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Preserve Minima to Discourage Salary Inequities

Rich Egger

A recent report on Tri States Public Radio cited the current impasse in salary negotiations between the University Professionals of Illinois (UPI) and the Western Illinois University (WIU) administration.  According to the report, there are several issues that have stood in the way of an agreement.  Among other issues, the administration asks to reduce compensation, increase furlough days, and eliminate the current contract use of "minima."

While all proposals to cut faculty compensation will have a negative impact on faculty, as well as the local economy, it is the last proposal that I find most troubling.  Eliminating salary minima would have a more long-term negative impact on the university than any of the other reported reductions.

Minima are base level salary lanes that assure that no faculty member’s salary falls too far below the level of peers. If a faculty member is hired at an initial salary that is low, for example, without minima standards his or her compensation falls further and further behind with each across the board percentage increase in subsequent years.

Prior to the establishment of minima standards, some faculty at WIU were compensated at vastly lower levels than other faculty. In fact, in the late 1980s, some faculty salaries were more than double the salaries of other faculty. In these cases, the argument was made that the higher paid faculty were justifiably paid more because they could have earned such salaries if they had been employed in the private sector.  The argument was that professors of accountancy, for example, would earn more for their services if they were employed as accountants outside of the university.  Professors of English, however, would not earn such high salaries and therefore the university was justified in paying the professors of accountancy more than professors of English.

Credit Rich Egger
Polly Radosh

The argument is based on an old idea:  comparable worth.  People are paid comparable to the market demand for their worth, according to this principle.

The current argument from the WIU administration draws on the comparable worth principle. That is, the administration appears to be arguing that the market demand for some university disciplines, such as finance, accounting, and nursing require higher salaries in order to attract faculty to teach in these disciplines.  This argument suggests that some faculty are worth the higher salaries because the occupational market justifies the differential increase. 

There are several problems with using a market driven approach to setting faculty salaries.

1.     First, the comparable worth argument has been used for decades to justify paying women, and other traditionally underrepresented groups, lower salaries. The argument, which has been challenged in numerous legal cases, has stated that the market demand for work that is performed by women is lower than the market demand for work that is performed by men.  Women could be paid less because the market justified the lower salary.  The problem is, of course, that old patterns of gender discrimination are never broken under this justification because the lower average salaries replicate the market, which justifies the lower salaries.  At WIU in the late 1980s, prior to the establishment of minima standards, 40 percent of male faculty were paid salaries above the national average for their rank and discipline, but not a single female faculty member in the entire university was paid a salary above national averages.  One female faculty member was paid a salary comparable to national norms for her rank and discipline, but all other women on the faculty were paid below normative standards for their rank and discipline.

2.     The second major problem with eliminating the minima standard in favor of the use of market driven standards is that an objective, standardized system is replaced with a subjective system that carries enormous potential for inequity.  While most administrators try to maintain balanced, equitable, and fair standards, the infusion of judgment, discretionary decision-making, and subtle bias into the process inevitably results in the same sort of salary discrepancies that the minima standards eliminated.

3.     The third problem with the comparable worth principle is that while it may seem reasonable to a casual observer to use the market as a justification for higher salaries for some disciplines and not others, there is a deep contradiction in this scheme: the work that is done by all faculty is essentially the same.  The use of a market based explanation for the higher salary paid to the accountancy professor and lower salary paid to the English professor, for example, belies the nature of the work that is performed.  In meticulously negotiated requirements, the duties of all faculty are standardized to include teaching, scholarly or creative activity, and service. These requirements are individualized by discipline, but standardized across all faculty work requirements. If the duties, responsibilities, and job performance are the same, why should an external market dictate a higher salary for one over the other?  Prior to the establishment of minima standards at WIU, the higher salaries paid to some faculty on the basis of the market demand for their work undermined morale among faculty who earned lower salaries because the market demand for their work was worth less.  The salary differences caused resentment, frustration, and lower morale among those who were paid less for the same work.

In the early 1990s the UPI and the WIU administration, undertook a very lengthy, collaborative, and courageous process to right the wrongs of past inequities by establishing the minima system for setting and maintaining faculty salaries.  They took a very inequitable system and through dogged, steadfast attention over a 25 year period turned it into a fair and equitable system that has virtually eliminated the old inequities that produced gender discrimination, salary compression, and discipline-based inequities. 

I hope participants in the current negotiations will think very carefully before eliminating a fair and reasonable system that uses minima to assure that no faculty member is either intentionally or unintentionally assigned a salary that is significantly different from others in their rank.

Polly Radosh is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology and a Retired Chair of Women’s Studies at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.