KU says faculty, staff underpaid by about $27M per year when compared to private sector, peer schools

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Special to the Journal-World

The University of Kansas campus is pictured in this aerial photo from September 2023.

Employees at the University of Kansas — from professors to custodians — are underpaid by more than $27 million a year, according to a recently completed report by KU leaders.

A KU leader announced the number Wednesday morning to a fiscal committee of the Kansas Board of Regents. Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWitt said the wage gap will mean that KU needs to continue to provide cost-of-living increases to all of its employees, but also needs to provide additional raises to select positions so that they are making rates at or near what their peers earn.

DeWitt said KU hopes to start providing some of those market-based wage adjustments later this year, but he said he couldn’t yet estimate how long it would take the university to fully close the gap.

“It will take multiple years,” DeWitt said in a brief interview with the Journal-World.

KU officials have been touting the need for such a wage study for years. Many details of the full study were not immediately available Wednesday. DeWitt said the study in some cases compares what a KU employee makes versus what a similar employee in the Lawrence private sector makes. That’s the case for many staff employees, such as landscapers, custodians, administrative assistants and other such positions that have private-sector equivalents.

For researchers and professors, DeWitt said those salaries most often are compared to similar positions at other research universities that, like KU, are members of the Association of American Universities.

DeWitt did not release specific numbers for specific positions on Wednesday, but indicated that there’s a significant number of staff positions that are extremely low compared to their peers.

“There’s a significant number of people below the 25th percentile, meaning they are well below where they need to be,” DeWitt said.

DeWitt said the study did reveal there are employees who are making what the university would consider to be less than a living wage.

“There are people who are really underpaid,” DeWitt said.

While DeWitt didn’t provide additional information on which positions ranked the lowest in the pay study, he mentioned landscape employees multiple times as an example of positions that KU has struggled to remain competitive with the private sector.

“The landscape people make way below the Lawrence market,” DeWitt said. “We turn them over often because they are not making a living wage. You keep them for six months, and then they leave because they are making $4 more per hour.”

The study showed professor and faculty pay, though, also wasn’t competitive with what other research universities are paying. DeWitt said the study found that faculty pay was about $17 million short of market averages, while staff pay was about $10 million short.

KU is the most recent state university to undertake a wage study, but not the only one. Wichita State officials reminded Regents that WSU is working to address an approximately $24 million wage gap, and Pittsburg State said it is completing a wage study in the next year.

DeWitt said how quickly KU will be able to address its wage gap largely will be dependent on how well KU performs on a number of strategic initiatives, which include everything from new student recruitment strategies to a new business that uses campus space to host conferences and conventions.

A significant portion of the dollars generated from the new initiatives will be invested into the wage gap issue, DeWitt said. He also said KU has made the decision to operate with lower cash reserve levels in future years so that KU will have more money available to devote to the wage gap.

KU has been spending down its general use cash accounts since 2021 to balance its operating budget while it implements its new strategic initiatives, which are expected to produce new revenue for the university’s general budget. KU is expected to have just less than $20 million in general use cash in fiscal year 2025, which begins in July. That’s down from about $40 million in general use cash that KU had in fiscal year 2022.

DeWitt said he now is projecting that KU will have a balanced budget without using cash reserves in fiscal year 2025. He said eliminating KU’s structural budget deficit should give KU more money in future years to address the wage gap, which he said KU leaders recognize as an overarching need.

DeWitt said the issue is impacting both KU’s ability to keep existing employees and to recruit new ones.

State funding, which makes up about one-third of KU’s operating funds, might be able to help address the wage gaps in some years. The Kansas Legislature does generally provide funding for employee raises, but generally those state dollars only will help narrow the wage gap if the state funded raises are greater than the rate of inflation.

For much of the legislative session, university leaders across the state had been hopeful that the Kansas Legislature was going to approve a general 5% wage increase for university employees. However, legislators ended the session approving a 2.5% general wage increase for university employees. The Legislature also indicated that it will task an interim committee with conducting a statewide study of how university salaries and wages compare to the broader market.


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