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Q&A: University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells talks about professor pay

Jan. 24, 2013
 

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One of the findings of Gannett Wisconsin Media’s “What We Pay” series on public employee compensation is that pay for University of Wisconsin System professors averages about $86,000 a year, trailing the $90,000 average of technical college instructors.

Taking out the research institutions of UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, the UW average drops to about $70,000, about what a longtime teacher makes in a K-12 public school.

UW officials have long contended that, compared to their peers at similar Midwest universities, their professors’ pay lags, which can threaten their ability to attract and keep faculty.

UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Rick Wells talked about the pay issue Wednesday as the guest of Newsmakers, The Post-Crescent’s online issues program. Here’s an edited excerpt of the interview:

Behind the numbers, what’s the story you want the public to know?

What this whole project that Gannett has done is establish very clearly for a lot of people something that the UW System has been trying to address for decades. I’m in my 13th year at UW-Oshkosh and this lagging salary issue for faculty and academic staff have national and international markets in terms of coming to Wisconsin and working in our outstanding institutions has been persistent for a long time. So I think the proper comparison is looking at the peers of each of the institutions and how we’re doing against our peer group.

We’ve been doing this at UW for a while and when you look at comprehensive institutions like La Crosse and Oshkosh and Whitewater and their counterparts in the Midwest, you find we’re running 15 to 20 percent behind. If you look at Madison, you compare them to their Big Ten counterparts.

It’s just interesting to me that when President Reilly indicated that in general across the System, we’re about 18 percent behind our peers, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did a fact check on that statistic and confirmed that he’s right.

What are the solutions?

In large part, if you look at the UW System institutions, it’s the only set of higher-education institutions in the country of their type that are regulated in their pay plan beyond the Board of Regents. The state of Wisconsin is the only state in the country that I know of that sets the pay plan for all state workers, including those who work in universities. Most every other state in know of, the pay plan for universities are set within the context of the university, its administration and its Board of Regents.

Now, why is that a problem? Over the decade, those pay plans have been set based on local market conditions and state market conditions. Many state employees, the market for their work is local or statewide. In the UW System, we have a huge percentage of our employees whose market is Midwest or national or international. Those individuals end up slipping behind. That’s a major cause in my opinion.

One of the remedies to that is to give the responsibility to the Board of Regents and the UW System staff and administration and campuses to manage their entire compensation plan. In fact, this year, in our budget request, we’re trying to do what most institutions do is request what we think we’ll need for the whole budget, including the pay plan.

What that’s done, in an interesting way, is that it doesn’t put as much pressure on me as the chancellor at UW-Oshkosh to allocate what resources we might be able to find toward the highest priorities to make our pay competitive because I don’t have authority over setting a pay plan. The opportunity to reallocate your resources to your priorities, we can’t do that.

Everywhere else I’ve been — I came here from being the provost at Indiana State — we controlled all that. It was hard being provost in that setting because all the time the faculty leadership wanted us to put as much as possible into more competitive compensation. The deans and department chairs and heads wanted to replace the positions and the vacancies. In those years where we put more of a priority on putting money into our pay plan, the chairs and the deans would be made at me. When you make a decision to replace a position and not put as much into compensation, the faculty leadership would be mad at me.

We’ve asked for that authority, that responsibility, that flexibility so we can start working on this.

You can also argue that the state has not been able to — for often times, good reasons; sometimes, questionable reasons — to fund the institutions at a level significant enough to keep pay competitive. In the end, we’re dependent on our outstanding faculty and staff to deliver the mission in a high-quality way - to give our students a high-quality education. And it’s not just pay plan. It’s making sure we have enough funding for continuous improvement of our faculty.

We haven’t had a pay plan increase for four or five years now for our faculty and our staff. It’s caused in large part by us not having enough responsibility and authority to manage our own compensation plan and also hopefully we’re getting to a period of time when we can get some better funding to support this high-priority need.

On the balance between pay and college costs:

The affordability of higher education is getting out of control. We’ve got to work a lot harder. We need to take our responsibility within the campus to do that.

We need to build trust and confidence in federal elected officials and our local elected officials and our governors that we’re doing the best we can, and we need to keep them as investors on behalf of the mission that we have to deliver public education. So it does no good for us to throw each other under the bus.

That’s another major challenge, to make sure we’re giving people an ever-better education, a better price value for them that’s affordable. We also have to make sure we’re doing right by our faculty and academic staff. We’re back to this huge challenge of us to compensate them fairly.

— Larry Gallup: 920-993-1000, ext. 375, or lgallup@postcrescent.com. On Twitter @LarryGallup

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