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James E. Joy: Value placed on faculty fueled MU discontent

Apr. 29, 2013 @ 09:45 PM

I read Dr. Gould's guest column published in The Herald-Dispatch on April 28 with considerable interest. One must pay attention to his writing: 1) because he clearly displays that "critical thinking" attribute that forms the central domain of the current president's "eight domain model" for the university; 2) because of his undeniably successful career based on long experience through the ranks of professor to provost; and 3) because of the deep respect he gained from the faculty and other university constituencies while serving Marshall.

I can personally attest to that respect because I sat across the table from him on issues dealing with hiring of faculty and procurement of equipment for the (then) new science facility. With him "listen" was not just a word, it was something he took sincerely. And he made sound decisions after listening, truly listening, to all involved parties, and weighing the merits of what he had heard.

He may have decided against your argument, but you knew why, you understood -- and came to appreciate -- his position. Today "listen" is more akin to Kipling's observation that "Unless men agree they are not heard at all." Listening today is not heard at all unless it echoes established administrative prejudices.

I agree with Dr. Gould's premise that critical inquiry demands empirical evidence for the rendering of objective decisions. And it is here that we find that empirical evidence most damning. He acknowledges concern over the "lamentable salary situation" for MU faculty. His lament is justifiable, given the empirical evidence demonstrates that MU faculty salaries over the past eight years have declined from 90 percent of their counterparts at peer institutions to 75 percent of their peers today.

Using clear numbers, every MU full professor would require an immediate raise of $15,500 just to get UP TO the BOTTOM of their Conference USA faculty counterparts (a mere $19,000 raise would be required to elevate those professors to the BOTTOM of the MAC, a conference we don't want our football team associated with because of its "lowly" athletic status).

When the president first came to MU, his position (in an Oct. 17, 2005, letter to all faculty) on faculty salaries was unequivocal: "Faculty salaries became a top priority for me when I became president." And to take on the issue he said he would immediately initiate a salary study that would "...remedy the situation." Just recently, however, we found that no such study was undertaken.

One would hope for that precept of "first do no harm." Now, however, we find -- all thoughts of harm aside -- that merit raises for our most productive faculty have been eliminated, along with equity pay for our most egregiously underpaid faculty.

But it has escaped no one's attention that the elimination of "merit" and "equity" pay for faculty accompanied (coincidentally?) the huge pay raise meted out to the president, giving rise to the widespread perception (and perception IS reality, as anyone in public relations will tell you) that money previously designated for faculty performance has been reallocated, instead, to increase the president's coffer. And Dr. Gould senses our "winter of discontent?" Well, duh. Robert Atwell of the Center for Public Policy and Higher Education provided us with an explanation for such "discontent," namely that; "Anything that separates the leader from the followers, and escalating presidential compensation is certainly a big factor in this separation, is divisive."

And it's not just the remuneration, it is the message our leaders ("leaders?") send on institutional values. Murray Sperber noted that; "In America, since money measures the value of work, universities send clear signals with their pay scales." And thus our institutional decision-makers are sending the "clear signal" that administrative work is highly valued at MU, whereas what it is that our faculty do is of relatively little value. It seems a terrible signal for a higher education institution to be broadcasting.

Faced with these remuneration, and "value," realities, Dr. Gould faces a very hard sell when he goes to the faculty with an "appeal to the better part of your nature." Ben Johnson, writing some 250 years ago, might have put it differently to the MU faculty, to wit; "... it is necessary not to invite robbery by supineness ..."

And after we (if we) demonstrate "the better part" of our nature, what then? Well, we can work with the president -- who has engendered lasting distrust through a lack of openness and credibility -- and if we're still disappointed with the results we can, at some indefinite point in the future, "convene for a vote of no confidence" where we can "render a more just verdict." That is just a desperate plea for buying more time (which I acknowledge has a good chance of succeeding because of our "supineness"); it does not provide any resolution to a problem that has taken years to come to a head. It holds out only more false hopes and empty promises; or, as an intrepid Parthenon editor (Melissa Huff) once put it; "I see nothing but more petty promises on the horizon." (She could see the horizon. Why can't we?)

Dr. Gould contends that a no-confidence vote would harm Marshall. I think he overlooks the fact that the harm had already been inflicted before we started down this path, and the no-confidence vote is actually a predictable faculty reaction to that harm.

In closing, I find it most curious that we can hold national elections for presidential contenders, seats in the U.S. House and Senate, and a plethora of races in the states -- along with various referenda, ballot initiatives, "propositions" and the like -- and get the results IN ONE DAY, whereas here we face a campus issue that requires but a simple yes/no vote, involving several hundred potential voters, and it requires ONE WEEK!? That week has been feverishly utilized by those seeking to thwart a vote of no-confidence through their protests, pleadings and promises; appealing, among other things, to the better part of our nature.

While we're mulling over "our nature" we might take into consideration the advice Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial, provided CEOs, to wit; "As a corporate leader it's extremely important to lead the drive to cut costs with change in your own lifestyle. Given the income inequalities that emerged this decade, it would be wise to avoid adding insult to injury by asking your employees to absorb pain you should be sharing."

So, is it "our nature" to provide relief to those who have brought us this "winter of discontent," this addition of "insult to injury?" We'll soon see.

James E. Joy is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Marshall University.

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