VCU faculty compensation lagging behind in-state peers

Matt Leonard
Online Content Editor 

Illustration by Dan Nacu.
Illustration by Dan Nacu.

VCU faculty salaries are not competitive and individuals are appealing to administration and the Board of Visitors for change.

A report from the 2014 BOV budget retreat placed VCU faculty within the 31st percentile for salary compensation compared to their peers nationally. In Virginia, VCU salaries are 18 to 25 percent lower than at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia.

In contrast, president Michael Rao, who was hired in 2009,  was ranked the 14th highest paid state employee in Virginia for 2013-14, according to a state-income report published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in September.

The university does not have numbers on faculty members VCU has lost to higher-paying jobs, but Rao is confident it’s happening.

“It’s only anecdotal,” Rao said. “But we’re losing good people, I know we are.”

Over the past seven years faculty members at VCU have seen just one increase in their base pay; in July 2013 there was a 3 percent pool increase. One of the Quest for Distinction’s stated goals is for faculty pay to fall within at least the 60th percentile nationally.

“Three percent of salary was available (in July of 2013), but that could be distributed differentially based on merit,” said David Fauri, the past president of the faculty senate and professor in the School of Social Work. “It’s doubtful that everyone got the same increase.”

In the same time period, faculty members have seen two bonuses. However, Fauri said that bonuses are “more meaningful when they are combined with a base salary increase,” and that they aren’t constructive on their own.

Speaking to the faculty senate last month President Michael Rao addressed these concerns.

“To decide that there will be no change is out (as an option), that will not happen,” Rao said. “I already know how unhappy many of you — as my colleagues — are and I am not happy with our inability to deal with compensation.”

After Rao left the faculty senate meeting some faculty members raised concerns about large bonuses that VCU administrators, including Rao, recently received.

Anne Buckley, senior director of university public affairs said Rao received a $50,000 bonus from private funds and Sheldon M. Retchin, CEO of VCU Health Systems, received a bonus of $222,571. VCU provided 40 percent of Retchin’s increase and the VCU health system provided the remainder. Both bonuses were awarded for meeting metrics outlined in their contracts.

Bill Decatur also received a raise with his promotion to senior vice president. His base salary was increased to $325,000 and he could receive an additional $25,000 bonus.

“I think some top administrators would prefer to not have the bonuses there. It’s really the choice of the board,” said John Wiencek, the interim provost. “It works very well in the corporate world.”

Faculty members in the crowd said bonuses to higher-ups were not good for morale and higher education should not be operating on the same framework as a corporation.

In the past, administrators have put their bonuses back towards student scholarships, Fauri said. A faculty member in the crowd said that without the names and numbers of these donations it was “unsubstantiated” and “propaganda.”

The administrators don’t have a choice in receiving the bonus. The decision lies with the BOV.

“It gives the university and (the BOV) some ability to compensate successful administrators so that they are less likely to be recruited away,” Fauri said. “Successful presidents are recruited constantly.”

Rao said the plan to fix faculty compensation lies with the university’s new, in-progress budget model. It will take 18 to 24 months to implement and will be completed in phases. The new plan will install an annual review of faculty compensation.

Fauri said the new model will allow for more flexibility within the budget so funds can be reallocated to where they are needed. Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 6.45.47 PM

“We’re in the early stages of talking about how the model will play out,” said Kathleen K. Shaw, vice provost for planning and decision support. “The more that we can use the budget model to help align the sources and uses of our funds the more likely we are to reward people for their ongoing excellence.”

She said the current model, an incremental budget model, causes compensation to stagnate from year to year due to lack of review. When implemented at other institutions, new budget models have resulted in increased faculty compensation, Shaw said.

The first phase of the new budget model is research and concept development and will run through the end of the calendar year.

Instead of waiting up to two years for the new budget model, Rao said he will consider the reallocation of resources to help improve faculty compensation in the short term. He said the only reason the administration is not talking about reallocation right away is due to the $5.4 million in university budget cuts due to unexpected state appropriations earlier this year. Rao also told faculty members that reallocation is not as easy as it may sound.

“There is no magic in being a president of a university,” Rao said. “You can’t simply say, ‘you will move this money here.’ What money? From where? It’s money that’s currently going someplace else.”

VCU could move away from more traditional compensation and benefit structures in an attempt at relying less heavily on state money. Rao and Fauri both mentioned sabbatical, a period of paid leave granted to professors for study or travel, as a potential mechanism for better accomplishing this.

Lagging faculty compensation is not a trend limited to VCU. Data from a study by the American Association of University Professors shows the largest base salary increase for national faculty over the past decade was a 3.8 percent increase between 2005 and 2007. Professors saw a 4.2 percent increase, associate professors a 3.9 percent increase, assistant professors a 4.1 percent increase and instructors a 3.9 percent increase.

The increases amount to 1.7 percent, 1.4 percent, 1.6 percent and 1.4 percent respectively when inflation is accounted for.

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 6.45.52 PMContinuing faculty over the past decade had their biggest raise between 2006 and 2008 — 4.1 percent in real terms. Due to the Great Recession professors saw only a 0.1 percent increase the next year.

“Faculty members have long viewed the growth in the number and salaries of college and university administrators with a strong sense of suspicion,” the study reads, further stating that the growth rate for university positions remains relevant today.

Over the last 35 years, non-faculty positions have increased by a staggering 369 percent which includes hiring lawyers, purchasing agents, managing human resources and recruiting numerous other job titles.

In stark comparison, full-time tenure-track faculty has grown by only 23 percent and full-time “nonprofessional” positions grew by 19 percent nationally.

The Delta Cost Project released data in 2012 displaying how new administrative positions affected spending priorities at universities. Between 2000 and 2010, public research universities, including VCU, saw an 8.4 percent increase in instructional spending, and a 12.1 growth in institutional support, which includes administrator pay.

Shaw said at VCU this was not the trend exhibited over a three-year period that concluded in fall 2013.

During that time, teaching and research faculty at VCU increased in number from 1,990 to 2,170 personnel — a 9 percent increase. Professional faculty (advisors, coaches, managers and directors) increased in number from 374 to 570 personnel. Administrative faculty (deans, provosts and the president) decreased in number from 208 to 194 people.

Shaw said she is confident the mission of the university is being fulfilled. When student success indicators are taken into account they show improvement: retention rate, graduation rate, scores of student satisfaction have all gone up.

A faculty compensation study being completed by a third party will give VCU a fuller picture of the state of resource expenditures. It is due to be complete before the end of the year.

“The academic mission of teaching and research should be at the core of what colleges do,” AAUP’s study read. “And decisions about spending should reflect a focus on this core mission.”

When VCU’s endowment increased by $888 million, totalling $11.3 billion in the 2013 fiscal year Rao said it was a resource that could be used for improving faculty salaries. Faculty members, however, are still awaiting their piece of this fiscal pie.

VCU was unable to provide the the average and median faculty compensation, Shaw said it is data they do not keep track of. The Office of Finance and Administration was also unavailable for comment.

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