Michigan State faculty members want COVID-cut pay restored

Faculty members at Michigan State University are asking the institution to restore pay and benefits cut during the pandemic, saying that since early 2020 the university has fared better financially than expected. Concerned professors are also linking sustained compensation cuts to low faculty morale and high faculty turnover.

“MSU unnecessarily balanced its budget on the backs of faculty and academic staff,” reads a new petition backing a Faculty Senate resolution on the issue that passed nearly unanimously last week. “Faculty and academic staff are struggling with increased teaching, research and service workloads while managing our own family responsibilities. As wages increase nationally, we’ve seen our pay, benefits and purchasing power drop significantly and unnecessarily.”

The petition urges the president, Dr. Samuel L. Stanley, and the university’s Board of Trustees to retroactively restore the “unnecessary cuts to pay and benefits before more outstanding faculty leave and we jeopardize our ability to attract the best new talent. The costs of recruiting and replacing faculty will far outpace the costs of retaining our best and brightest.”

Nonunionized faculty, meaning virtually all tenure-eligible professors, and academic staff members experienced a 10-month salary cut of 1 percent to 8 percent, depending on income, during COVID-19, plus an 18-month, 50 percent cut in retirement matching and a three-year gap between merit raises.

Faculty senators were generally supportive of these measures, at first, with Michigan State projecting pandemic-related budget shortfalls in state funding of $43 million and a loss of $63 million in tuition revenue.

The cut in state appropriations didn’t end up happening, however. Tuition did take a big hit, but $7 million less of a hit than expected. The university also ended up receiving $86 million in federal pandemic relief, plus $50 million in student financial aid, according to a Senate analysis.

The university’s endowment also grew by an unprecedented 42 percent in 2021, and Michigan State now has $1.8 billion in unrestricted balances—some $474 million more than last year.

Cuts and Costs

As this rosier-than-expected financial picture continues to emerge, professors are contrasting it with their own financial losses. Their compensation cuts are the equivalent of a 13 percent reduction in a year’s income, they say, and with inflation currently topping 6 percent, their purchasing power is diminished further. Relative to peer institutions, Michigan State’s faculty salaries saw the largest drop of any Big Ten Conference institution from 2020 to 2021.

Looking ahead, the 18-month reduction in retirement matching, compounded over a career, will cost the typical faculty retirement account around $68,000, according to the Senate analysis.

Michigan State also saw a 30 percent increase in faculty leaving during the past year, according to the analysis, meaning that there are others costs at play. The 30 percent increase in departures includes a 33 percent increase in departures by self-identified minority faculty members, in particular.

The petition echoes recent comments by Karen Kelly-Blake, Senate chair and associate professor of human medicine, to the trustees, as well as conversations within the Senate. Kelly-Blake told trustees last month, for instance, that “We understand the financial stress that the university has faced, but fiscal responsibility balanced on the backs of faculty has costs. The losses in salary, retirement benefits, and merit raises, along with the exacerbation of the bone-weary work of adult and child caregiving, has become an untenable situation.”

Kelly-Blake continued, “The consequences are becoming clearer as data come in. [The year] 2021 saw an increase of 30 percent in faculty turnover, as compared to 2020, with Black faculty showing a 60 percent increase, Asian faculty a 29 percent increase and Hispanic faculty a 36 percent increase in leaving MSU. We fear this will result in increased retention and recruitment costs as our intellectual assets walk out the door looking for better opportunities and a better institutional climate.”

Left unaddressed, she said, “these issues will damage the ascension of MSU’s global scholarly standing, reduce the quality of the educational experience of our students and make it more difficult for MSU to retain and attract top talents.”

Kelly-Blake and other faculty members have noted that there is no way to confirm a connection between the compensation cuts and faculty departures, since Michigan State doesn’t have a standardized faculty exit interview process. But Kelly-Blake said in an interview Monday these numbers “are still striking. And concerning.”

Regarding Michigan State’s ability to both recruit and retain faculty members of color, in particular, Kelly-Blake said the compensation debate “speaks to an equity issue. When MSU is not aligned with its peers, even within the Big Ten, that definitely impacts our ability to recruit and also retain faculty who are doing incredible work here at our institution.”

She added, “If we want to align ourselves with what we say are our values here,” including those laid out in recent strategic plans, “then we have to be clear about what those values are and what the actions are that the institution needs to talk to, to realize those values. One way to do that is to provide the environment where people want to come and where people want to stay.”

During last week’s Senate meeting, some professors expressed concerns about challenges that Michigan State faces in terms of recruitment, with East Lansing’s frigid winters and a recent string of controversies, from the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal to a poorly received request that professors volunteer as food service workers in understaffed dining halls.

Kelly-Blake said the Senate has extended an invitation to the administration to work together on the retroactive pay restoration, which the Senate resolved should include faculty members who have already left Michigan State.

“We all felt that we were in this thing together,” she said. “So it seemed fair to then reach back and extend that hand, that if we are going to have full restoration, that will also include those who left.”

The Senate hasn’t received a formal response from the university yet. Michigan State did announce a 2 percent pay increase, effective in January.

Dr. Stanley wrote this month in an announcement about the pay raise that Michigan State “continues to face financial challenges due to declines in enrollment from a year ago, which will impact our student body makeup for the next four years. But, as you all know, our fall enrollment numbers this year are slightly better than expected and our state appropriations are established. Additionally, units across campus have implemented reductions in budgets and other cost-cutting measures as they have adjusted to the challenges of the pandemic.”

While all this “does not completely resolve our financial challenges,” Dr. Stanley said, “our updated budget projections make it possible to provide this merit raise,” which corresponds with the restoration of the full matching to university retirement contributions in January, as well.

The university said in a separate emailed statement that the salary reduction was removed over the summer, two months earlier than expected. It noted that along with other employees, Dr. Stanley took a salary reduction, of 10 percent, starting in May 2020.

Jack Lipton, author of the Senate’s analysis and chair of translational neuroscience at Michigan State, said Monday that the administration didn’t consult with the faculty ahead of that announcement, and that he hasn’t spoken “to a single faculty member that considered it sufficient, or timely.” This isn’t returning anything that’s been lost, either, he said, and “ceasing to inflict pain is not the same as returning something.”

Professors “were asked to make sacrifices based on a predicted budget scenario that was clearly not as awful as projected,” Lipton said. “The logical choice would be to initiate a dialogue to collaboratively work on an equitable solution, especially for the most vulnerable in our academic community.”

Michigan State’s “administrative culture needs to be less prescriptive and more collaborative,” Lipton also said, as “trust is built through truth, communication and mutual respect.” Without those elements, “it seems logical to expect that faculty turnover will remain high and the administration will lose the intellectual talent it has recruited and cultivated over the long term for its own shorter-term priorities.”

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