The VCU Faculty Senate at its February meeting made its needs clear to VCU president Michael Rao: They want higher salaries, adequate department space, more tenured professors and greater faculty diversity.
In a forum discussion at the Faculty Senate meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 4, Rao responded to faculty-specific concerns. Each February the president attends one Faculty Senate meeting to listen directly to faculty and steer his administration’s priorities for the coming year.
Rao opened the meeting by acknowledging concerns that he has regarding faculty. He urged faculty to take leadership opportunities available to them to improve the university.
“I will need some of your help,” Rao said. “The faculty is the least engaged in the development process here at VCU of any place I have been, so one of my pleas to you is to find ways to engage you more.”
Topping the list of faculty concerns is low salaries.
“Faculty salaries are just not competitive,” Rao agreed. He cited a 2013 study produced by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee that showed that the average salary of assistant professors at VCU is below that of their Carnegie peers in 70 percent of academic departments.
“It’s not acceptable, and it’s not where we want to be,” Rao said.
In response to the discrepancy in comparison to other schools, Rao said he is trying to figure out how to “leverage the VCU presidency in more ways to increase institutional resources, not just from government, not just from tuition, but also from private sources … true philanthropists that want to give to this mission.”
Other Faculty Senate members voiced concerns about space and the lack thereof on campus.
Patricia W. Cummins, a professor in the School of World Studies, described her unit as “one of the units that sits in space that is less than adequate, and that’s probably an understatement.” Cummins asked Rao what plans are on the horizon to find better space for disciplines that are housed in the School of World Studies.
“The bottom line is, among other research universities, we remain dead last in terms of square footage,” Rao said.
Rao said that adequate space is an issue for departments across both campuses. “In some of the areas where we have inadequate space, we actually lease, we don’t own. I think we should terminate those and I think we should move into other spaces that might enable us to expand the periphery of the campuses.”
An issue senate members made clear was important to them was how few professors are tenured or tenure track.
Rao said one-third of faculty are tenured or tenure-track, in comparison to one-fifth 10 years ago.
“We are way behind,” he said.
In the past five years of his administration, Rao said VCU has dedicated $23 million to hiring new faculty, but there is still a great faculty need at the university. In the last school year, VCU hired 230 new faculty, according to data gathered by Scott Street, chairperson of the credentials and rules committee.
Holly Alford, vice president of the Faculty Senate, said she thinks it is critical to not only hire more faculty, but to greatly increase the diversity of faculty.
“I’ve been here for 15 years. I’m an African American faculty member, and am only one of 36 at the university that has tenure,” Alford said. “We have one of the largest African American student populations at a predominantly white institution in the state … Does the administration have a priority on doing something about this? I have watched faculty students leave because of this,” Alford said.
Rao insisted that though it is a serious problem in his opinion, people at the university who hire faculty need to address the issue.
“If you have the opportunity to hire an underrepresented member of the faculty and it costs more, you ought to be not doing something else and doing that,” Rao said.
Street said the annual open forum with the president is an effective means of discussion to present faculty concerns to the administration.
“The prior president used to ask for a list of questions and then address those in his presentation, it wasn’t as open,” Street said. “President Rao doesn’t see a need for that. He’d rather the questions come up and flow, part of his open communication.”
In closing, Rao thanked the senate for their continuing support for the university.
“Change is happening much slower than any of us would like, and I think I’m at the top of that list in terms of impatience,” Rao said. “But things are changing and a lot of that is because of the collective will that so many of you have.”