Merit raises increase tension, some say

Peer ranking determines many faculty members’ raises.

by Tyler Gieseke


The University of Minnesota’s merit-raise system has created a rift among some faculty members who say the system creates a competitive culture and lacks transparency.

In the College of Liberal Arts, many faculty members are ranked by colleagues in their department to determine salary increases each year. Other colleges may leave it up to the discretion of the department head to evaluate and distribute raises.

“Personally, I don’t like this system,” said Joanna O’Connell, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies. “We’re essentially competing against each other.”

The procedure at the University of Minnesota is typical, said Arlene Carney, vice provost for faculty and academic affairs.

Most CLA departments rank faculty members each year based on their research, teaching and service work in order to assign raises, said Geoffrey Hellman, chair of the Department of Philosophy.

In his department, Hellman said a committee of four different faculty members assigns department members a score between zero and four before the scores are averaged and shared with the entire department.

A “gripe session” allows faculty members to dispute their scores, he said.

But a system like the University of California’s, where faculty members have established salaries at certain “steps” of promotion, could clear the atmosphere and increase transparency, said Michelle Hamilton, an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies.

Hamilton previously worked at the University of California, where a committee made up of people from across the university would evaluate the work of faculty members for a promotion in rank — which also meant a standardized step up in salary.

For example, a promotion from the rank of assistant professor III to assistant professor IV for a typical faculty member would mean a minimum increase in annual salary of $3,400.

There are 20 steps in the ladder system.

“It was only when I left that I realized, ‘Whoa, every place is not like this,’” Hamilton said.

A ‘competitive culture’

There’s a certain amount of unpleasantness in being evaluated and ranked by your peers, Hellman said.

“There’s going to be this competitive side of things,” he said, adding that it’s a downside of the merit-raise review process.

A step system where faculty members receive set salary increases and aren’t ranked might make the atmosphere better, Hellman said. But he said an institution would need to be sure the raises weren’t given out to undeserving faculty members.

Overall, Hellman said, he thinks the University’s method works the way it is.

“No system’s going to be perfect,” he said.

O’Connell said ranking faculty has negative consequences.

“Just because everybody did a good job that year, doesn’t mean everybody gets 2 percent. You have to be ranked,” she said. “I think it … can create a climate in a department that’s unfortunate.”

Carney, who’s also a member of the speech-language-hearing sciences department, said any competition wasn’t a product of the merit-raise system but of each faculty member’s work ethic.

“I would not say that my department has a competitive culture,” she said.


For Hamilton, the University’s merit-raise process lacks transparency.

Working in the University of California system, she said it was clear what every faculty member was making.

“The nice thing is that there were set, university-wide money ranges to each step,” she said. “I knew what the range looked like for everyone, whereas here it’s very different.”

At the University, different faculty members can have dissimilar salaries based on the raises they were assigned each year.

Hamilton also said she felt the system in California, where the work of faculty members was evaluated by a committee outside the department, was more impartial.

But she said conflicts will occur anywhere.

“There’s always disagreements, even at the [University of California],” she said.

In some departments in the College of Science and Engineering, the raises are up to the discretion of the department head, said Wayne Gladfelter, associate dean of academic affairs and former chair of the Department of Chemistry.

Hamilton said although she hasn’t had any issues, she thinks putting the responsibility for raises in the hands of the chair has the potential to cause problems, since one person is responsible for giving raises to colleagues.

Gladfelter said it’s a responsibility the chairs take very seriously, although it can be difficult.

“It’s always a challenge to do it effectively,” he said. “It takes a lot of time and effort to review this carefully.”