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Faculty members at Nevada’s two public universities have seen close to a 5 percent pay cut (about half of that through furloughs) since the beginning of the recession. So the Legislature’s recent decision to reinstate a merit pay program before fully restoring their salaries by ending ongoing furloughs has some professors questioning its priorities.

“The preference expressed by resolution in the Faculty Senate was that we wanted to see the full restoration of pay before the reintroduction of performance-based or merit pay,” said Paul Werth, professor of history at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and senate chair. “That’s not what we got.”

Merit pay is a historically contentious issue in higher education, with proponents saying it rewards excellence, similar to pay structures in other professional fields, and critics saying it has the potential to encourage faculty members to avoid controversy or criticism of their superiors.

But the merit of merit pay isn’t what’s up for debate in Nevada, where it has been a staple of public university compensation for two decades – just how it’s been reinstated, with faculty and staff still forced to take six days off of work each year for the next two years (the legislature meets biennially).

In some ways, the state's new pay plan is the “most frustrating and annoying scenario,” Werth said.

Nevada froze merit raises in 2009. Two years later, it cut salaries by 2.5 percent and instituted furloughs, making for an additional 2.3 percent effective annual pay cut. Together, faculty saw their salaries slashed by 4.8 percent.

This summer, the legislature voted to immediately restore base pay, and reintroduce merit pay in the second half of the biennium. Starting next July, institutions across the state will split $7 million in merit pay funds, with the most – $2.9 million – going to Las Vegas (for the first time, community colleges also will begin merit pay programs, replacing existing step raises with ranges based on performance; they’ll help split the pot).

But the furloughs remain.

Merit pay is based on annual evaluations of faculty at each campus. At the University of Nevada at Reno, for example, merit pay is based on performance in research, teaching and service. Collective performance in those areas is used by department chairs and deans to determine a “merit level,” from zero to four. Merit levels are assigned a dollar value depending on total available funding that year. There are no quotas for any level of the pay scale. With each rung historically averaging $800 to $900, a faculty member with a merit level of four would get upwards of $3,200, on top of his or her salary.

But not all faculty will get that much, or anything at all.

Kevin Carman, executive vice president and provost at Reno, said in an e-mail that the university appreciated the restoration of base pay, and funding for “modest” merit raises next year. He added: “We certainly hope that furloughs will be removed in the next legislative session.”

The Las Vegas Faculty Senate surveyed members on how they’d like the legislature to prioritize funding for the current biennium. A majority of faculty (61 percent) who completed the survey said they wanted their salaries restored to pre-cut levels above anything else. Twenty-three percent said they wanted the furloughs to end. Just 4 percent of those surveyed prioritized merit pay.

The senate passed a resolution documenting the consensus in early 2012. It also sent a memo to Dan Klaich, chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, on the matter.

The letter included comments from faculty about the pay cuts.

“As a department chair, it has been a difficult last few years trying to retain faculty who work hard and are productive,” one wrote. “We have lost two of our best-performing faculty to better paying jobs. Both of them indicated that one of the main reasons they decided to leave were the cuts and lack of any foreseeable increase in salary. We have had a difficult time trying to find equally capable replacements. It has been devastating to our small department.”

Another said: “Cutting my salary felt like robbery.”

Yet another wrote: “My faith in seeing any recommendation actually bearing fruit is as close to zero as one can get, considering the value with which our legislature regards ‘higher education.’”

The Las Vegas survey results were consistent with a statewide poll conducted by the Nevada Faculty Alliance, an advocacy group affiliated with the American Association of University Professors representing non-union faculty at seven public institutions and a collective bargaining unit at an eighth institution. Asked to rank priorities for the legislative session, faculty said they wanted the restoration of base pay, followed by the end of furloughs, followed still by the reinstatement of merit pay, said Angela Brommel, association president and adjunct professor of fine arts and director of community outreach at Nevada State College.

“The [Nevada Faculty Alliance] fought really hard to get their reinstatement of 2.5 percent [to pre-cut pay levels],” said Brommel, adding that increased contributions to retirement funds made for an effective restoration of just 1.5 percent. And the furloughs? "We’re still trying to work on reinstatement of full pay," she sad. "It’s impacting our ability to recruit and retain faculty.”

But not all faculty wanted the furloughs to end before getting back their merit pay. The legislature’s move is “consistent with the prioritization of the faculty” at the University of Nevada at Reno, said Swatee Naik, Faculty Senate chair and professor of mathematics and statistics. In a 2012 survey, senate members ranked their legislative priorities regarding pay as 1) the restoration of base pay (69 percent); 2) merit pay reinstatement (21 percent); and 3) furlough elimination (10 percent), she said in an e-mail.

The jury is still out at the College of Southern Nevada, the state's largest institution, said Darin Dockstader, professor of philosophy and Faculty Senate chair. Because performance-based pay ranges were approved just this summer for community college faculty, a merit policy committee is only beginning to develop a pay plan. The body never polled itself last year on preferences regarding merit pay or ending furloughs, he said.

Chancellor Klaich said that restoring funding for merit pay was a “high priority” for the Board of Regents and Governor Brian Sandoval, and one that he supported.

“From a basic philosophical standpoint, I believe the best faculty should be recognized and rewarded and do not understand the argument in a professional setting for mere step increases,” he said via e-mail, referring to raises based on length of employment, regardless of merit. "Is every faculty member the same? Do they all work equally hard? I doubt it, so why not recognize and reward it?"

The chancellor said the board requested funding to restore base pay, end the furloughs and bring back merit pay. But in a “tight budget situation,” the legislature couldn’t pay for all three.

Maggie Carlton, chair of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, said it had surveyed all state employees on their priorities – everyone from the Department of Motor Vehicles to mental health professionals. Overall, they preferred the restoration of merit pay to ending the furloughs, she said. “Different groups” of state employees asked for their sectors to be prioritized differently, but all employees were treated the same.

“They can still get the day off and save money on gas and childcare,” Carlton said, citing benefits of the furloughs.

But faculty aren't free to take furloughs whenever they wish. Werth said faculty were instructed not to miss class or office hours, and that he ended up never taking his days off.

Carlton said it was also cheaper to fund merit pay than end furloughs, and that there was little support for increasing revenue to help pay for the more expensive combination of ending furloughs and restoring base pay. “This is what we could afford at this time.”

As far as restoring merit pay while furloughs are in effect, Klaich said, “would those who object like us to refuse the state appropriation for merit pay? I doubt it.”

Werth said that there had been discussions earlier in the legislative session about making the pay cuts permanent, so getting base pay restored and merit pay next year made the “glass half full.” But it might be “easier simply to have salaries restored, rather than merit money," he said.

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