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October 15, 1998

Faculty, administrators discuss what Pitt's salary policy should be

Faculty, staff and administrators exchanged ideas about Pitt's policy for awarding salary raises, during the fall plenary session of the University Senate yesterday, Oct. 14.

The University Planning and Budgeting Committee (UPBC), a group of employees, students and administrators that advises the senior administration, is beginning a year-long review of the policy.

"The time has come to examine the policy for possible improvement in details, in how we follow it, or both," said Provost James Maher, who chairs UPBC.

"Our faculty and staff must see merit rewarded. They must see that the work they're doing is noticed and rewarded. For everyone's future, we need to get our compensation policies right," Maher said.

Adopted in 1994, the salary policy calls for dividing the annual pool of money for salary raises among four components:

* A cost of living increase for all staff and faculty judged by their supervisors to have done satisfactory work. The increase is pegged at the annual Consumer Price Index inflation rate.

* Merit increases to reward outstanding job performance.

* Equity adjustments to reduce unfair pay discrepancies.

* Market adjustments to make or keep Pitt salaries competitive with those of other employers.

At yesterday's meeting, School of Engineering Dean Gerald Holder argued for a system that would award raises based entirely on merit except in years of double-digit inflation, in which about half of the pool of salary raise funds would go toward cost of living raises.

A merit-based system would give administrators much more flexibility in rewarding outstanding work, penalizing rare instances of unsatisfactory performance and smoothing out unfair pay discrepancies among professors of the same rank, Holder maintained. Because of the current system's emphasis on cost of living increases, an employee earning $40,000 gets a smaller raise than an equally productive employee earning $80,000, the dean said.

Several faculty and staff members commented on Holder's idea. None liked it.

John Baker of dental medicine said his school has "declined significantly" — in terms of research productivity, faculty and staff morale and student board scores — as a direct result of the school administration's emphasis on merit raises.

Without fair and clearly stated standards for evaluating faculty job performance, a merit-based system of awarding raises would give supervisors free rein to reward favorites and punish employees they dislike, Baker and several other audience members said.

Rich Colwell, president of Pitt's Staff Association Council, said a merit-based system would be a "hard sell" among staff employees.

Mary Ann Barber, a history professor at the Titusville campus, noted that UPT is primarily a teaching campus. "What is objectively measured, meritorious teaching?" she asked. "Does it have to do with the number of students I attract into a section of American history? Or how well they like me?" Barber also complained that the salary policy benchmarks UPT faculty salaries against those at AAU branch campuses. As Pitt faculty members, shouldn't UPT professors' salaries be compared with those of their colleagues in Oakland? she asked.

English professor Phil Wion, who played a leading role in crafting the current salary policy, described the policy as fair, flexible and well thought-out, if not necessarily perfect.

"It may very well be that there are ways to improve the policy, and I think it is important that the University, through the UPBC and in other forums as well, explore those. But many of those alternatives were considered in putting the policy together," Wion said.

He defended the system against criticisms by economics professor Jean-Francois Richard, who called it "absurd" and doomed to failure because Pitt will never have sufficient compensation money, at least in the foreseeable future, to fund all four of the policy's components.

In four years, Pitt has yet to follow the salary policy to the letter, Provost Maher acknowledged.

Wion replied that the policy should be seen as a set of priorities, guidelines and mechanisms for distributing salary monies, not an inflexible blueprint.

Another economics professor, James Cassing, noted the peculiar economics of academic life — for example, seniority doesn't necessarily lead to higher earning power for professors, especially those who remain with one employer, Cassing said.

Cassing also tossed out several novel ideas for distributing salary funds, such as awarding lump sum payments to profs for especially productive years.

All of the speakers agreed that Pitt must squeeze the most out of its compensation dollars in order to meet institutional goals, to avoid hurting morale and losing the University's best and brightest employees, and to cope with ominous budget challenges.

For the current fiscal year, for example, the University's share of employee health insurance rate hikes outstripped the approximately $5 million increase in Pitt's state appropriation.

Compensation (salaries plus fringe benefits) comprises 62 percent of Pitt's operating budget. To increase the University compensation budget by 1 percent, Pitt needs to raise tuition by 1 percent and receive a 1 percent increase in its state appropriation, Wion pointed out.

One of the salary policy's goals is to ensure that average faculty salaries at the Pittsburgh campus are at or above the median among Pitt's fellow members of the American Association of Universities (AAU).

But after years of negligible raises — themselves the outgrowth of stingy state appropriations, enrollment shortfalls and public pressure to minimize tuition hikes — Pitt salaries have slipped below the AAU median for most faculty ranks.

Pitt senior administrators argue for changing the salary policy's goal to maintaining salaries here at or above the median for AAU public universities only, excluding high-paying private AAU institutions such as Harvard and M.I.T.

"I'm sure this will come up during UPBC's discussions," Provost Maher said.

–Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 31 Issue 4

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