Competitive salaries are a must

Over the course of the past three months, I have met with a number of our faculty, staff, students, alumni, business leaders, political leaders, media outlets and more. Those discussions have helped me learn more about the opportunities and challenges at UW-Madison as I settle into my role as chancellor of this great university.

Some topics come up again and again in my conversations with multiple stakeholders. One of the most frequently asked questions is about the challenge we face in maintaining the tradition of excellence at the University of Wisconsin in the decades ahead. How will I, as the new chancellor, preserve and advance the work of those who, over a period of 165 years, helped make this land grant university into one of the best universities in the world.

There is no easy answer to that question, but it’s clear to me that attracting and retaining talented faculty and staff is key. At a university, our people — our teachers, our researchers, and those who keep everything operating — are our most important asset. As a major research university, we are competing on an international level to attract and retain top talent. And it’s a highly competitive world out there. Ask any senior level faculty or staff member, and they will almost surely know colleagues who have been lured away by a higher salary to another university.

That internationally competitive market makes us different than most other state agencies. Although I’m sure there are some employees at the state Department of Natural Resources or Department of Revenue who are sought after, the recruitment of “star” employees happens in higher education much more frequently and on a larger scale.

I very much appreciate the fact that the governor and legislators were able to put together a state pay plan in this budget that increases the base salaries of our faculty and staff by 1 percent in each of the next two years. This is the first across-the-board increase in five years. But the fact is UW–Madison salaries for faculty and staff have been falling behind the market for years.

According to 2012-13 data published in April by the American Association of University Professors, full professors here rank last in earnings among 12 national peers, and assistant professors are in 11th place. In aggregate, UW–Madison faculty salaries are almost 12 percent below the peer group median, the second lowest point since 1985. Official salary peers include, among others, universities such as Michigan, the University of California, Los Angeles, Ohio State and the University of Texas at Austin.

It’s also a continual challenge to hire and retain the best academic and classified staff, especially in highly technical fields.

I have said many times that the most unfortunate fallout from the spring’s budget fight was the loss of human resources flexibilities that were due to take effect on July 1, 2013 and would have allowed us to address the compensation disparities.

We have made some improvements in recent years by reallocating internal resources to match outside offers and stabilize the salary gap with our peers among some of our best performers. Because of these efforts, some of our highest-performing faculty and staff have received some raises. But there is still work to do to shrink the gap, and I am making this one of my priorities.

I will continue working with the Board of Regents and my UW System colleagues to push for those HR flexibilities in the next budget. We will need to convince the state legislature of the importance of these flexibilities, but that’s an argument I’m very ready to make.

As public employees, our salary information is public and subject to great scrutiny. At times, information about salary adjustments can create a stir. As an economist, I understand that when we talk about salary adjustments for our faculty and staff, that can be an awkward discussion because many of our employees make more than other families in Wisconsin.

But this isn’t about what I or anybody else chooses to pay people. It’s what we have to pay to maintain our excellence. It’s a market out there for our faculty and staff. To become a tenured faculty member at Wisconsin, you have to have a national and often an international reputation. Many receive regular inquiries about their interest in other jobs. If we don’t pay them what they can receive elsewhere, it increases the likelihood that they will receive an outside offer and leave. That makes it hard to maintain quality at UW-Madison.

And, when we seek to replace someone who leaves, guess what? We have to pay the new person more than we paid his or her predecessor, so we end up paying the higher salary anyway. It would have been less expensive and far better to have kept the person who was already here.

Market-based salary adjustments are necessary to keep our most talented employees. Our talent is what sustains us as a world-class institution. And that talent will also help the state as we continue to be one of its top economic engines, sharing our knowledge, training and preparing students for the workforce, spawning spinoff companies, and brightening Wisconsin’s economic outlook.