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Paying Peter More Than Paul

April 13, 2012

Everybody wants a raise, and college employees have groaned in recent years over stagnant salaries. But when money is left over, the decision on how to divvy up salary increases can amplify the grumbling.

Take Kenyon College -- where trustees voted this spring to grant every employee a pay raise of at least 2 percent – as Exhibit A.

Staff members saw only that 2 percent pay bump. Full-time faculty members received a 2.89 percent increase, and those who are tenured or tenure-track also received a permanent $4,000 increase in their annual salary. That works out to an average 8.22 percent salary increase for faculty members.

That decision was designed to move Kenyon into the top quintile in faculty pay among peer institutions, President S. Georgia Nugent said, and keep the Ohio liberal arts institution competitive in the hiring process. Kenyon gives employees raises most years, and faculty increases usually outpace staff increases. According to data provided by the college, the difference in pay raises between staff and faculty had been within 2.5 percentage points since at least 2003 until this year's 6.22 percentage point difference. Nugent expects that difference to be lower in future years.

Three Kenyon staff members, including a longtime administrative assistant, Alice Straus, expressed dissatisfaction to Inside Higher Ed about this year’s gap and the college’s explanation. Those staff members were first quoted in an article about the disagreement in the campus-based Kenyon Collegian. Other staff members told Inside Higher Ed they felt plenty appreciated.

“It seemed that it was a slap in the face to the staff members that everyone else received a significant increase and the staff gets a 2 percent increase,” Straus said.

Meg Galipault, director of corporate and foundation relations, had a different take.  “I don’t feel dismissed by a 2 percent raise,” she said. “I think everybody feels like they’re cared for, and to me that’s more important than a big raise.”

Nugent said it isn’t a question of who’s valued more, but of Kenyon remaining competitive with faculty salaries across the country.

“I think some staff members have been unhappy with or don’t have a solid understanding of the difference, for example, between a local market and a national market,” Nugent said. “Not all, but a number of our staff positions are essentially a local market.”

In contrast, she said all faculty positions are filled after national searches. But in recent years, Nugent said it’s been harder for Kenyon to compete monetarily for some of the best faculty hires. Now that the college has the ability to increase pay, she said raising professor salaries should be the first priority. The average full professor at Kenyon makes $95,400 and the average assistant professor earns $60,900, according to American Association of University Professors data. By comparison, the average full professor at the top 10 highest-paying liberal arts institutions earns between $130,100 and $149,000.

“Any employer, as far as I know, will establish compensation in such a way to try to be competitive in the appropriate market,” Nugent said. “For some types of positions on a college campus, I think more than likely an existing staff member is not going to suddenly move to take a position in Manhattan, where the opposite might be true for some other positions.”

That assessment rubs some staff members the wrong way. Carmen King, Kenyon’s fine arts librarian, said many staff members resent the suggestion that they’re local hires.

“I don’t want [college leaders] just to think of us as local people who can’t really move away from this area so we don’t know what the outside world is like,” King said. “Many of us have come from outside places and have worked at many other jobs.”

Kenyon is not the first college to deal with this issue. And debates over these questions are delicate, given the emphasis college leaders place on attracting and retaining professors, and the reality that some staff positions (but by no means all) tend to be among the lowest paid on campus. In 2006, the University of Kentucky unveiled a similar plan to boost faculty pay in hopes of catching up with a national standard. Like at Kenyon, Kentucky staff members also saw their pay go up, just not as much as faculty. The plan was eventually carried out despite staff protests.

Other institutions take a different approach. In 2007, the University of Tennessee system gave a flat percentage increase to all employees, and guaranteed that every worker would receive at least $900. Allegheny College maintains identical raises for its staff and faculty members. And when Shenandoah College had limited money for raises at the recession's 2008 peak, every employee -- from full professor to janitor-- received the same $1,000. Policies like those at Allegheny and Shenandoah assured that the largest percentage increases went to those with the smallest salaries -- typically staff members, not professors.

But a 2 percent raise is quite generous, Nugent said, especially as many colleges lay off staff or hold pay steady. While Kenyon doesn’t have a policy of matching its raises with the Consumer Price Index, Nugent believes the 2 percent should account for increases in the cost of living. Kenyon has kept staff raises above the three-year CPI average increase since 1982, according to data provided by the college.

Administrators make a point of telling staff they're valued, Nugent said, and cited the results of a 2009 staff survey as evidence that most employees are satisfied. Asked in that survey to rate their agreement with various statements on a five-point scale -- with five indicating strong agreement -- most staff members seemed to be content. When asked if co-workers respected their work, the average answer was 4.29. The question about satisfaction with one's monthly paycheck earned a 3.48.

This year's tension, staff members who opposed the differential raises said, was not between staff and faculty but between staff and this decision. All said they wanted the best for Kenyon and cared deeply about the college, and Straus acknowledged that staff raises might not always equal those of professors. But the size of this year's gap, she said, highlighted a larger issue of sometimes overlooking staff contributions.

"We’re not saying all of us should have gotten the same X percent," Straus said. "All of us realize certain people have more credentials or a different role at the college and can be compensated in different ways. I think the problem is such a large discrepancy."

At least some of the discontent seems tied to the fact staff learned about the raises at the bottom of an e-mail sent to all employees. Even staff members who supported the raise said the means of communication was unfortunate. Nugent said she’s considering how she’ll share that information in future years, and added that she's tried to clarify the college's decision in recent weeks.

After Straus and others shared concern about the comparatively low raise, Nugent addressed a gathering of staff members and sent e-mails affirming her appreciation for all employees. But Straus said Nugent’s explanations have been unsatisfactory and might have made things worse.

Nugent said she tried to be as honest as possible, and that some staff members just might not have liked what she had to say.

“I felt the response was meant to mollify us,” Straus said, “not to really explain the decision in a way that I felt was justifying the decision. Subsequent remarks have seemed to me to be more demeaning than helpful.”

Those beliefs, Nugent said, are perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of this dispute.

“That’s been the most regrettable -- the translation from a percentage to what I perceive to be a personal perception of not being valued,” she said. “Every staff member here is valuable.”

 

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