Show me the money

If you think Washington football has declined, wait 'til you see Washington bookball.

WHEN University of Washington astronomy department chair Craig Hogan arrived at his desk one morning in mid-December, he found a copy of a letter from the provost at Arizona State University. Addressed to two members of Hogan's faculty, Don Brownlee and Paula Szkody, it contained ASU's offer of two full-time tenured full professorships, at a salary 50 percent higher than their UW pay.

Brownlee, a member of the elite National Academy of Sciences known for his pioneering work in collecting and analyzing "space dust"—now a staple technique of planetary astronomy—is, along with his wife Szkody, a superstar in his field, and thus the letter from ASU came as no surprise to Hogan.

Even so, Hogan was jolted. He had been hoping that the couple's love of Seattle and their reluctance to uproot their teenaged children would make them immune to other schools' blandishments. But the sheer scale of the ASU offer would be hard for anyone to resist, and impossible for Washington to match.

Hogan knew that the proposed deal was a lot sweeter than it seemed on the surface. Although the Brownlees are identified in the UW catalog as full professors, the university actually funds only half their salaries. As all UW research faculty, they must rustle up the other half themselves. A portion of every outside grant they receive is diverted to bring their salaries up to tenured-professor level. Because ASU's proposal would pay their salaries entirely from the university's instructional budget, leaving untouched any additional research monies the two generated, and because other UW policies dramatically shrink the size of all outside research grants to school faculty, the effective salary increase for Brownlee and Szkody would be close to 200 percent.

ASU's offer to the Brownlees is no isolated affair. Since the mid-1990s, universities throughout the nation have discovered that the University of Washington is a bountiful orchard of academic talent just waiting to be plucked. Since 1990, when average academic salaries at the U were at something like parity with those of such peer universities as Cal Berkeley, North Carolina, Michigan, and Oregon, they have fallen behind at a rate of about 1.5 percent per year. In academic 1997-98, the average UW faculty salary was lagging just short of 15 percent behind the average at comparable schools.

At the full-professor level of Brownlee and Szkody, the comparison is even more dire. To cope with biennium after biennium of budget cutting by the Republican-controlled state Legislature, the UW administration made a conscious decision to direct scarce funds first and foremost to the recruiting of new professorial talent at the open market rate. This meant that higher-ranking tenured faculty salaries tended to fall further and further behind, and that titular full professors with tenure (Brownlee and Szkody, for example) have been subjected for years to what is in effect a wage freeze. Adding insult to injury, the university also skims 51 percent of all grants for "administrative overhead," leaving very little for the research equipment, travel, and graduate-student stipends grants are supposed to fund.

LOSSES LIKE THAT of Brownlee and Szkody are fast becoming more the rule than the exception at the University of Washington. Vice provost Steve Olswang, the man in charge of faculty recruiting and retention, estimates that between 50 and 60 first-rate faculty members have left during the past year. Among the departed are historian (and McArthur Fellow) Richard White to Stanford, psychology professor Richard Gonzalez for Michigan ("They were going to double my resources," he told the UW alumni magazine Columns, "double the size of my lab, and give me a 40 percent salary increase"), music prof Joan Catoni Conlon for Colorado (and a 30 percent raise and increased research support), the math department's Richard Bass (a 60 percent salary jump at the University of Connecticut), and the business school's Mark Peecher (a $40,000 pay hike by moving to Illinois). Olswang can boast some major saves, financed with special funds set aside by the 1997 Legislature for just that purpose: statistics chair Werner Stuetzle was persuaded not to return to an endowed chair at a university in his native Switzerland; both Berkeley and Cornell were headed off in bids for psych prof Andrew Meltzoff and his wife, speech prof Patricia Kuhl. But the $2 million set aside for faculty retention is long gone, and even if the Legislature approves Gov. Locke's request for twice that sum in the current biennium, Olswang expects to lose up to 50 faculty members this year alone.

The problem is not just the loss of senior faculty members; it is growing harder to recruit comparable younger talent. "The trick of paying market rate for new hires while holding down senior faculty raises worked for a while," says UW physics prof Mark McDermott, chair of a faculty commission on the salary gap. "But young professors aren't stupid; they don't just look at the starting salary but at what somebody who's been in the department 20 years is making, and they say, 'What good is it landing a job at a good salary if I'm never going to make any more without leaving? Why not go somewhere else that offers better prospects in the first place?'"

Washington Gov. Gary Locke has repeatedly declared that education is his highest priority for state funding, and his 1999-2001 biennial budget proposal puts the state's money where his mouth is. But there is no certainty that his funding objectives will get through the Legislature, or that his long-term goals will be achieved if they do. And in the area of achieving competitive salaries for tenured faculty at the state's four-year educational institutions, the Locke budget barely addresses the challenge. The draft budget calls for an average faculty salary boost of 2 percent in each year; better than nothing, but not enough to make a serious dent in the near 15 percent pay gap with peer institutions, particularly when those schools are jacking up average salaries even faster. (The Arizona Legislature, for example, boosted faculty pay 9 percent in each of the last two years.)

Even if the 1999 Washington Legislature, with its razor-thin Democratic bias, looks with favor on the governor's higher-education budget, there remains a danger that as in the past, discussion will devolve into argument over what constitutes a fair salary for academics, or whether academics earn their keep as it is. Meanwhile, the reality—unalterable either by rhetoric or number crunching—is that Washington does not now support higher education at a level permitting its institutions to compete for top faculty.

And remote as the connection may seem on the surface, the value of the bachelor's degree Joan Average gets in the year 2020 is directly impacted by how much money the state devotes to paying competitive salaries now. The loss of a star professor ripples through his or her department. Graduate students do not so much choose schools as choose professors; promotion in their own careers will depend in part upon the eminence in the profession of those who taught them. In the sciences and medicine, professional eminence brings with it enhanced access to research money (and, these days, venture capital). The best graduate students will naturally gravitate to departments and schools where there is plenty of money to help finance their own work. Every time a high-level faculty member departs, the recruiting power of the institution (for both faculty and students) is seriously diminished, as the consequent loss of graduate students translates into a loss of star researchers and teaching assistants, an overall reduction in a department's reputation, and a further loss of quality undergraduates. Like the old fable of the battle ultimately lost because of a loose nail in one shoe on the general's horse, the weakening works its way through the whole university system.

For readers with no special interest in or regard for the scholarly way of life, the best warning about what may befall the UW academically is what has already befallen it athletically. Over the past five seasons, the UW football program has gone from the elite to the pathetic. It has declined from a Rose Bowl victory and ninth-in-the-nation ranking in 1993 to a .500 season in 1998, culminating in a humiliating bottom-tier bowl loss to the Air Force Academy—a nondescript football team from a nondescript conference. The cause? Loss of only a few athletic scholarships, whose cost was not only the four elite athletes per year Washington could not recruit, but of untold numbers more who turned down the UW because of a perceived decline in the school's competitive power. The football team has been salvaged with the hiring of a new head coach at $1.5 million per year. If only there were a credible school left for the team to represent.

 
comments powered by Disqus