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Salary compression -- when assistant professors make close to what associate and full professors make due to changes in the market between their points of hire -- is a problem across academe. But fixing it is a complicated undertaking that some institutions avoid.

A new, faculty-driven plan at the University of Washington seeks to address salary compression in several innovative ways, and it’s gathered significant support across the university’s three campuses. It has also garnered criticism from some faculty members who say that it’s too complicated, and that unit opt-out functions make it too unpredictable and perhaps meaningless.

“We did an analysis of our salaries and it was very clear that salaries were compressed and we have to actively prevent it,” said Susan Astley, a professor of epidemiology at Washington’s Seattle campus and a former chair of the university’s three-campus Faculty Senate. “In some cases an assistant professor hired at today’s going salary rates could be hired in at salary rate that is greater than a full professor in that person’s department.”

Astley, who supports the plan, said that while the university is mostly just offering these new assistant professors the going rate, the effects of such compression are clear. “You have a difficult time retaining your full professors if your salary just doesn’t progress -- and that does happen here. The university has a national reputation that you’ll be hired in at a good salary, but then you’ll never again see a good raise. That information makes it difficult to attract professors, too.”

Currently, professors at the University of Washington -- including at campuses in Seattle, Tacoma and Bothell -- have just two guaranteed opportunities for a raise: upon promotion to associate and full professor, respectively, at 7.5 percent, which is scheduled to increase to 9 percent in the fall. Merit raises of 2 percent are awarded every year, but some professors say that barely tracks increases in the cost of living.

The proposed plan, passed in a 47 to 29 vote by the Faculty Senate last month and up for a full faculty vote through the end of this week, seeks to increase opportunities for raises by creating additional “tiers” within the faculty rank system. So instead of waiting for rare jumps between ranks, a professor could, after about four years, on average, apply for a promotion to a new salary tier. For tenured faculty, there are several tiers each for assistant and associate professors and nine possible ones for full professors. Non-tenure-track lecturers and artists in residence also would be eligible for various tier raises. These raises are not assured, but would be based on merit. Such raises may vary but are capped at 8 percent of the average professor’s salary, regardless of discipline.

Professors would still get major raises -- to the tune of 12 percent -- with promotion to associate and full professor, respectively.

Although professors only have two clear opportunities for a raise under the current system, many in Washington (and elsewhere) know that additional retention raises can be won by seeking outside job offers from other institutions. As at so many other institutions, these retention raises are often handled quietly between the professor and his or her chair and dean. And while the department might keep the faculty star, in so doing it may expend all additional funds for adjusting the salaries of everyone else.

That trend informs a second major aspect of Washington’s proposed plan: instead of retention raises happening behind closed doors, both they and the proposed tier raises would be voted on and approved by members of the applicants’ own department or academic unit in some fashion. The idea is to cast sunlight upon the retention process while hopefully -- via the new tier system -- discouraging professors from seeking outside offers only to get a one-time raise.

“This is designed not to cost the university more in salaries, but specifically to redistribute the existing available dollars for promotion, the vast majority of which are going toward retention for a handful of faculty stars,” Astley said.

The plan also includes regular, separately funded bumps tied to increases in the cost of living and a 1 percent “variable adjustment” for addressing such related issues as gender or racial inequities among professors, or salary differentials among professors of equal attainment.

Compression is a tricky thing to measure, but a review of average faculty salaries from the American Association of University Professors’ annual faculty compensation survey is illustrative. At the Bothell campus, assistant professors make $96,700 while associate and full professors make $98,800 and $119,700, respectively, on average. At Tacoma, it’s $80,400, $98,300 and $118,200, respectively, for assistant, associate and full professors. At Seattle, it’s $98,100, $104,800, and $133,800.

A study by the university's Office of Planning and Management using 2014-15 data from AAUP found that the Seattle campus would have to increase the average professor’s pay 9.6 percent to equal the mean salary for eight peer institutions in a weighted comparison. But broken down by rank, those increases would be 17 percent for full professors and about 2 percent for associate professors. Average assistant professor pay would actually have to decrease 5.5 percent to align with the peer mean for that rank. In other words, compression appears worse at Seattle than its institutional comparison group as a whole.

Critics of faculty salary compression generally also say that it’s worse in certain programs, including professional ones. Even though professors at all ranks in fields such as business and medicine tend to make more than their peers in other disciplines, compression can be exaggerated because the outside job market for those fields is so dynamic.

The proposed plan doesn’t try to address cross-disciplinary salary differentials; Astley said the market “is what it is” in that sense. But the plan does have support from across the disciplines.

Gail Stygall, a professor of English at Seattle who served on the original faculty salary working group dating back to 2012, said she supports the plan for its transparent approach to retention raises and especially for giving those professors who intend to stay at Washington “a pathway to receiving continuous raises over a career pathway for meritorious work. … There are any number of stories of deserving faculty who have been crushed by the current capricious salary system.”

Stygall said she’s been personally affected by salary compression in that her pay always seems “laughably” behind salary figures at peer institutions. Luckily, her expertise in language and law allows her to consult on the side, she said. But many of her humanities colleagues don’t have the opportunity to make extra money in Seattle, where the cost of living is relatively high.

‘Winners and Losers’

Yet the plan has encountered significant opposition. Part of that concern stems from the plan’s recent inclusion of an opt-out mechanism for academic units that don’t want to follow it. Opposed professors worry that a program that’s to be adopted with no additional associated funding, and which some may follow and some won’t, may soon cost the university in terms of dollars and divisiveness.

“When you have a policy -- and it doesn’t really matter what kind of policy -- when you all of a sudden have opt-out options, that to me raises a number of serious questions about the strength of the policy itself,” said Marcie Lazzari, professor of social work at Tacoma and chair of its campus Faculty Assembly.

Lazzari stressed that she believes salary compression is a problem. But the new plan, which is the product of years of work but which includes recent, significant additions, seems too complex and too rushed to actually do any good, she said. Lazzari and a number of her colleagues recently enumerated their concerns in a letter to fellow faculty members, asking them to consider rejecting the policy proposal in the ongoing, all-faculty vote.

“We are in support of the overall goal of achieving greater salary equity and reducing salary compression for senior faculty,” the letter says. “However, the proposed policy which began with those goals has evolved into such a complex policy it will be too resource intensive to implement and will not accomplish the goals we set out to achieve.”

The letter notes that the tiered aspect of the plan was inspired in part by the University of California System's pay plan, which includes "steps" between ranks. But it says that Washington isn't necessarily as well equipped to handle the extra administrative work associated with such a system. Instead of an opt-out mechanism, the letter suggests an opt-in mechanism, so that academic units that reject the plan won't still have to meet certain administrative requirements.

In addition to the opt-out issue, the letter lists 11 other potential pitfalls, including that the proposal isn’t increasing salaries overall but simply redistributing them within units; that regular merit salary increases will cease; that the policy itself contains some “vague” language; and that it will create “winners and losers.”

“The [university] will no longer have one salary policy: some units will customize raise formulas or opt out of tiers,” the letter says. “This hodgepodge will undermine faculty unity and the power of numbers to advocate for competitive compensation. We believe that the winners under the activity-based budgeting system will go sailing on to a bright future while many other entities slowly sink. Prosperous units will not advocate for poor cousins.”

Gautham P. Reddy, a professor of radiology at Seattle and a member of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee who opposes the plan, said that point in particular worried him. For example, he said, the campuses in Tacoma and Bothell are new and have fewer retiring faculty members to free up funds for the tiered raise pool. And because the tiered system caps raises at 8 percent of the average professor’s salary, compression in fields such as business and law could get even worse.

Reddy said the arts and sciences do need a new faculty salary policy, and they should have one. But the system for medical clinical faculty -- while imperfect -- already works well. “Our salaries should be based on the money that is available and comparable salaries at other medical schools,” he added. “We also have to keep in mind salaries in local private practices, though we are not able to match those salaries.”

Robert Stacey, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said compression is a real problem for the arts and sciences, where full professors are approximately 12 percent behind their national peers in terms of salary, while assistant professors are slightly ahead. Departments that have had more retention raises tend to be less compressed, on average, than those in which the market for hires at the senior level is less active, he added. So grant-driven departments in the natural sciences tend to be less compressed than those in the humanities, arts and social sciences.

Still, he said, even grant-driven departments are subject to retention raise requests or what are sometimes referred to as the “faculty loyalty tax.”

“One of the hopes for this new salary policy, if faculty approve it,” Stacey said, “is that it will lessen our dependence on retention raises by rewarding high-performing faculty in a more regular and predictable way.”

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