A message to our supporters

by Office of the Chancellor | March 24, 2011

Difficult times in public higher education

Greetings from the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where it has been an eventful few weeks.

Some of the news has been exciting, and positive. Our Theatre program won regional honors with its production of Almost, Maine and nearly made the college theatre “final four.” The women’s basketball team, of course, has had an absolutely remarkable season. Our 6,500 students, along with faculty and staff, are hard at work, with admirable focus, as they enter the semester’s stretch run. We’ll graduate another near-record class, about 650 students, on May 14.

Meanwhile, many of us are working diligently as we sort through the potential impact of Gov. Walker’s budget proposals.

UW-Green Bay is facing a permanent 11 percent cut (about $2.5 million annually) in state taxpayer support. Additionally, proposed benefit changes would cost employees another $2.1 million in reduced salary; this amount will also be deducted from our state allocation. That totals about $4.6 million per year in cuts to UW-Green Bay. This latest reduction will bring state support down to about 20 percent of our annual budget.

These are unprecedented reductions. For that reason, in the last few weeks I have hosted two informational sessions for our employees. About 250 of our approximately 600 faculty and staff members attended the first, and another 200 or so attended the second session.

I opened each of these meetings with a simple reminder: Our work is essential. We give people a chance at an outstanding college education at an affordable price. Students rely on each one of us. We have been a positive factor in building Wisconsin’s economy, not tearing it down as some have remarkably suggested.

It seems very unfair that some have focused the economy/budget debate on public employees, claiming that they (including university employees) are “overpaid” or “underworked.” While we at UW-Green Bay appreciate the need for reduced spending and cost savings statewide, we strongly state that we have paid our fair share and are not the root of the problem. And, while we know that many private-sector workers have also suffered reductions in the past, at least their cuts came without disparagement.

After many years of suppressed compensation, few raises, loss of income due to temporary furloughs, and retraction of earnings by the state, employees at the 11 comprehensive universities in the state are drastically behind their peers. UW-Green Bay employees will now surrender an additional 5 to 13 percent of their current salaries. This University has talented, dedicated and hard-working employees who deserve credit for what they accomplish in service to our students, community and region. Likewise, it should be recognized that we have done our part in the past to build a strong state economy. We continue to do so today.

The reduction in net income will be a very serious hardship for most. Many don’t have much of a cushion. Our pay scales not only typically lag the private sector by significant margins, but also Midwest peer universities by even greater amounts. Some examples:

• A school board member for a neighboring, small-town district told us our salaries here at UW-Green Bay have been used as reference points in K-12 contract talks. Not because they are so high. Because they are strikingly low.

• We hire new faculty in some fields for as little as $44,000 per year and that’s with Ph.D.s and college teaching experience. Our median faculty salary is $54,156, and for academic staff (librarians, counselors and others) it’s $44,678. Unionized staffers earn various pay rates, mostly modest, with custodians starting at $11 per hour. All told, 57 percent of current employees earn less than $50,000 per year, and many individuals above that line are long-serving professors or those in high-demand fields. Ten percent of our employees make less than $30,000 annually.

• UW-Green Bay and its UW System peers are a solid 20 percent lower on faculty pay than our Midwest competitors, with the typical UW System institution ranking 30th in a 33-school comparison. Regarding academic staff, we’re about 8 percent lower.

We at UW-Green Bay demand much of our faculty, as we should, given the student tuition investments. I’m not sure many realize the extent to which our faculty solve problems, consult in the community and generate knowledge. They don’t simply teach from the textbooks, they develop knowledge that goes into textbooks. They even write them.

Unlike many private businesses and most public agencies, we must recruit nationally, seeking individuals with specialized expertise. In recent years we’ve had numerous preferred candidates reject positions when they learn we can’t pay competitive salaries. Turnover is expensive in many ways. Even one theoretical benefit — replacing higher salaries with lower-paid newcomers and applying the savings to address disparities elsewhere — doesn’t work at today’s UW-Green Bay. With some positions, we face the need to scavenge scarce dollars to increase salaries if we hope to attract the candidates we need.

Up to this point, the limitations of low salaries have been partially offset by an attractive benefits package. The newest cuts from the state represent a double hit. We lose not only our slim recruiting and retention advantage in fringe benefits, we simultaneously deduct a large percentage of each individual’s check from what was already uncompetitive pay.

Regrettably, the universities in the UW System have been prohibited from compensating our faculty and staff in a manner that allows us to keep pace with our public peers in Midwest states, private colleges and universities in Wisconsin, and other educational institutions that are recipients of state funding (e.g., K-12 schools and technical colleges). This must change, and the change must come soon.

Where am I headed with all this?

Currently, after many years of declining support for public higher education, we face the serious prospect of having insufficient funds to sustain our universities into the future. And, we are so controlled and restricted by statutes and policies that we are not permitted to be more efficient with the resources we do have. We must have greater management flexibility. If the universities in the UW System are going to be able to provide for the common good in the future, there must be a new way for us to manage our enterprise.

There is much discussion, statewide, of plans to grant new autonomy to UW-Madison. Many of the management flexibilities proposed there would be just as valuable to UW-Green Bay and other campuses. If the state would provide our funding through a “block grant” and delegate more operational freedom to us, we, too, could save money and time on capital projects, procurement, contracting and management of facilities, utilities and fringes.

At UW-Green Bay, we have a track record. We have demonstrated our ability to be entrepreneurial and innovative in our everyday operations, in the public-private partnerships that gave us top-notch student housing, the Kress Center and the Weidner Center, and in our great success expanding online offerings and services to returning adult students. We generally are the System’s most efficient provider when you assess number of graduates versus total taxpayer investment.

I am in favor of more flexibility for all the UW System universities, not just UW-Madison. I also agree with the Regents and President Reilly that we can best accomplish these efficiencies as an intact system. I join them in urging our elected representatives to adopt the Wisconsin Idea Partnership as proposed by the UW System.

The state of Wisconsin has a significant budget deficit and the cuts will be real, and painful. We must find ways to emerge from this crisis a stronger and more viable university. We will need your support and understanding to do this.

Thank you for your continued support of UW-Green Bay.

Thomas K. Harden