UO faculty are tapped out after earning some of the lowest salaries in the AAU
Under the glare of fluorescent light in her office, Anne Laskaya slouches over her desk. Pages of medieval literature are scattered all over her work space. The associate English professor ends her week the same way she has for the past 30 years she’s been at the University of Oregon — catching up on research. That is, at least, when she can afford it. @@name checked@@
Laskaya’s research requires her to travel to the location where her primary sources are — many times to libraries outside of Oregon. The decline of financial resources from the state over the years has made it difficult for the university to pay for the research that tenured professors like Laskaya are required to complete.
“Not all of us have the ideal personal life to pursue research without having to worry about money, without having to worry about who cares for the children, or who cares for the elderly parents or family obligations of a number of different kinds,” Laskaya said.
Shrinking research funds and stalled salary increases over the years have made it difficult for professors like Laskaya to pursue research work that is essential for a premier research university like Oregon. Low salaries have also made it difficult for the university to retain non-tenured staff, who are otherwise enticed to leave for other jobs with higher pay or tenure-track positions.
The University of Oregon ranks 27th out of the 34 schools in the Association of American Universities for federally-funded research. Being part of this coveted membership allows Oregon to establish itself as a flagship research institution that helps to attract national talent to campus.
“The state disinvestment in higher education … has been a pretty precipitous decline over the last decade,” Provost Scott Coltrane said. “At the same time, how much money the state and federal government are putting into research in general has also gone down.”
Last year Laskaya traveled to research at the National Library of France in Paris as well as giving a presentation on her previous work at a conference. The total cost of her two-and-a-half-week research trip was about $6,000. The university contributed only $1,500 for travel expenses.
For two years Laskaya took on extra advising and service duties on top of her teaching and research load to raise the funds. Doing so slows down the publication of her work and, as a result, slows down her promotion to a full professor, a position which earns a higher salary than associate or assistant professor.
This spring Laskaya’s work requires her to travel to the University of California Los Angeles. She will have to fork over $700 of her own money to make her way there.
UO faculty salaries are on average lower compared to their peers in the AAU. UO full, associate and assistant professors make an average of $90,000 — $20,000 less than the AAU average, according to 2012-13 data from UO Office of Institutional Research.
For an associate professor in humanities like Laskaya, the average salary is about $70,000. Wages are shaped by their market value and can dramatically differ upon different departments. Comparatively, non-tenured staff make on average lower salary compared to their tenured faculty colleagues.
Lower than average salaries can be a barrier to retaining dedicated faculty.
Professor of romance languages Gina Psaki remembers a young and eager former colleague of hers about 20 years ago that was lured away by a $20,000 raise at State University of New York Buffalo. @@name checked@@
“It begins to look kind of suicidal to just stay put if what you need to do to secure a raise is to move,” Psaki said. “And that is something that has been a big problem for retaining good faculty for our campus for a long time.”
The boom of UO student enrollment in the past decade also spurred an expansion for non-tenure-track faculty instructors responsible for the majority of the University’s teaching. They are required to carry out eight courses a year instead of the five that tenured faculty are required.
“One of the choices the university has made as their funding as declined is to hire less expensive labor,” said Ron Bramhall, a senior instructor in the College of Business. “To me, that doesn’t mean that that labor is less qualified or less effective but I do think it’s a problem for universities in general to proclaim their commitment to academic excellence and research and to pay the people that do that at low rates.” @@name checked@@
The University does not maintain overall data points on retention rates for non-tenure-track instructors, but instead collects that information within each department.
“As we have a need, and as long as they have an interest, and as long as we can afford it, we will continue to appoint them,” Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Ken Doxsee said. Throughout his experience, the most common reason for non-tenure track faculty to leave the university would be to follow career interests like moving into tenure-related positions. @@name checked@@
A mobile workforce interrupts services for students. It can make it difficult for students to connect with their instructors and can make it challenging to to obtain a letter of recommendation from faculty that leave. A high turnover rate also makes it more difficult to build working relationships, trust and collaboration within the campus community.
According to Bramhall, non-tenure-track faculty can face a lot of unpredictability. At the end of each contract, non-tenure instructors could face an end to their job based on different reasons like personalities involved or a changing direction of a program.
Coltrane hopes to help the UO flip that around.
Coltrane said that one of the UO’s goals is to be more competitive in salaries. The collective bargaining agreement signed last year is the first step in doing so. The agreement guarantees smaller, but more frequent salary increases for faculty. Faculty will receive a total of three raises this year, each increasing by 1.5 percent of the base salary. In addition to the raises, faculty can also receive merit raises, though the process varies by department.
“How we get good at research is by hiring good faculty. That’s what it’s all about,” Coltrane said.
The university also started implementing career non-tenure contracts that secure employment for up to three years instead of on an annual basis. The UO is currently reclassifying the faculty based on this new type of contract. The numbers for how many non-tenured staff will be reclassified are not yet available.
Before the bargaining agreement from United Academics passed in 2013, senior instructors were eligible to get two-year contracts, though it was not required. Like most universities, UO non-tenure-track faculty begin their career with a 10-week to one year contract before they can go up for a promotion to senior instructor after six years.
“One of the reasons I joined the union and became involved in the bargaining process was to try and help non-tenure-track faculty get more predictable secure employment,” Bramhall said.
Coltrane hopes that by standardizing contract and pay levels across different departments and colleges, faculty will have more stability and predictability.
Finding revenue streams to supplement salary raises is an ongoing conversation between administration and faculty. The provost sets his eyes on finding private donations. Specifically, the UO hopes to use private gifts to increase staff within targeted departments, as well as increase its amount of tenure faculty.
“We are trying to get the right mix of research and teaching, and part of doing that is identifying those areas where we are already good, but we can be great,” Coltrane said.