So Many Bad Ideas, So Little Time

November 7, 2008 | Blog

The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents is struggling to retain faculty by increasing salaries while simultaneously containing costs. Challenging, to be sure.

But this Capital Times article (“UW Regents weigh pay increases against maintaining costs”) reports some unbelievably bad ideas for making it happen. Among them — reduce the size of the faculty workforce, in order to keep the others’ salaries competitive. UW-Madison‘s provost is quoted as saying, “We’ll have fewer heads because we need the money to pay appropriately the faculty that we do have. We don’t like that outcome, but if that’s what we need to do to maintain quality, that’s life, and that’s what we have to do.”

But a shrinking faculty substantially reduces quality of life for the faculty in ways that even a raise can hardly offset. Take my own department. When I got here in 2004 we had 12 full-time members. Four years later, we’re down to 11 with another departing next month. We’re searching for two positions, but in the meantime we’re operating with 11. And, oh man, even with that “small” reduction, life is challenging. Fewer hands on deck means more service committee assignments, more advisees, fewer classes to offer our students (and therefore longer time-to-degree and more complaints), the need to put more money in the pot to pay for dept functions, more time spent on searches, etc etc. While I’ve often complained about my salary level, and more importantly lack of increases over the last 4 years (I’ve gotten in total approx a 4% increase over that entire time), it is much much harder to take because of that increased workload. Honestly, we should get hardship pay just for the reduction in size of the faculty — not just an increase to keep us from being 15% underpaid compared to our peers!

Another bad idea: Add dependent tuition benefits. In a time when it’s more important than ever to target scarce resources to the neediest, moving money to that form of merit-based aid is just silly. Children of faculty are not bad off, they will manage to attend college, and UW-Madison is already a decent deal for those kids who get in-state tuition.

Instead–let’s try another approach to increasing faculty retention: REWARD their efforts. Specifically, start by cutting grant getters in on the indirects. No, UW-Madison hardly needs to create an incentive for faculty to seek external funding, but it does need to create an incentive for those with grants to stick around. Those are the folks seeing their market values rise while their salaries remain stagnant. So for the duration of the grant, supplement pay or at least flex funds with 1%. I’m sure the UW could do with just a little bit less, and it’d go a long, long way.

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