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After Four Year Freeze, Faculty Demand Salary Raises

After four years of salary freezes and severely reduced pension benefits, the faculty of Yeshiva University has begun considering a range of possible protest measures to press the administration to roll out substantial salary raises. Talk of signing petitions, educating students, publishing an open letter in the press, and even boycotting graduation have all been floating around.

“We’ve really had enough,” said a member of the faculty council, a university-wide governance board. Like all those interviewed for this article, this professor wished to remain anonymous. “We kept our side of the bargain—to roll out the new curriculum, to continue researching, and to continue teaching,“ he said.  “Now it’s time the administration kept its side of the bargain.”

A source within the faculty conveyed the general sentiment among the majority of faculty members: “We are demoralized and we feel uncared for by the President and the Board of Trustees.” Other faculty members interviewed for this article echoed this feeling saying, “morale at this university is at an all-time low.” Another part-time faculty member said she and other lecturers in her department “feel under-valued and exploited.”

Faculty members insist that it was not simply morale at stake. They claim the capacity of professors to continue pouring in energy into teaching and research has been seriously compromised. In a letter to the President and Board of Trustees, the faculty also claimed that YU has accrued a damaged reputation and therefore become “less and less competitive with its peer institutions.”

It’s Not a Freeze, It’s a Cut

In February of 2009, President Richard Joel announced drastic cuts across the university to help reduce the university’s annual budget by $30 million. He announced the laying-off of 60 employees, along with drastic cuts to non-personnel expenses. He announced a hiring and pay freeze for university faculty. Finally, the president announced a reduction in the matching contribution that the university would make to faculty pensions, cutting the maximum from seven percent to two percent.

“Faculty benefits—in this case, in the form of reduction in our retirement funds—are always the first things to be jettisoned,” a veteran faculty member told The Commentator in an interview. “It doesn’t sound like a pay cut, but the rise of inflation and a reduction in pension-matching means most of us are earning 10 percent less than we did four years ago.”

Adjusted to the rate of inflation, the total loss of income for YU faculty due to the freeze amounts to at least 8.4 percent over four years. Workplaces automatically adjust for the rate of inflation by slowly increasing salaries year-by-year. According to recent findings by NBC News, the average median pay raise in 2012 was 2.8 percent. During the height of the recession, the national median hovered around two percent.

According to the American Association of University Professors, the average raise across American universities last year was 1.8 percent, or the approximate rate of inflation. At private universities, the raise amounted to 2.3 percent, or just above inflation; full-time professors earned raises of 3 percent. At Yeshiva University, the raise was zero percent.

Despite its neutral sounding name, a freeze does not adjust to the rate of inflation and thus essentially means a reduction in pay every year. While virtually every university in the country implemented pay freezes during the height of the recession, a large majority have lifted their freezes. Yeshiva University, however, continues to “balance the budget on the backs of faculty,” said more than a few full-time professors.

President Joel’s salary, however, did not freeze. According to 990 tax forms available online, the President earned $732,143 in base compensation in 2009 (this number does not include “other compensation,” “deferred compensation,” and “nontaxable benefits”). In 2010, he earned $848,176, and in 2011, he earned $879,821. According to The Journal of Higher Education, he was among the top twenty highest earning university officials in the nation.

The income disparity between top administrators and faculty is not limited to the office of the President. In 2011, Daniel Forman, Vice President for Development, earned over $800,000 in salary and benefits. Provost Lowengrub earned over $450,00 and Chancellor Lamm earned over $500,000 in total compensation. The highest paid employee of Yeshiva University was Allen Spiegel, Dean of Einstein. He earned over $1.2 million dollars in 2011.

Capping Retirement Benefits

Before 2009, the university would match faculty contributions up to a maximum of seven percent. After the recession, President Joel announced a sweeping reduction in the university’s maximum contribution, capping the matching funds at just two percent.

A self-study report conducted by faculty for the Middle States Commission emphasized that the five percent cut in compensation “must be considered in combination with the effective loss of 8.4% in the value of faculty salaries due to inflation over the past 4 years.” In essence, “faculty compensation has now fallen approximately 13.4% in comparison with what it was four years ago.”

As with all accredited American universities, Yeshiva University matches contributions to pension funds for professors. Unlike schools in the tri-state area, however, YU’s contributions to faculty retirement plans are “ludicrously behind other universities,” as one tenured professor declared.

At New York University, five percent of a faculty member’s salary is automatically set-aside for retirement, while the university matches voluntary contributions, up to five percent.  At Columbia University, tenured faculty are matched anywhere from 5 to 12.5 percent maximum with other benefits. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, will match faculty members up to 20 percent.

For YU faculty nearing retirement, YU’s reduction in pension-matching has cost them tens of thousands of dollars in lost retirement funds. Money that could have been saved and then doubled by YU in preparation for retirement instead went unmatched for four years. Some estimate their effective losses between 2009 and 2011 amount to a 13 percent reduction in pay every year.

A statistically significant survey of faculty members in 2012 revealed that as a result of the recession and retirement cuts, faculty have delayed retirement by an average of 1.5 years. For some academics, however, that number is in fact much higher. Indeed, a number of professors continue to teach because they simply can’t afford to retire. According to one remark by a professor, the cuts are “making it more and more likely that I'll still be doddering down the hallways of Yeshiva University when I'm 90.”

“That’s a big problem,” said an associate professor involved in researching faculty retirement. “Faculty who we would frankly want to see retire are instead sticking around because they can’t afford not to.”

The Cost of Cuts

For untenured, tenure-track, and even tenured professors making ends meet in New York City, the cuts are both painful and disheartening. An anonymous survey sent out to Yeshiva College faculty by The Commentator revealed the full extent of the cuts on the lifestyles of faculty members. “Some days, I feel it's irresponsible of me to keep pursuing this work even though I love it,” said one professor. “I have two children and though I have never been wealthy, I have never before lived as paycheck-to-paycheck as I now do, which can be incredibly demoralizing.”

Of the faculty members who completed the online survey, the overwhelming majority felt the stress of the lost income. Most mentioned curtailing travel plans, either for leisure or for scholarly conferences. Some mentioned the difficulty of affording the “skyrocketing cost” of living in the city. A few were concerned about meeting basic expenses.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Yeshiva University associate professors earn an average of $107,000, assistant professors earn $89,000, while instructors make around $63,000. A YU report to the Middle States commission, however, reported, “especially high salaries above $130,000 are disproportionately reflected in the average salary and perhaps give a misleading initial impression of faculty compensation.” Significantly higher salaries in the psychology and law school further skew the results. Lastly, Yeshiva University faculty, unlike those at Columbia or NYU, do not receive subsidized housing worth thousands of dollars a year.

“Students should know that there are faculty standing before them who are deeply worried about how to make ends meet for their families,” read one comment. Another professor divulged, “After groceries, paying rent, electric, internet service provider, and phone, I am left with about $100 for clothing, dry cleaning, haircuts, and leisure activities for the month. That's not much when you live in NYC.”

While older faculty deliberate on later retirement, a number of younger faculty members are considering—and some have even begun—secondary jobs. “I have been forced to take a part time second job,” admitted one faculty member.  A noticeable minority of respondents mentioned taking on freelance writing to make ends meet.

Lifestyle changes have forced some faculty members to compromise on their academic pursuits. “My scholarship has definitely suffered because I cannot afford more childcare,” said a faculty member. “I put much less energy into my teaching and try to focus more on my research and my publications,” said one responder to The Commentator’s survey. “More publications mean I will have a better chance [of] finding a job in a different university.”

Indeed, severe salary cuts have caused a vocal minority at Yeshiva to consider seeking employment elsewhere. Ten percent of faculty surveyed would consider quitting their posts if the May 20th meeting with the President and the Board of Trustees does not result in a significant raise. According to sources within the faculty, a number of professors have already left since the cuts began, seeking higher salaries and more secure appointments elsewhere.

“If we want to keep the university competitive we need to keep salaries competitive,” said one long-time faculty member. “We want to keep attracting the best educators and researchers, and you can’t do that when salaries and job security are on the line.”

“Many junior faculty are looking for other jobs,” a university insider revealed in the survey. “If the University continues in this vein, it will lose all its young talent.” Responding to the survey, one faculty member said, “I am simply not going to be able to ‘afford’ working for YC a lot longer.” “I love my work, and I love being at YU,” said an employee of YU, “However, if an appropriate position comes up elsewhere, it would be irresponsible for me not to consider it.”

Despite Cuts, An Unwavering Commitment to Students

One recurring theme in the survey was the unwavering commitment of YC’s professors to their students: “I feel strongly that students should not suffer”; “students will always be my priority”; “It is morally out of the question to do anything that will harm students.” In the faculty survey, no faculty member even considered withholding letters of recommendations if the administration did not responds with pay raises. Only two professors considered withholding grades.

The firm promise to ensure student success has placed many faculty members in a bind. Boycotting graduation, withholding letters of recommendation, abstaining from organizing extra-curricular activities, and withholding grades are a common protest tactic used by exasperated university employees. At YC, however, the faculty body has overwhelmingly sided against anything that would hurt students.  When asked in face-to-face interviews if they would boycott graduation, most answered in the negative. When asked if they would withhold grades, many recoiled.

The majority of faculty members have instead chosen a more direct route to the President and the Board of Trustees. In a May 2012 letter signed by over twenty key professors of YU’s Faculty Council—including YC’s Carl Feit, Gabriel Cwilich, Paula Geyh, Joanne Jacobson, and William Stenhouse—faculty protested the “breach of trust” between the faculty and upper-level administration. The cuts, the letter claimed, would “extend far beyond faculty morale.” It pointed to “rapidly deteriorating” academic departments and programs, “dwindling” course offerings, “rising” faculty-to-student ratios, and a greater reliance on adjunct faculty. The reductions, they insisted, would “take another generation” to recover. The Board of Trustees did not respond to the faculty letter.

On Monday, 23 heads of departments and important professors at both Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women shunned an evening reception at the home of President Richard Joel in complaint of the salary freezes. To avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation, the Office of the President cancelled the event only hours before it was scheduled to take place.

What Would it Take?

According to sources within the administration, talk of a one percent pay raise has been circulating amongst the Board of Trustees and trickled down to the ears of faculty members. “1% would be insulting,” insisted a long-serving full professor in reaction to the rumors. “After years of taking a 10% cut in salary, 1% wouldn’t even equal the rate of inflation.” Indeed, a one percent “raise” would actually mean a .7 percent cut per year.

According to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to stay solvent above the rate of inflation, YU would have to raise salaries by at least 1.8 percent. However, to solve the salary impasse, stay competitive, and reestablish trust, YU faculty demanded an average of 3 to 4.4 percent raise, an increase in the cap for the voluntary matching retirement funds from 2 percent to 4 percent, and a long-term, transparent compensation plan.

If the May 20th meeting of the President and Board of Trustees does not result in pay increases, some tenured members of the faculty have pledged to publically air grievances in area newspapers. “Making our grievances public to the general public is a last resort,” said one member of the faculty, “but because we have seen no progress in more private communication, we feel we do not have much of a choice."