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Faculty salaries uncertain amid pandemic-related cuts

Faculty and staff salaries, one of the college’s highest expenses, have faced adjustments in previous years and continue to be a significant source of anxiety for some LC employees. 

Professor of History Elliott Young serves as one of two faculty representatives to the Board of Trustees. Young emailed faculty in February to ask whether they would prefer cuts to their salaries or cuts to their retirement benefits, and if they would prefer a flat percentage rate cut or progressive rate cuts.

According to both Young and Associate Professor of Economics Cliff Bekar, a member of the faculty-led Budget Advisory Committee, the survey caused panic and concern among some faculty members. Faculty were already faced with salary freezes, despite no known plans of the Board to pursue cuts.

Although there are no plans for broad layoffs of non-tenure track faculty, the college is planning to offer retirement incentives at the end of this school year, according to Bruce Suttmeier, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS).

Suttmeier also noted the uneven impact of pandemic-related cuts, saying that employees across the college have experienced cuts to compensation.

“It’s important to note that most staff, including administrators, took a 20-40% furlough (salary cut) this summer, as part of our efforts to save money during the early part of the pandemic,” Suttmeier said via email. “It has been staff, at all levels, that have been much more impacted to date.”

Associate Professor of Sociology Bruce Podobnik sent a series of emails the week of Feb. 18 to the CAS faculty listserv that said that former executive employees of the college were still paid after they departed, according to the publicly available Internal Revenue Service Form 990. 

Faculty members expressed their frustration with the news that former President Barry Glassner received at least $898,132 since resigning from his position in 2017. Young voiced his concerns on how this revelation, combined with budgetary dilemmas that the COVID-19 pandemic poses, will affect employees at the bottom end of LC’s payroll, such as janitorial contractors, adjunct professors and student workers. 

Although some faculty have expressed frustration, there is no organized plan among them to address these concerns. Faculty members do not have union representation and unionization of faculty in private colleges is not protected by law.  

“I think a lot of faculty are like, what should we do?” Podobnik said. “I think that we hope that students will get really pissed. You know, it’s your money. That $898,000 that was paid to a president that is no longer working here, and that came from students and their families. I don’t know how students or families can be comfortable with that. It’s completely irresponsible.”

Podobnik also said in an email to faculty that “it has long been recognized that entry level faculty, and even Associate and Professor-level faculty salaries at LC, are lower than comparable institutions,” which harms LC’s ability to attract and retain high-quality faculty. 

Concern over non competitive salaries has led some faculty, such as former Associate Professor of International Affairs and Department Chair Heather Smith-Cannoy, to leave LC for more financially competitive opportunities. Smith-Cannoy — who departed the college in 2019 — stated that the college was not making faculty salaries a priority during the budget crisis.

Suttmeier disagreed with Podobnik and Smith-Cannoy’s assertion that LC does not pay faculty competitive salaries. 

“Lewis & Clark competes with much more resourced institutions than ours for those faculty members, schools like Grinnell, and Williams, and Pomona,” Suttmeier said. “When faculty are hired, we have to offer a competitive salary, or they won’t come.”

Faculty members have been subject to salary freezes this year due to the college’s existing budget crisis being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have not yet faced any cuts, according to Young. Freezes are pauses in salary and benefits increases that occur as inflation and the cost of living continue to rise. 

“This year there was a freeze on faculty and staff salaries and it is possible that there will be a freeze next year,” Young said via email. “In real terms, a freeze is a cut because the cost of Kombucha isn’t going down. I hope that there will be no cuts to faculty compensation in the long-term, but it wouldn’t be responsible for budget managers not to have a plan if the college was suddenly faced with a 20 million dollar deficit.”

Bekar said that while faculty were well aware of possible cuts due to LC’s continual budget issues and larger market conditions harming college revenues, that does not make them easier to accept.

“I would say over the past decade or so, there has been an understanding among faculty that cuts may be coming,” Bekar said. “Salary freezes have been more and more frequent for faculty, and those are hard enough to deal with. A cut would be an entirely different creature. I think cuts would be quite dispiriting and demoralizing.” 

Bekar stated that the Budget Advisory Committee frequently conducts broad, empirical data analyses on faculty compensation, which compare faculty salaries both externally to other colleges within the current market context and internally between different departments. The committee is currently working to ensure that compensation is equitable and faculty concerns are addressed. 

However, in the face of possible cuts, Bekar echoed Podobnik’s concerns about LC’s ability to maintain competitive salaries, which may disincentivize current or future faculty from working for the college. 

“I think that it is close to an existential threat to the college,” Bekar said. “The core mission of the college is the teacher-scholar model, in which we expose students in small classrooms to people who care about teaching and do research, and we expose students to research opportunities. I think cutting compensation jeopardizes that and if that is jeopardized, I think the entire mission of the college is potentially jeopardized.” 

Despite lingering worries, Bekar expressed hope for the financial future of the college and its employees. LC has maintained relatively normal operations during the budget crisis and the pandemic, while other similar colleges have cut entire programs and departments, as well as implemented layoffs and compensation cuts. Young expressed similar sentiments and said that the emergency preparations that were considered, such as cutting faculty compensation or retirement, are unlikely to be implemented. 

“We have a college president who has started a successful capital campaign, already raised over 80 million dollars, a Board who are donating generously and committed to diversity and equity, and a competent leadership team that is planning for the future,” Young said. “Like all colleges, Lewis & Clark faces serious structural challenges ahead, but we will survive and prosper by coming together and not tearing each other down.”

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