Students should care about faculty pay

If the University hopes to become a Super Bowl-caliber institution of higher learning in the coming century (as University 2000, an administrative restructuring blueprint, purports), it must adequately compensate its most essential team players: faculty members.
As of late, this issue was drowned out by the cacophony of the cantankerous tenure debate that keeps going and going like the Energizer Bunny.
With the opening of the legislative season, however, faculty members’ salaries are now being discussed as part of the University’s whopping $1.1 billion budget proposal. Hopefully, they will be raised.
First, the bad news. The University now sits at the bottom of the rankings in terms of faculty compensation. According to a 1995 National Research Council report, we’re ranked 30th out of the top 34 research schools in the country.
University administrators define our peer group slightly differently; according to them it includes 30 large public and private schools with a substantial commitment to research and education. In that group, we still hover abysmally low and occupy the 27th spot.
University President Nils Hasselmo succinctly summed up the problem saying, “We’re at the bottom of 30 institutions we compete with. We’ve got to do something about compensation.”
That’s being generous. We’ve got to do more than “something” to address the woefully inadequate faculty salaries at the University.
We, as students, should support increased compensation for professors simply because the value of our degrees is highly dependent upon the quality of the faculty.
Now, I’m not concerned solely about our ratings as a premiere research institution or a world-class graduate school in national surveys (although, truth be told, that is critically important). What I’m really worried about is undergraduate education.
In my five-year-plus tour here at the University, I’ve had several professors who saw me as more than a “tuition revenue stream” or an “education consumer.” They invited me to work in laboratories; they answered questions outside of scheduled office hours; and they wrote (and continue to write) countless letters of recommendation on my behalf. To those professors, thank you. We can’t afford to lose academic superstars like you.
Nearly all students have taken a course with professors who seemed more connected with the paleolithic era than the 1990s. You know — the instructors who hold an hour-long conversation with the blackboard, or the ones who read the newspaper while students sit in discussion groups. They’re wallowing in their collective ignorance.
Great professors don’t do that. They promote class interaction and they encourage students to actually learn the course material.
Now, if we don’t make a commitment to paying our best professors what they’re worth (or more accurately, what the market says they’re worth), we had better be prepared to lose ’em.
While it’s true the University pays more than McDonald’s, it doesn’t pay enough to recruit and retain the top talent available. Harvard, for example, pays a professor an average of $105,000 annually, and nerd-haven California Institute of Technology shucks out an astounding $115,000 for each of its resident geniuses every year. Like any other field, the best professors cost money, and other schools are luring our best and brightest away from Minnesota.
Mostafa Kaveh, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering, commented on the brain drain phenomena at an Institute of Technology forum last week. “We are really having difficulty in keeping some of our star faculty members from raids,” he said. One member of Kaveh’s department, a specialist in micromagnetics, fled to Pittsburgh after Carnegie-Mellon University offered him a 15 percent salary increase.
To be sure, the University’s position is not unique. In fact, schools all across the country are struggling to find money for professorial pay increases.
In Virginia, Gordon Davis, director of the Virginia Council of Higher Education, said, “We’re losing our competitive position (on salary levels) nationally.” University advocates there are seeking an additional $19 million to raise college faculty members’ salaries 4 to 6 percent.
Nearby, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chancellor Michael Hooker worriedly noted that some faculty members have already left in search of larger salaries. Not surprisingly, the University of North Carolina’s 1997-99 budget includes $27.6 million for faculty compensation.
Closer to home, University of Wisconsin Chancellor David Ward considers faculty members’ salaries the most important element of Wisconsin’s budget battle this year. “Compensation,” he said, “is absolutely critical.” His budget request includes money for a 5 percent increase in faculty members’ salaries.
Here at the University, faculty raises are planned, and Hasselmo hopes to bring faculty members’ salaries in line with the median of schools in our peer group. In a presentation to the Board of Regents in January, the administration outlined a four-year financial framework; a generous portion was allocated to faculty compensation.
That’s a good start, but the plan won’t be implemented entirely unless the Legislature approves the University’s biennial budget request. Unfortunately, judging from Gov. Arne Carlson’s initial recommendations, that’s not likely to happen.
Where does that leave us? Well, if we’re not careful, the University will resemble “Coach” Hayden Fox’s fictitious Minnesota State University rather than a flagship land-grant institution.

Greg Lauer’s column appears every Wednesday in the Daily.