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.