University of Wyoming salaries lag further behind peer universities

University of Wyoming salaries lag further behind peer universities

Laramie — After four years of no state funding for employee pay raises, the University of Wyoming is losing faculty members at an accelerating rate and falling further behind average pay levels at public research universities.

That seriously harms UW’s efforts to become a top-tier land-grant institution, university leaders told the UW Board of Trustees during the board’s July 17-19 retreat in Sheridan.

“The university simply can’t achieve our shared aspiration to become the best it can be without excellent people to lead the way in teaching, research and service to the state and the world. And without competitive salaries, we won’t be able to attract and retain these top people,” UW President Bob Sternberg says. “Going four years with no merit increases for the university’s faculty and staff has created a crisis, and addressing it must be our top priority as I begin my work at UW.”

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The last salary adjustment for UW employees was an average 4 percent increase in 2009. Like other state agencies, UW in October will distribute a 1 percent bonus to university employees as approved by the 2013 Legislature, but that is a one-time expenditure that will amount to just $500 (pre-tax) for a person making $50,000 per year, for example.

At no time in the past 30 years have UW faculty and staff members gone so long without permanent salary adjustments.

As a result, UW’s faculty salaries have slipped when compared to peer institutions. For example, UW’s salaries in 2009 were 7 percent below the average of universities included in a respected nationwide salary study conducted annually by Oklahoma State University; by 2012, that gap had grown to 11 percent.

In a separate comparison with 50 public research universities across the country and region — including states suffering more economic distress than Wyoming — UW’s salaries were 14 percent lower than the average in 2012. The Chronicle of Higher Education characterizes UW’s average faculty salaries as “far below median.”

At the same time, UW has seen a steady rise in faculty members leaving for other institutions, as the annual number of departures has more than doubled from 2009 to 2013.

This year’s announced departures include faculty hired by Purdue University, the University of Arizona, the University of Memphis, the University of Missouri, North Carolina State University, Texas Tech University, Texas A&M University, the University of Utah, Kansas State University, the University of Calgary, and the University of Western Sydney Australia.

While the pay issue isn’t the only reason faculty members move to other universities, it’s clearly one of the biggest factors, UW officials say. And the fact that UW competes with institutions across the world for expert teachers and researchers makes offering and sustaining competitive salaries crucial.

“It’s an international market in which salaries rise every year, and so every year without a pay increase puts us further behind our competitors,” UW Provost Myron Allen says. “There are plenty of institutions looking to steal our best people and willing to pay the higher salaries required to do so. Losing our best faculty members erodes our teaching, service, research and economic development missions.”

In order to meet a 6 percent reduction in state funding for the current fiscal year as required by the Legislature and the governor, UW eliminated the funding for 12 faculty and 42 staff positions through attrition. The personnel cuts comprise $3.1 million of the university’s total $11.7 million reduction. In many cases, that means remaining university employees have picked up additional duties with no increases in salary.

Associated Students of UW President Brett Kahler, an ex-officio member of the Board of Trustees, says it’s important to act now on the employee salary issue so the quality of education and services to students don’t suffer.

“We have an excellent faculty and superb student support staff at UW, and it would be a shame to see that level of excellence diminish because the university can’t keep its best people,” Kahler says. “UW students want and deserve a top-notch education, and increasing employee salaries to keep up with the market is essential to make sure that quality is preserved.”

Achievement with no reward

Kristi Cammack, a faculty member in the UW Department of Animal Science, came to Wyoming seven years ago and has established a record of distinction in her field of genetics. The objective of her research is to improve feed efficiency in livestock, a big issue facing beef and sheep producers today, considering the demand for limited feedstuffs. It’s an issue of importance to the agriculture industry in Wyoming, where Cammack and her family have made a comfortable home.

But the fact she had only received a couple of small pay raises during her time at UW made it tempting for Cammack to consider a job opening at the University of Nebraska — where she earned her master’s degree — earlier this year. It’s only because Cammack and her family love Wyoming, and because she received a special retention pay bump in addition to her advancement from assistant to associate professor, that she decided to stay.

“My husband and I have two young children, and we want to stay here because we like the environment for raising kids. But it’s really frustrating when you see universities in other states, even those with serious financial struggles, find ways to reward their people while Wyoming is lagging behind,” Cammack says. “It’s not very inspiring to be told you’re doing a good job and not get any reward for it.”

For high-performing UW faculty members offered jobs elsewhere, UW sometimes is able to make counter-offers sufficient to keep them in Wyoming. UW’s Office of Academic Affairs reports that seven such faculty members have been retained that way in the past year. But most of the time UW’s counter-offers aren’t successful, in part because when a professor has reached the stage of pursuing opportunities elsewhere, his or her commitment to UW has waned as a result of stagnant salaries here, Cammack says.

“Most of the time, it’s too late,” Cammack says. “And often the counter-offers are still not enough.”

UW faculty members do not receive annual “step” increases for seniority and educational advancement. Faculty members do receive mandatory raises of 10 percent when they’re promoted from assistant professor to associate professor, and from associate professor to full professor, but those milestones are years apart in a faculty member’s career.

Allen notes that the gap between UW salaries and the market average is larger for senior professors such as Cammack than for beginning faculty members. That’s because the university has emphasized competitive entry-level faculty salaries. But without resources to reward veteran faculty members for excellence, UW is losing more and more of the top performers to other institutions.

“The absence of salary raises for the past four years has made it easier for states like Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Texas and Utah to lure professors away from UW, after they have established national and international reputations here,” Allen says. “Even our most loyal professors become susceptible to job offers from other universities when, year after year, the state fails to reward their performance at UW.”

Cammack notes that one of her former graduate students who was just hired for an entry-level faculty position at Virginia Tech University will make about the same amount of money as she now earns at UW.

Looking for solutions

UW officials recently learned that the university’s standard budget has been reduced by $22.7 million for the coming biennium, rather than the $11.7 million cut required by statute. So instead of being able to reallocate the savings identified through internal budget cuts for priorities such as salary increases, UW will instead have to request funding through the state budget process.

The Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote Friday, July 26, on a budget proposal for the 2015-16 biennium to present to the governor and the Legislature by the Aug. 2 deadline. The proposed budget is likely to contain a request for state funding equivalent to a 4 percent employee compensation increase. The board also is considering other ways to address the problem, including further reallocation of internal resources and a moderate tuition increase.

UW officials emphasize that any pay raise plan would be merit based, taking into account specific employee performance and market salaries for specific jobs and disciplines. Some positions are further below national averages than others, and a primary objective would be pulling salaries uniformly closer to those averages. But it will likely take several years of increases to achieve that goal.

Cammack acknowledges that in the spectrum of salaries in Wyoming, university professor rank relatively highly. But she says it’s not unreasonable for UW faculty members to expect to be paid closer to the average for professionals in their fields across the country.

“We may have good salaries, but shouldn’t they be based on what our earning potential is, taking into consideration our areas of expertise and levels of education?” she says. “I know of lot of my colleagues like it here and want to stay, but the salary issue makes it difficult.”

UW officials say they appreciate the strong support of state elected officials and private citizens that has dramatically improved facilities and established endowed professorships in key areas over the past decade. They also acknowledge uncertainty about future state government revenues as a result of changing economic conditions for the state’s key industries. But university leaders say the situation with employee salaries jeopardizes UW’s ability to continue the progress that has been made in recent years.

“The university is committed to using the resources we receive in the best way possible, prioritizing and changing the way we do things in order to make sure we’re meeting the state’s biggest needs, and finding efficiencies so that we use taxpayer dollars as wisely as possible,” Sternberg says. “But competitive salaries must be part of any efforts to achieve excellence, and we can’t afford to fall further behind in this arena.”