Falling off the tenure track
State Sen. Edwards’ proposed legislation for faculty benefits is misapplied and principally ill-informed
STATE Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, recently presented legislation which would offer financial benefits to the dependents of faculty members at public universities in Virginia. These proposed benefits come in the form of 50 percent tuition discounts for dependents if they attend the public university where the faculty member works. The Managing Board ran an editorial "Fair Pay" last Wednesday discussing the legislation. Like the Managing Board, I feel the legislation is faulty; however, I also question whether it is necessary.
Faculty members at public universities perform a function which is not only needed, but worthy of respect and gratitude. Returning to college to teach is no mean feat, and the men and women who make up the faculty have returned to offer themselves for the education of the next generation. So why should they not be additionally compensated? The answer is: because they already are.
Professors, especially the important and experienced ones who universities cannot afford to lose, are likely already on tenure, seeing as this is something generally established within a faculty member's first seven years. Professors also have more breaks, in the form of summer and the holiday season, than numerous other jobs and are paid more than other workers on average. For example, Virginia's average wage in 2010 was $50,963. When this is compared to the average 2010-2011salary of an assistant professor at the University, $76,300, it is hard to see why Edwards feels that university faculty, however prestigious, need more incentives.
Nevertheless, the Managing Board pointed out that 11 of the 15 faculty members of the University's Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures made less than $60,000 in 2011, placing them "much closer to the U.S. median household income than ... to the life of luxury imagined by those who claim all faculty are grossly overpaid." And while I certainly do not believe that a life of luxury should be an expectation when it comes to teaching, I recognize, as does the Managing Board, that this lower-paid demographic is one that should be included in Edwards' legislation. Yet Edwards' benefits are geared toward an opposite, higher paid group. The only dependents eligible for the tuition reduction are those of faculty who have worked at public universities for no less than seven years; in other words, those who are often already comfortably beating the average state salary and enjoying the increased job security that comes with tenure.
Rather than stressing this dichotomy, the Managing Board editorial took it a step further in suggesting that in place of the proposed dependent-cost-reduction plan, faculty should receive an across-the-board pay raise, at the expense of increased taxes if required. The editorial says the "General Assembly's irrational aversion to adjusting tax rates" is no reason to forgo increased compensation for university faculty. This is where the Managing Board and I diverge; on a fundamental level, I disagree - there is nothing irrational about not wanting to raise taxes. The simple fact that tax rates have not been increased in years is not a convincing reason to go out and do some government spending.
What is to be done, then? Will University faculty simply be inadequately compensated for the sake of continued low taxes? Is Edwards' plan the only answer, even though it ignores plenty of hardworking faculty members who have not worked the requisite seven years, or who have no dependents, or whose dependents are older than 21?
Susan Carkeek, vice president of human resources, said in The Daily Progress that the $6 million it would cost to grant Edwards' planned tuition reduction to only 10 percent of the University's faculty would be better spent in a simple salary increase to the general faculty.
So not only is the logic behind the argument for increased faculty pay not self-evident, but this proposed benefit in particular is misguided. The Managing Board and I can agree that Edwards' legislation is riddled with holes. But before the state rushes into any plan to provide more financial benefits to university faculty, it would be a good idea to take a look into how best to aid those which such plans ought to help. Furthermore, the state should consider other, perhaps overlooked, jobs that are equally, if not more, deserving of financial benefits. That is, if the state decides it needs to spend more of our tax dollars at all.
Sam Novack's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.