-obvious toxic effect of chronically low pay raises that I think most commentators to date have missed: In addition to making our salaries less competitive relative to those offered elsewhere, small pay raises make our annual merit review exercises effectively meaningless. We are being saddled with one of the worst shortcomings of unionization without any of its compensating benefits.

It is not lost on anybody that, in a 2-percent year, the spread in pay hike between the least and most productive members of the department may amount to about that same 2 percent, or between $750 and $1500 in annual take home pay for the majority of academic staff and faculty. That is laughably small compensation for doing the considerable extra work needed to stay at the top of the merit scale in one’s department.

How many hours in extra labor and away from home and family does it take for a scientist to do the research and write the proposals needed to consistently bring in, say, half a million per year in federal research dollars, as compared with the colleague who brings in just enough to cover his/her summer salary? How many hours are spent after dinner reading theses by the faculty member who advises eight students, versus the one who advises only one or two? How many additional hours writing and submitting 5-6 research papers versus one or two?

When the two-percent year is an anomaly, it can be weathered and won’t have a lasting effect on a faculty or staff morale or work ethic. But when it becomes a chronic pattern, as it has been for the last several years, anyone with a modest grasp of the math starts to question his/her priorities. Why should I kill myself for a shot at a few hundred more dollars per year?

Indeed, any reasonably talented and energetic individual begins to uncover far more effective ways of increasing one’s net annual income with far less personal sacrifice. That same $1500 of extra take-home pay can be gotten by way of a mere 1-2 hours per month of outside consulting. Or by starting even the smallest of small businesses on the side. Or by self-publishing a low-level textbook that sells even 100 copies per year.

None of the above outside activities is dishonorable. But wouldn’t the citizens of Wisconsin prefer to see the state’s brightest minds rewarded, not penalized, for devoting those same extra hours to exemplary scholarship, research, and teaching?

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