UWRF faces challenges of inversion, compression in professors’ salaries

Posted May 4, 2018

When faculty are initially hired at UW-River Falls, they become assistant professors and earn competitive salaries. Six or seven years later, when they earn tenure and promotion to associate professor, and then another 5-10 years later, when they earn full professor status, they look forward to receiving well beyond starting salaries.

However, for professors such as John Walker, an economics professor who has taught at UWRF since 1990, it’s proving difficult to keep up with the salaries of new professors being hired. Most professors at UWRF haven’t received a base pay raise in close to eight years.

When the salaries remain stagnant as market prices increase, professors’ pay can even go into “inversion.” This means that new professors coming in might be making more money than professors who have given close to a decade of their time and devotion to the university and who have a higher rank. Walker said issues like inversion have been made even more difficult during Scott Walker’s time as governor of Wisconsin.

“He made the case, which wasn’t factual, that public sector workers were overpaid,” John Walker said. “This was working towards resentment in the private sector that may have been struggling, and (the governor) made enemies of the public sector.”

This ideological argument led to a cutback of UW funds and resources, which Walker said “muted the discussion among faculty” about issues like inversion.

“People are concerned about it,” Walker said. “I know faculty that have been around her for quite a while, and it doesn’t help their morale.”

The economics department shows a clear trend in this direction, as four fully tenured professors are making about an $80,000 salary. However, an assistant professor of economics is making more than $80,000 a year, and an associate professor of economics is getting more than $92,000.

“I don’t begrudge the efforts of new people coming in,” Walker said. “But if more could be done for equity, that would be wonderful.”

Walker said he understands new professors are being hired at market rates, which have changed significantly in his over 25 years of teaching. However, he said he’s a much better teacher and researcher than when he first came into his position, and he thinks that should be reflected by the UW System and salaries.

“I’m appreciative of the resources within the system that allowed me to grow professionally,” Walker said. “That’s a concern with the cutbacks being made in the system.”

The university tries to use a variety of resources to rectify these issues with salaries, according to Faye Perkins, the interim provost at UWRF.

“One place where we’ve committed money is for $100,000 to be set aside for the last nine years to address compression,” Perkins said. Compression is when salaries become almost identical between assistant, associate and full professors due to a lack of raises, similar to inversion.

Perkins said that many of these problems come down to a lack of a pay plan. This is set by the state Legislature every two years, and Perkins added that there has only been a pair of one percent pay increases, which doesn’t cover the increased cost of living.

“Our cost of living has gone up, cost of health care has gone up, and the cost that we have to contribute to retirement has gone up,” Perkins said. “Because of no pay increase, our earning power has gone down, and our buying power has decreased.”

It was announced in January that employees in the UW System would be receiving a 4 percent pay increase in 2018-2019, with half being given in June and the other 2 percent in January. Perkins said this would be their first substantial pay plan in about a decade.

While Perkins said this is a positive move, she made the point that most businesses give raises every year, and most employees would consider leaving a normal business if they didn’t receive a raise for years.

Compared to other institutions in the UW System, UWRF ranks near the top end on salaries. UWRF is one of the smaller campuses in terms of enrollment but sits at seventh in salaries for professors, fourth for associate professors and seventh for assistant professors. This data of the averages for full-time faculty from the American Association of University Professors includes Madison and Milwaukee in the rankings, which are outliers due to their distinction as Research 1 institutions.

Inversion is also a problem on other UW System campuses, as UW-Whitewater, UW-Superior and UW-Oshkosh have higher average salaries for their assistant professors than their associate professors. Assistant professors take at least six years before they can apply to be an associate professor.

Perkins said it’s good news to hear they’re closer to the top at the system level, but the university is still close to 18 percent below the national average for salaries.

John Heppen, a Geography professor at UWRF and a member of the financial compensation committee for Faculty Senate, said the committee’s goal is to look for ways to combat inversion and compression. They also look at how to give additional stipends based on merit and work as a department chair.

“We look at those taking on extra duties – we give an additional stipend for a chair, because we recognize that it’s extra work,” Heppen said. “We also look at issues of merit, like if the university sets aside money to reward faculty who have gone above and beyond or get journal articles published.”

The committee tries to work with administration to reward hard-working faculty and give them what they deserve, Heppen said. This is important, because one of the biggest issues is not wanting to see good faculty leave because of salaries, according to Heppen.

“If people leave it causes a disruption, and you have to work to hire someone,” Heppen said. “It’s a fairness question, because it’s hard to see someone who still is making more than you in the same job, because in many cases a peer institution would offer significantly more.”

Heppen has been at UWRF since 2002 and said he has seen the university fall behind peer institutions because the university has gone years without a pay plan. Even the recent 4 percent increase wasn’t across the board, as Heppen said it was still merit-based, and faculty had to undergo an evaluation to receive the increase.

Another underlying problem with salaries on campus is the disparity between academic departments. Data compiled from last year that includes all 184 professors on campus shows that the average for a professor in Heppen’s geography department is about $65,000, compared to $99,000 for professors in accounting and finance and $105,000 in agricultural economics.

“The argument is that the competition is greater in these field, and if we want to have professors in those fields, the university has to offer those kinds of salaries,” Heppen said.

Heppen said this needs to be addressed somehow, because the difference in salaries between someone working in the College of Arts and Sciences compared to the College of Business and Economics or College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences shouldn’t be so large.

“Everyone does the same amount of work, so the university shouldn’t send the message that something in the arts and sciences isn’t as valuable to their education as another department,” Heppen said. “That’s the issue.”

Perkins said she wished this disparity among colleges wasn’t the case, but it is purely market-driven. Issues like compression and inversion happen within all colleges at UWRF.

“If you’re an accountant in the workplace, you make a lot more than a teacher,” Perkins said. “If we want to get an accountant here, we have to compete against the market, and it takes a higher salary. It can impact faculty morale, but we don’t control the market.”

Economics professor Walker also said he wants to see salaries that show more encouragement for people to enter the liberal arts fields.

“It can create a more vibrant university with strong philosophy, history, English and political science departments,” Walker said. “I’m not sure if we’re going in that direction.”