Proposed faculty raise system ignites controversy

TU administration has proposed installing a merit-based system for faculty raises, but many professors find the timing of the initiative tone-deaf.

The University of Tulsa administration is currently working to shift faculty pay raises to a merit-based system, as opposed to a years-worked or seniority system. The new method of granting raises would operate based on department-specific criteria that each department would determine on its own. Administration asked faculty last fall to submit these criteria with the hopes of implementing the new system in the 2023-24 budget, which administration will finalize late in the spring semester.

Controversy has arisen among faculty, however, in light of what some see as an incredibly misguided approach to the shift. The provost announced the plan to a meeting of faculty chairs last fall, asking departments to submit their own proposed criteria for raises. At that time, the impression given suggested that faculty alone would determine these criteria. More recently, however, administration informed faculty that their structure proposals would undergo peer review to see how proposed TU criteria compared with that of a handful of R1 universities. R1 universities represent the highest level of research activity on college campuses as judged within the Carnegie Classification; The University of Tulsa currently stands at R2 ranking. This move surprised faculty as they had not known that their proposals would undergo peer review at all, much less with faculty at universities better suited for research than TU.

The initial proposal also came in light of the fact that in spring of 2022 the university began an inquiry into comparing faculty pay with that of other universities within the region. This inquiry started because faculty had not had a substantial pay raise in at least five years. This past week, administration released the collected data, revealing some serious issues. While many faculty on campus do receive pay on par with what is expected of their field and years contributed, some found that their pay fell not only far below the median but even substantially below the lower quartile of pay among similar faculty. This means that, for some professors, they currently receive less compensation than over 75% of similar faculty within the region.

Problems such as this one illustrate the problem of salary compression plaguing TU. Salary compression occurs when current faculty receive small raises, if any, while starting salaries for new hires rise disproportionately. In a competitive job market, new hire pay has to rise at a certain rate if the university hopes to attract quality candidates, but this begins to harm the workplace environment when current faculty do not receive a fair salary, eventually posing a threat to repel would-be applicants.

And faculty have expressed discontent with the proposal. In an interview with Dr. Jeffrey Hockett of the political science department, he noted that “In view of recent inflation, and considering that the faculty and staff brought the university through the pandemic, the administration should not be surprised the faculty regard the timing of the current effort as a slap to the face in the absence of at least a cost-of-living pay adjustment before moving to merit pay.” And other faculty members seem to have a similar opinion. Dr. Matthew Dean Hindman of the same department concurred on the poor timing, but did express gratitude that the current president had chosen to investigate comparative pay — an issue in which the last two acting presidents had expressed disinterest. What the university does with this information, he was keen to identify, does at this point still hang in the balance.

But even after a potential adjustment to correct for pay inequity and cost-of-living adjustments, the proposal itself still has its problems. One Arts and Sciences professor, who wishes to remain anonymous but whose identity The Collegian has confirmed, noted the general faculty position seemed in favor of fixing pay inequity before implementing any new system. But they also expressed concern at TU’s attempts to place its raise criteria on par with elite research institutions. After recent cuts to academic programs, research travel and other academic resources, and after years of under-compensation of faculty, they wondered whether TU currently even sits securely enough in the R2 category to consider making criteria comparable to that of R1 schools.

Dr. Ram Mohan, a professor of mechanical engineering and president of the faculty senate, concurred with the disagreement over using R1-level criteria, finding that now did not seem the best time to make this move. TU could aspire to reach R1 status, he thought, but to hold its faculty to those standards now did not seem appropriate.

The president plans to meet with each college on campus individually in the coming weeks to discuss the path forward. Faculty do not know yet what will enter the budget for the next fiscal year, whether the merit-based system will begin or if any adjustment for cost-of-living and comparatively low pay will occur. Administration has also pushed back the date for sharing salary statements with professors, saying that it will not meet the usual April 1 deadline and that early May could be a realistic timeline.

Post Author: Zach Short