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It's time for shared sacrifice among KU faculty


A faculty colleague at KU recently asked me if I thought there would be any funds for raises next year. “What planet are you living on?” was my reply. The state of Kansas faces a billion dollar budget shortfall for the next fiscal year, and state leaders are debating how to slash spending, including cuts to programs that provide vital assistance to the most vulnerable people in Kansas. To expect higher education to escape this epic storm would be naïve. It’s not that higher education is suffering a negative shock to the demand for its services. Parents may skip an expensive vacation or delay the purchase of a new car, but few will tell their talented offspring to skip college for a year. Students and parents will still line up and pay tuition, and “best value” schools like KU may even see a surge in enrollment. In short, on the demand side higher education is largely recession-proof. But tuition paid by student families is only part of university funding sources, and tuition is already at an all-time high as a portion of family income. The tax base that supports state allocations that subsidize higher education is taking a big hit. Net asset values for endowed funds have taken an even bigger hit. Finally, the wealth and incomes of donors of all means, but especially those of exceptional wealth and generosity, have been impaired. Every day headlines tell of how businesses throughout the nation are right-sizing to new economic conditions, and it is delusional to think that higher education should be different.Leaders at the Regents institutions have stated that they are committed not to harm core missions of teaching and research, although they have been called upon to cut budgets by nearly 10%. It’s hard to see how this will be accomplished with mere nips and tucks because nearly 80% of KU’s annual budget is attributable to employee salaries and benefits. I suggest that KU and the other Regents institutions consider a 2% salary cut for all employees earning above a threshold level -- say $50,000. If enacted, relatively well-paid university employees -- from coaches to athletic directors to the assorted vice-assistant-executive chancellors/provosts to most tenure-track faculty members-- can join together in being part of the solution to the budget crisis. The nearly across-the-board salary cut I propose should be permanent -- not a one-time unpaid leave with a promise to restore everyone to status quo ex ante under some future scenario. Instead, the usual merit process would resume from the new salary base when future economic conditions improve. In addition, any future incremental resources must be targeted first and foremost at recruiting top-flight new scholars and retaining highly valued employees who might otherwise be lured away to other institutions.Many tough decisions still must be made involving other cuts to next year’s budget, including elimination of some programs and layoffs. But to spare high-paid, mostly tenured faculty members and expect the burden to fall entirely on other employees through layoffs would be unfair and unwise. In particular, lecturers and academic advisors provide terrific bang-for-the-buck in terms of classroom delivery and other dimensions critical to student success. To my faculty colleagues that would object to this proposal I say, “Get real.” Faculty members enjoy very good salaries and benefits and in many cases permanent job security. Yes, our salaries are determined by competitive labor markets, and there are good fundamental reasons why professors in many disciplines earn high salaries. Faculty salaries are determined upon hiring by competition among institutions but thereafter are typically raised by modest annual amounts with occasional targeted bumps in response to credible threats to leave for greener pastures. It doesn’t take a Nobel laureate labor economist to look around the academic landscape today and realize that there are few green pastures out there. Nearly half of all American universities have frozen hiring, and some are furloughing or firing even tenured faculty. If KU leaders could have foreseen our current troubles a year or two ago is there any doubt that raises would have been canceled for the current fiscal year? To ask high-paid faculty to give up a little of their salary seems quite reasonable in this context. Yes, a modest salary cut will affect the family budgets of well-paid employees at KU and other Regents intuitions -- and perhaps even dent the level of economic activity in the city of Lawrence and other host communities. However, those of us employed in discovery and sharing of knowledge with bright young people -- well-paid inside work with no heavy lifting, as one of my colleagues reminds me – can continue in the vocation we love while enjoying great benefits and job security. The same cannot be said for many other Kansans who are suffering. In these trying times we in the academy should not retreat within our ivory towers like prairie Prince Prosperos. The time is ripe for some shared sacrifice.


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