here’s an old ad campaign for oil filters that featured a grizzled mechanic holding up an oil filter in one hand, saying “you can pay me now,’’ and a piston in the other hand, “or you can pay me later.”
The message: routine maintenance may be a chore that costs a few dollars, but the price of putting it off is far steeper.
That brings us to the University of North Carolina system and the decade-long neglect on part of the state legislature to maintain salaries for faculty and staff.
A lack of basic maintenance on this front is having a corrosive effect on the system.
A standoff over Medicaid expansion and priorities in general saw Gov. Roy Cooper veto this year’s budget, and override attempts by Senate Republicans have fallen short. (A surprise override vote in the House succeeded). The General Assembly is in adjournment until April, leaving universities shorthanded when it comes to planning for capital projects and enrollment growth, and with no raises for faculty and staff.
With no budget for this cycle, the state has fallen back on the 2018-19 budget, which provided most state employees a pay raise of 2 percent. That budget gave UNC system employees no raise at all. Instead, $20 million was appropriated in a lump sum to the system Board of Governors, which was charged with distributing the salary money across the system. The board instructed UNC system institutions to fund a 2 percent salary increase for university staff to match the increase awarded to non-university state employees, leaving essentially no funding to address salaries of faculty and non-faculty university employees who are not subject to the state Human Resources Act. This Rube Goldberg plan didn’t translate into much help for anyone.
If this were a recent development, it would be easier to fix, but the fact is we’ve seen long-term neglect. Faculty have received legislative raises of 1.5 percent or less since the Great Recession in 2008, with “less’’ or “none’’ all too common. Throw in rate of inflation and cost of living increases over the last decade or so, coupled with increases in paying for participation in the state health plan, and UNC faculty haven’t been treading water, they’ve been drowning. The glacial pace of pay raises coupled with the roadrunner increases in everything else means faculty have seen a loss of real pay over the decade, by about 20 percent by some estimates.
Details are for another editorial, but we’ll say folks in the community college system haven’t fared much better, if at all.
In a forum at Western Carolina University last October, figures were presented showing the average legislative salary increase to WCU employees since 2010 has been 0.54 percent annually. Even at that, pay for faculty has some quirks that hurt longer-term employees; there’s something called “salary inversion.’’ Inversion often is the long-term result of salary adjustments not keeping pace with external market factors. In these situations, the salary of the higher ranked faculty member (a full professor, for example) may be less than the salary of a newer, lower ranked faculty member in the same field. Faculty Senate Chair Enrique Gomez said at the time that 10 full professors at WCU were experiencing a salary inversion situation.
Chancellor Kelli Brown attended the forum, and said “I have seen some of the salaries at this campus. It disheartens me to think that folks are working as hard as they are and for the number of years that they have at the salaries that they are making. It really disheartens me.”
We’re confident Brown will do what she can to address the issue, but real solutions will have to come from the legislature. The track record there hasn’t been encouraging.
But it’s an issue that has to be addressed. Pay now, or pay later. Most people are in education because they love education. Love can do many wonderful things, but it can’t put food on the table or make a mortgage payment. The continued erosion of earning power has talented faculty and staff casting their eyes to other states where compensation is on a fairer level.
When they jump, students lose the benefits of their talents. It’s a downward spiral where, in a very real sense, we’ll pay later.
And are in fact already doing so.
There are a thousand issues to consider when casting your ballot in this election. Make sure this is one of them. Find out where your candidates stand on this issue, and what solutions they are offering, if any at all.
And vote accordingly.