Low faculty salaries spark concerns

Celia Wan, News Editor

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Eighty-five percent of the tenured or tenure-track faculty at Case Western Reserve University receive average salaries that are at or below the 15th percentile of Association of American Universities (AAU), while no substantial increase in faculty salaries has been seen since 2008. These statistics, disclosed in the Faculty Senate Compensation Committee report, came as a shock to many faculty members. The result of this report, recognized as “concerning” by CWRU President Barbara R. Snyder, spurred the CWRU administration to take action.

The report, presented in the Sept. 21 Faculty Senate meeting, shows that only three academic units, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Science, the School of Law and Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, offer their tenured or tenured track faculty salaries that are around AAU averages. In comparison to these three schools, faculty salaries at the School of Engineering, the College of Arts and Science (CAS) and the School of Management reveal notable discrepancies, with salaries in the Mathematics and Natural Sciences departments of CAS and the School of Engineering below the AAU sixth percentile. The situation is better for non-tenured track faculty, as approximately 40 percent of non-tenured track faculty receive salaries that are at or below the 30th percentiles of AAU schools.

The growth rate for CWRU faculty salaries has remained below three percent since the financial crisis of 2008, which can barely keep up with the inflation rate. From 2015 to 2016, faculty salaries at CWRU increased by 1.8 percent, while nationally faculty salaries raised 3.4 percent. The Compensation Committee also points out that current salary level is not on par with CWRU’s national ranking and tuition rate, both at the mid-range among AAU universities. Concerned by the possible damage such low faculty salaries will bring to faculty recruitment, retention and morale, the committee proposed a university-wide goal to increase faculty salaries to the AAU 50th percentile in the next five years.

How to increase faculty salaries?

There are eight colleges at CWRU, including the School of Medicine and School of Dentistry, whose salaries are not taken into comparison in the report. These eight schools, along with the University General (UGEN), form separate financial entities which are in charge of their own budgets.

Although each college manages its own finances, overall the annual faculty salary increases at a rate determined by the central administration. Every year deans from the eight colleges and UGEN are notified by the central administration of the determined salary increase pool, which is an overall percentage according to which faculty salaries can be increased. Each dean then allocates salary increases to different departments under their college.

Deans are required to hit the targeted salary increase rate set by the administration; however their budgets are also restrained by many fixed revenues, such as restricted gifts and research grants, which leave limited flexibility to raise salaries.

This limitation is acknowledged by Provost William Baeslack: “Federal research support can vary depending on Congress’ budget decisions, and many philanthropic commitments are designated only for specific purposes.”

Increasing tuition is one of the most common ways for private universities in the U.S. to raise revenues, and CWRU is no exception. Roughly 41 percent of the total university revenue is contributed by tuition, compared to a 30 percent national average for private universities.  Over the past four years, tuition has been increasing at an average rate of more than three percent per year, which is higher than the two percent growth of faculty salaries. While tuition payment is one of  the major sources of revenue for the university, faculty salaries only account for approximately 15 percent of the overall expense in each college. The rest of the revenue is used to cover expenses like student aids, non-faculty salaries and faculty services.

The AAU’s annual report on the Economic Status of the Profession from 2014 to 2015 also points out that it is incorrect to attribute rising tuition to increasing faculty salaries. The report shows that from the 2008–09 to the 2012–13 academic year, the average net price of tuition at American universities rose by approximately 5.3 percent. At the same time, nationwide faculty salaries proportional to university expenses remain around ⅓, which is slightly higher than those observed at CWRU.

Baeslack affirms that although faculty salaries are key to retain CWRU’s academic competitiveness, revenue raised from tuition also needs to address other aspects of a student’s college experience at CWRU:

I agree that the ability to pay competitive salaries is key to attracting and keeping talented faculty. At the same time, we also recognize the importance of ensuring that the university remains as affordable as possible for students, that we provide a rich extracurricular experience, and that we provide the facilities and equipment necessary to ensure that all students receive an outstanding education in a safe and supportive environment.”

Because of the current method used to distribute students’ tuition payments, the colleges also find that having more faculty involved in SAGES is a valid way to raise their revenues. The formula for distributing a student’s tuition payment to a course gives 75 percent of the payment to the department to which the course instructor belongs and 25 percent to the department where the student declares his or her major. By having more teachers in the SAGES programs, colleges raise their revenue by collecting the 75 percent from students’ tuitions to SAGES.

“Having the faculty teach SAGES courses does reduce pressure on the dean’s budget,” former Chair of the Department of Mathematics David Singer said. Although this strategy was never explicitly expressed to him, Singer mentioned that he was “certainly under the impression” that financial reasons may contribute to the department encouraging its professors to produce more SAGES sections.

On the other hand, in an interview with The Observer in Spring 2016, Peter Whiting, Dean of SAGES, commented on such a revenue-raising tactic as “hypothetical.”

The pressure to raise faculty salaries has been felt by many departments, as their faculty sizes shrank in the past four to five years. Low faculty salaries not only render CWRU less competitive in recruiting new faculty, but also impedes departments from retaining their current members.

“[Cutting faculty size] is not necessarily from my point of view a bad plan, but I think it needs to be done carefully,” commented Peter Knox, a classics professor and director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities. “I have some concerns that we are, so to speak, cashing in faculty vacancies randomly, taking them wherever they happen to occur without really taking into the account the consequences for academic programs.”

The Department of History, for example, has lost three professors in the past few years: two left for other institutions and one retired. However proposals to search for new faculty are still pending approval by the Dean and the Provost’s Office. As a consequence, disciplines in Chinese History and the History of Science are currently not covered within the department, which could potentially discourage students who have interest in these areas.

The Department of Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Statistics recently lost an assistant professor, who left in part due to a salary consideration. “[This faculty member] got a huge increase by going to another school. That really hurt the department,” said Singer.  

According to Bill Lubinger, Director of Media Relations and Communications, this year CAS received a total of 28 requests for authorization to hire, with only five approved so far and one more remaining under discussion.  

Fewer faculty members will unavoidably lead to larger class sizes, especially in a department like Math, which is very “teaching intensive,” according to Singer. Currently, MATH 122 has an average class size of 400 students. To Singer, this number and the prospect of having less faculty in the department is worrisome.

How do faculty think about their salaries?

In the Sept. 21 Faculty Senate meeting when the report was presented, many faculty representatives were initially doubtful of its credibility, as the numbers were strikingly low. Singer responded similarly when he saw the report. “I find it hard to believe that it is that bad,” he said.

Although it was the first time that Singer saw the comparisons, he has been aware of the low salary payment in his department.

“I knew salaries were below average in this department and that has been true for a very, very long time,” said Singer. “But these numbers are so low as to make me suspicious.”

The report shows that math and natural science departments at CWRU have salaries that are at the bottom 5.3 percent among AAU institutions.

 As the former department chair, Singer has concerns that the salaries some faculty earn cannot sustain their necessary living needs in Cleveland. Over the years, he has seen junior faculty leave because of the low compensation they received at CWRU.

Harold Connamacher, an assistant professor in the Electronic Engineering and Computer Science Department, left his job in industry for one in academia in 2000. He finds that his current salary is still not comparable to what he earned in the industry more than 15 years ago. While acknowledging that it is not uncommon for industrial salaries to be higher than academic salaries, he sometimes feels frustrating that his work here is much harder than it was in industry.

Currently, Connamacher is conducting research on top of teaching a class with over 300 students. While finding his compensation reasonable, Connamacher does feel some uncertainty about his prospective salary in the future. He considers a promotion to be the major way to increase his salary:

“There are rules for how you get promoted, but I don’t entirely know what it takes for me to do to get promoted,” said Connamacher. “If the rules stay fuzzy, I can see myself get frustrated about the fact that I have been on the same salary rise for a long time.”

At the same time, Connamacher recognizes that he does have alternatives other than holding an academic professorship at CWRU. “If the salaries get too low to where I think it is not acceptable, I will just change jobs,” he said.

Unlike Connamacher, some faculty do not have job options outside of academia or their families have settled in Cleveland, and thus find it difficult to leave CWRU.

“For most faculty in the college, their choices in what school they work at are very limited by the weak job market,” a tenured faculty member in CAS commented under the condition that they remain unnamed. “The inescapable feeling created by our low relative pay is that the university knows that the academic job market is weak so they can get away with that low pay.”

The Compensation Committee’s proposal to raise faculty salaries to the AAU 50th percentile has received a positive reaction from the central administration, although currently there is no specific plan or timeline in terms of how or when this situation will be improved.

“We have been reviewing the data in greater detail, and are dedicated to identifying ways to ensure that our faculty receive compensation that reflects their contributions to the university’s academic mission,” Snyder said in an email.