Empty Lecterns

July 10, 2013

Much has been written about the plight of new Ph.D.s in search of tenure-track positions that are becoming increasingly scarce. But even as new academics across the country struggle to find permanent positions, often teaching at multiple campuses as adjuncts to pay their bills, tenure-track positions at some institutions are going unfilled. Faculty salaries at public universities in particular are failing to keep pace with those at private institutions and in other industries, making it hard for some campuses -- especially regional universities in small-town America -- to retain and attract talent.

Experts say the trend could further erode the tenure-track system and educational quality.

The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point isn’t alone in facing faculty turnover due to low salaries, but it may be among the most severe cases. Some 81 faculty members, out of an average of 340, have left during the past three years, about half from retirement and half from resignations – many more than in the years prior. And departures this year alone outnumber departures spanning the past three years. The College of Natural Resources alone has experienced a 25 percent turnover this year, although it is one of the university's flagship programs.

That's despite Stevens Point's low faculty-to-student ratio and solid academic reputation (it's consistently ranked as one of  U.S. News and World Reports' top ten regional universities in the Midwest), in addition to the town's picturesque setting on the Wisconsin River that contributed to Forbes naming it one of its top 15 cities to raise a family in 2010.

“It’s the trend that we find alarming, and we certainly know anecdotally that while some folks resign for other reasons, salaries are the main driver,” said Greg Summers, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, whose hands are tied when it comes to retaining faculty with raises. Equity adjustments -- the only tool Stevens Point has to bring existing professors' salaries closer to market rates -- are made on a schedule.

Replacing faculty has proven as difficult as keeping them. While it used to be hard to recruit faculty in certain disciplines that offer high salaries in industry, such as business and nursing, “now it seems hard to recruit people for all disciplines,” Summers said. Interested applicants frequently turn down face-to-face interviews once they hear the quoted salary, and 43 percent of faculty employment offers were rejected by the first-choice candidate during the 2011 academic year. When Stevens Point asked candidates why they turned it down, 32 percent said other universities had matched or exceeded its offer. (Open professorships are listed here.)

“We’ve reached a tipping point,” said Summers. “It took a century to build the [University of Wisconsin] system into the outstanding system that it is, and if we lose people and can’t replace them with the same quality of faculty and staff, that legacy is in jeopardy.”

Across the University of Wisconsin system, which includes two-year colleges and regional and research universities, salaries are 18 percent lower than national averages for all three kinds of institutions. That's following years of static pay, coupled with recent changes to benefits packages that have effectively cut salaries, and periods of unpaid furloughs. At Stevens Point, nearly 90 percent of faculty are paid less than the national average by discipline and rank for master's institution. Of that 90 percent, half are paid at least $10,000 below the national average, according to 2012 data from the College and University Professional Association. Some 91 percent of Stevens Point faculty were dissatisfied with their salary, according to separate data from the Higher Education Research Institute.

Faculty salaries averaged $67,000 for full professors; $57,100 for associate professors; and $51,900 for assistant professors during the 2012-13 academic year. Those figures don't just reflect what some may assume is a low cost of living in central Wisconsin. Cities like Spokane, Atlanta, and Tampa all have lower costs of living than the Stevens Point area, according to data from the Council for Community and Economic Research.

Randy Olson, professor of astronomy and chair of Stevens Point’s Faculty Senate, said morale among faculty is “really fairly low,” and that a number of his colleagues have left the institution for positions elsewhere in higher education – including one who got a $30,000 pay raise in another state – and in industry. Those faculty often are at the cutting edge of their research, translating into big losses for the university, he added.

Public university professors don’t enter the profession to get rich. But some faculty are having trouble paying bills, and have even qualified for foods stamps, Olson said. “For somebody to go five to seven years beyond college to obtain a Ph.D. degree and to realize that you are in need of federal assistance to make ends meet -- and that’s for a tenure-track position --" is devastating.

Adding what some view as insult to injury, a recently published database of public employee salaries shows that some professors earn less than their colleagues at local high schools without doctorates. Data show that more than 25 percent of teachers at Stevens Point Area Senior High earned $72,667 during the 2011-2012 school year.

“It’s a little disheartening,” said Olson said of the discrepancy.

John Curtis, director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors, said faculty at Stevens Point are part of a nationwide trend he’s been tracking for some time.

“Full-time faculty salaries at public colleges and universities have continued to fall behind private colleges and universities,” he said noting that full professors at public institutions earn 17-35 percent less than their peers at private institutions on average, according to the organization’s most recent faculty salary report. Associate professors earn 10-23 percent less and assistant professors earn 7-24 percent less. Full-time faculty members at public doctoral universities are particularly disadvantaged compared to their private university peers in terms of salary.

Public universities across the country have been faced with decreased state funding and limitations on tuition increases (a two-year tuition freeze recently was recently signed into law in Wisconsin, offset only in part by a 1 percent raise this fiscal year and the next for higher education faculty — the first in five years), said Curtis, and at the same time aren’t as free as their private counterparts to reallocate resources or redefine their mission and goals in light of finances. Many have responded by increasing hiring of contingent faculty at even lower salaries, he added.

“[Public colleges and universities] have a lot more competing demands on what their role is,” he said.

Nevertheless, Stevens Point has begun to rethink its role in light of funding, taking inspiration from private universities.

“One of the things we know about private institutions is that they’re entirely enrollment and tuition-driven,” Summers said. “So we’ve taken in slightly larger freshman classes over the last five years.”

The university is also moving ahead with a new strategic plan centered on community partnerships and other “high-touch, hands-on” educational experiences, such as service learning, to foment growth and ensure its enduring value, even as technology’s role in higher education continues to evolve, Summers said.

But that, too, depends on committed faculty, he added.

As such, Stevens Point has begun an initiative to raise faculty salaries to compete with those at peer institutions by a little each year, through improving efficiencies, increasing student retention and reducing or eliminating programs where necessary. However, the university estimates the $3 million process will take at least 10 years, based on current funding.

Real change will take action at the state level, hopefully sooner rather than later, Summers said. Educational quality hasn’t been affected by the faculty departures yet, but with greater enrollment and fewer professors, it could soon begin to suffer, he added.

 “If the state and the system don’t take that seriously, we run the risk of slipping backwards as institutions.”

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