Bonus system could bridge college income gap

As college faculty unions fight for realistic living wages, national attention has shifted to the income disparity found at universities. To address the growing gap between administrative salaries and faculty wages, the faculty union at St. Mary’s College of Maryland has proposed limiting the salary of the college president to no more than 10 times that of the lowest-paid staff member.

The concept of tying staff and administrative salaries together, which has also been proposed at Brandeis University in Boston, sounds promising in theory but remains flawed on a number of levels. Because the roles of faculty and administrators within a college are inherently different, coupling their salaries is illogical. Faculty members interact the most directly with students, and while what they do represents the core of a college’s mission, administrators also play a key role in ensuring smooth operations. This proposal could hinder recruiting administrators, which would negatively impact a college’s basic functions, such as increasing resources and raising funds—all duties of administrators.

However, income disparity still needs to be addressed. Stories of adjunct professors being forced to use food stamps have emerged in the press within the last few years, provoking criticism of college employees’ wages. The most infamous example is that of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for 25 years before her contract ended, who died in extreme poverty, unable to afford cancer treatments, as reported Sept. 18 by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Although faculty members certainly need a raise, the solution is not to set an umbrella standard for faculty salaries, because determining a cohesive pay scale for employees with a wide range of experience would be nearly impossible. Top college officials are usually highly qualified, so their salaries should reflect their credentials.

Instead of deducting from administrators’ wages Robin Hood-style, a reasonable top-to-bottom bonus system could close the pay gap without hurting the college’s ability to recruit talent. Negotiating a performance-based bonus system into faculty contracts, as President Kwang-Wu Kim has suggested he would like to do with Columbia’s faculty, would encourage better work quality and motivate college employees to improve their performance.

Columbia’s full- and part-time faculty do not currently receive bonuses, according to Leonard Strazewski, an associate professor in the Journalism Department, but they can be negotiated in future contracts, although calculating outstanding performance would be difficult. Teacher evaluations do not always reflect the caliber of performance and a “publish or perish” orientation might divert faculty attention from teaching, which has always been of primary importance at Columbia.

However, difficulties like these should not deter the school from putting such a system in place. Faculty, staff and administrators routinely work together in committees and taskforces to accomplish the business of the school and this initiative is no different. Moreover, it would be enthusiastically received by faculty, who receive the same raises regardless of whether individual performance is outstanding or merely adequate.

The college administration has a history of large bonuses, such as former President Warrick L. Carter’s $45,000 bonus in fall 2012, which was given despite falling enrollment, as reported Oct. 21 by The Chronicle. Administrators should be held accountable for specific indicators that gauge the overall success of the college, such as enrollment numbers, and the budgeting office should take those indicators into consideration.

Income disparity in higher education is a systemic problem that is compounded by budget cuts and an unstable economy. However, tight finances are not a reasonable excuse to pay professors less than a living wage while many administrators live more than comfortably.

Colleges are businesses that must answer to the bottom line when determining wages for their faculty and staff members, but they should be expected to provide all their employees with livable, functional salaries. Balancing performance with pay should solve the equation without causing unnecessary strain.