Watch Out for the New Guy

Faculty recruits at Marshall U. are getting salaries that are significantly higher than experienced professors. Guess who isn't happy.
July 27, 2005

In order to draw the best talent, colleges have to dangle money in front of prospective faculty members. But, as any professional athlete can attest, when a newcomer gets a better deal than veterans, team spirit plummets. That is what is happening at Marshall University.

On Monday, Joseph Wyatt, a Marshall psychology professor, told the Board of Governors about "salary inversions" he has documented. Wyatt noted 15 inversions in the chemistry, English and psychology departments, and he knows there are more.

"It’s a morale crusher for existing faculty members," he said. Wyatt said that it would take $107,200 to correct the cases he has found so far. Marshall has faced a squeeze on state funding over the last four years, and, currently, many faculty members make $7,000-$13,000 less than those at peer institutions in neighboring states.

With no increase in salary scales for several years, the university often has to offer starting salaries that are higher than those for established faculty members in order to draw new talent. “Some people are looking for other positions,” said Larry G. Jarrett, chair of the geography department, which recently hired two people at a higher salary than a faculty member hired a few years earlier.

A few faculty members have already left Marshall, citing salary inversion. “If you want your faculty to stay and be productive, they have to be rewarded,” Jarrett said.

Stephen Kopp, who started as president of Marshall on July 1, has said he will consider the rank and experience of professors and try to improve the situation. Marshall officials hope to find a way to make professors, new and old, happy. “We’re concerned about the recruitment of new faculty, and equally concerned about retaining our current faculty,” said Bill Bissett, a spokesman.

The problem of salary inversion is not new, but it has become worse at public institutions that have faced limited state funds, according to Mark Prus, dean of the School of Arts at Sciences at the State University of New York at Cortland. Prus faced the problem when he was chair of the economics department, and co-wrote a paper about it in the Eastern Economic Journal. Prus said salary inversion has been around for decades, but generally in a few fields, like economics and technical disciplines.

It's more unusual, Prus said, to see salary inversions in the departments that have it at Marshall. “In English there’s a surplus of Ph.D.’s, so you don’t see significant changes in starting salaries, like you might in a technical field,” Prus said. He also said that salary profiles over time tend to be “U-shaped,” meaning that new faculty members might make more than professors who have been around for 5 or 10 years, but generally not more than recent hires. Faculty members at Marshall, however, said some junior faculty members are getting topped after just a few years.

"Once the word is out there, it will hurt the university’s credibility,” said Wyatt, who noted one recruit the psychology department was going after turned Marshall down without even having another job offer. Faculty members in the department said that part of that was due to the perception that a faculty member is stuck at a given salary. “They see that the future doesn’t hold a lot of promise.”

Eight faculty members have active grievances with a state employment board, alleging violation of institutional policy or other complaints related to salary inversion. Others have just left.

Seth Bush had been in the chemistry department for four years, but when a less experienced professor was hired for thousands more than Bush was making, he packed up and headed to California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. “That was a bigger waste than just correcting the salary discrepancies,” said Wyatt, “because expensive equipment that was for him in particular was left behind.”

Michael Castellani, chair of the chemistry department, was hired 17 years ago as an assistant professor at a higher salary, unbeknownst to him, than an existing assistant professor. He only found out about the situation when the upset faculty member mentioned it. The university corrected it then, but with some inversions reaching $13,000, faculty members said the university is worried about setting an expensive precedent. In recent years, two assistant chemistry professors were brought in at higher salaries than an associate professor. “It’s certainly an awkward situation,” Castellani said.

In the psychology department, one faculty member with four years experience was brought in at a salary higher than those of professors with 16 and 17 years of experience. Steven P. Mewaldt, psychology professor, said that the administration has not told faculty members that the real problem is state funding, but rather has said new hires can be expensive because they have unique specialities. “However, if any of us left, they would have to hire someone with our specialty,” Mewaldt said.

According to Prus, “it’s usually the best, young faculty who leave. They have other opportunities.”


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