Does absolute pay matter? Maybe not. Do pay raises matter? You bet.

Prof. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s blog, the Education Optimists, has been a goldmine of thoughtful and thorough deconstructions of the Public Authority proposal, and she has posed a number of pointed questions about the NBP, many of which have gone more or less unanswered by NBP proponents.  Yesterday, she posed a new question:

What I am questioning is whether raising faculty salaries is the most cost-effective way to achieve the goal of retaining talent and whether efforts to raise faculty salaries should be a driving force behind the New Badger Partnership.

She then goes on to examine in some detail the role of absolute salary relative to other factors in faculty retention:

What other factors are affecting [retention] decisions– and how important are they, relative to absolute salary? For example, what role does the quality of life in Madison play? How about salary inequity (among UW-Madison professors)? The shared governance system? Campus climate? The tenure and promotion system? Gender and/or racial bias in that system? The presence or absence of unions?

I think Sara’s questions are good ones, but I also think there is there is an extremely important aspect to the salary question that is being overlooked, and not just by Sara.

I’ll set the stage with the following confession: I’m reasonably content with my overall level of compensation while being very dissatisfied with the chronic pattern of negligible raises.

Does this sound contradictory?  It’s not, and here’s why.   Every year we have a merit exercise in which each member of our department gets ranked by his/her peers in the areas of research, teaching, and service.   The effort involved in this assessment is substantial, entailing the preparation of 3-year activity reports and in-person interviews.  And of course there is the exposure factor — it can be nerve-wracking for otherwise independent scholars and teachers to open up their entire professional life to review and ranking by their immediate colleagues.

There used to be a tangible point to this exercise — to determine the apportionment of the department’s overall raise pool.  Those who demonstrated sustained excellence and high productivity received a significantly larger raise (typically a couple percent more) than those ranked lower.  Over time, these differential raises accumulated, leading to significantly higher overall salaries for those who contributed on a consistently high level.  In short, one was recognized and rewarded for excellence even without having to disrupt one’s own life — and others’ — with insincere applications for faculty positions elsewhere.

For most of the ten years I have been on the faculty at UW-Madison, the merit review, when it occurs at all, has been a hollow exercise.  It now serves only to draw stinging attention to the unwillingness of the State of Wisconsin to reward faculty for continuing to do their job well.   The most highly ranked colleagues in my department  have been receiving approximately the same raise  as those ranked near the bottom — that is, next to nothing.   To put it another way, at most a few hundred dollars in raises per year, on average, separate those who put in 60 hours per week, who spend considerable time on the road traveling to conferences, working late grading papers and reading theses, and serving on advisory committees, from those who understandably opt instead to devote more time to their long-suffering families and/or to non-academic pursuits.

More recently, we have not only had no raises, we’ve had furloughs.  Again, these pay cuts strike everyone equally, regardless of merit.

A few days ago, I did the calculation and discovered that my inflation-adjusted salary today is within a few hundred dollars of what it was in 2000, despite a promotion to full professor in the interim, and despite having been ranked solidly in the upper half of my department for most of those years.  And that tiny improvement in real pay over ten years may soon be completely erased by Governor Walker’s Budget Repair Bill.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the realization that my efforts over the years have not had a measurable impact on my net compensation is vastly more demoralizing to me than the knowledge that my salary is some modest percentage below that of my peers at other universities.  It honestly makes me reassess the point of ever again staying past 5pm, which has been the norm for all of my career.

Absolute salary does matter on some level, but as Sara says, it may not be the most important factor in recruitment and retention.   My point here is that pay raises are important for reasons that may have little to do with retention and everything to do with rewarding continued high productivity and excellent scholarship by the many tenured UW-Madison faculty who, for whatever personal reasons, choose not to apply for jobs elsewhere.






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8 Responses to Does absolute pay matter? Maybe not. Do pay raises matter? You bet.

  1. Hi

    Thank you–whomever you are– for this very thoughtful response to my post. I love it. Here are some responses:

    (1) The “merit” exercise absent any cash for raises should be abolished. I completely agree it is hollow and demoralizing, and a time suck to boot (and environmental hazard for those required to print their materials).

    (2) Yes the absence of raises is demoralizing. More than that, I find the inequitable distribution of raises demoralizing. I had no raise for 4+ years and never once thought to look elsewhere– it was only when a colleague got a massive raise (massive is the right word) without an outside offer, did I get upset. My department and dean honored my request for an equity increase, and I received one. I never would have asked had the initial action not occurred. That said, the policy question is “how demoralizing” or in other words — bad enough that you will actually leave?

    (3) There is another source of revenue for raises: grants. Now, I do recognize the great inequity in opportunities for external funding, but I would suggest that the absence of raises is especially demoralizing–nearly humiliating–when once has brought in their own salary many times over in grants, and still seen no increase in compensation. Why not cut the faculty in a tiny bit on the indirects with a “research incentives”-type program? (here’s an example of one at Buffalo:

    (4) Beyond grants, there are other ways to generate funds to increase faculty compensation. I have blogged about one– change the student/faculty ratio.

    In other words, the choice is not NBP versus status quo. There are many alternatives to the status quo– we have been presented with just one (NBP) and given no opportunity to discuss any other. Therein lies the biggest problem.

    As I said, delighted to have others join in this conversation– and again thank you for engaging.

  2. PG says:

    I certainly agree that the choice is not NBP vs. status quo — this wasn’t meant to be a pro-NBP piece. Rather, I was zeroing in on what I think is an overlooked aspect of pay in not only retention but also morale and — especially — sustained productivity.

    Beyond the paths to pay raises that you mentioned, here’s one more that I think cannot be ignored when one considers the pound-foolish approach of considering only retention when granting pay raises: When you discover that you can consistently give yourself more generous raises by engaging in outside activities like consulting or other business ventures, then those activities will increasingly monopolize your discretionary time to the detriment of scholarly pursuits. You will no longer care that your merit ranking starts to drift downward as you publish fewer papers and pursue fewer grants, because the University clearly doesn’t value those activities enough anyway to compete for your time with the promise of a real pay raise.

    In short, I think the biggest danger arising from our long spell of no raises is not that everyone divorces UW-Madison in favor of better-paying suitors, but rather that they stay on while seeking their real validation elsewhere.

  3. Hi PG–

    I completely agree with that, and it resonates strongly with my own experience. But, I will add this: the sense of community at UW that arises and persists because of shared governance (e.g what brings us together in endless committee meetings that take up time but also get us to meet each other frequently) is unbelievable. Even the interactions around the NBP have been good in this one respect– despite low morale, this places has a climate that fosters a great deal of faculty interaction. We may seek most of our validation elsewhere but we still engage with one another. From what I’m told, at many other institutions– including many private ones– faculty seek their real validation elsewhere (despite good pay and raises) AND don’t interact with each other. The $$ doesn’t make it happen.

    I think it boils down to this: there’s something special here that we should not let be destroyed. This debate has been handled in a terribly divisive manner. Faculty and students are being pitted against each other. That’s the truly sad part. Promoting this plan in this way to get more money for us–the faculty–well, that’s certainly something I don’t want UW doing in MY name.


  4. PG says:

    Agree 100% with what you say. It was the culture, not higher pay, that lured me away from another Big Ten university in the first place. And I have been very happy here despite flat pay all the way up to the point where the culture itself came under attack. For the last couple of months it feels like we’re surrounded by forces that hate precisely the things that made UW-Madison special. it remains to be seen how this plays out, but for the first time since I joined the faculty here, I’m questioning my previous assumption that I would stay here until I retired. And that is not a question of pay, absolute or otherwise.

  5. Fully agreed. We need to sift and winnow our way to the source of the culture attack and stop it. I’m newly tenured here, and plan to retire here. Let’s make it so!

  6. Chris Thorn says:

    I appreciate the discussion, but I look at this all from the point of the research academic staff and it looks much less rosy. Academic staff participation in governance is limited to administration and a little bit around the edges of instruction. That’s mostly a function of N. The research staff are barely represented in the governance groups and have little in common with the rest of academic staff.

    That said, we seem to have little in common with the faculty and have no engagement in my area at all. There are no departmental affiliations we rarely receive invitations to talks (to listen or speak) or other scholarly events. We generate the majority of the indirect for my school but are not part of the governance process or scholarly life.

    In terms of compensation, we do better than many others at the university, but we also generate 100% of our salary, support a large research infrastructure, and support several graduate students who would otherwise not have funding through our school.

    The crushing burden of our poorly implemented administrative systems, inflexible purchasing rules, and antiquated HR system are increasingly making us less competitive in research. That’s the part of NBP that appeals to me. While I agree that there are many important strategies that could be employed to improve our work life and fund salary increases, I worry that there is no will or mechanism in our shared governance environment to address the broken administrative infrastructure that makes moving research out of the university looks so attractive.

  7. Admin says:

    Chris, thanks for your perspective as a non-faculty researcher. We’d like to have more folks like you contributing articles on the issues that concern you. Please feel free to submit an article on a topic of your choice at any time. Any substantive piece relevant to the campus community will be published. Send to admin ‘at’ siftingandwinnowing ‘dot’ org

  8. Chris:

    Thanks for writing in. I recognize your concerns and feel they are incredibly important. But I do not think that the heart of them will be addressed by the NBP– the treatment of staff on campus goes well beyond issues of compensation and is unlikely to improve in an increasingly competitive environment. Moreover, I have said many times that significant revision of state rules re: compensation, procurement, and construction are needed– but I disagree with the contention that the NBP is the only or even the best way to obtain those revisions.

    Finally, as you said, there is “part” of the NBP that appeals to you– the question for the university community (which I believe includes all of Wisconsin) is whether the benefits of that part are worth the risks of the other parts. Is your estimation that they are?


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