Put a pause on pay raises

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President William Powers Jr. emailed faculty and staff Wednesday afternoon with an update of the 82nd legislative session’s impact on UT. Before the session ended, the Legislature cut millions from higher education, resulting in a $92-million reduction in funding for UT for the upcoming biennium.

Powers’ email follows an email he sent last week notifying faculty and staff of the upcoming merit-based pay raises. The raises, which would permanently increase a recipient’s salary, come after severe cuts to faculty, staff and academic programs, among other areas, in anticipation of the budget reduction. Powers said in the email that the raises are possible because deans and vice presidents made efficient cuts across the University’s budget.

Over the last two years, the University has reduced funding in academic areas such as language programs and gender and ethnic studies centers. UT has also laid off scores of faculty and staff members and cut funding for financial aid and many student services, such as University Health Services.

Powers acknowledged in Wednesday’s email that the cuts will affect UT’s academic mission. “Our students will encounter reduced student services, course offerings and financial aid,” he wrote.

While it is important to award talented faculty and give them incentives to stay at UT, now is an inappropriate time to do so, particularly with the reduced quality of education and services offered to students as a result of the cuts already made. With more cuts in UT’s future, students and faculty alike will undoubtedly suffer from increased class sizes, more job eliminations and fewer services.

“We must be competitive for talented faculty and staff in order to remain a leading university,” Powers wrote in his email last week. “Even in difficult times, I believe this is a high priority.”

Faculty salaries have already increased dramatically in the last decade. The average statewide salary for professors in 1999 was $70,864, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. By 2009, the average increased to $106,311. The highest professor salary at UT-Austin was $140,542 in 1999. In 2009, it grew to $382,948.

While pay raises may help retain talented faculty and staff, the type of budget shortfall the University faces is not unique to UT. Rather, it is a problem affecting institutions of higher education across the nation, as most public universities in the country, including schools in the University of California System, the University of Wisconsin and the University of North Carolina, all of which are considered peer institutions, are facing similar budget reductions. This makes it unlikely that, in the current financial climate, other universities can offer truly competitive salary increases to prospective faculty and staff.

The raises will take effect Sept. 1 and are the first permanent increases since the 2008-09 year. However, the University awarded faculty and staff with one-time merit-based pay increases in 2010-11. While working to retain the University’s quality faculty and staff, administrators should also work to reduce the burden on students and to maintain the quality of education and variety of courses offered by the University.

Retaining top faculty is only one of the many facets needed to maintain the quality of UT. Meanwhile, offering faculty pay raises amid severe budget cuts may preserve some of the prestige of the University but does little for the student body and is reprehensible at a time when students and other faculty are bearing the brunt of the reductions via higher tuition and lost jobs.