Missouri defends president’s right to cut faculty pay by quarter

Nine out of 10 staff who responded to survey want new rule to be rescinded

March 8, 2022
University of Missouri
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In the Covid-19-induced chaos of spring 2020, the University of Missouri system quietly added a section to its rules and regulations that allows for individual tenured faculty salaries to be cut by up to 25 percent. This could be for productivity, enrolment or other reasons.

The rule change went largely unnoticed for a year, until news broke last summer that the School of Medicine at the university’s flagship campus at Columbia, or Mizzou, planned to slash multiple professors’ salaries by 10 to 25 percent following productivity reviews.

According to information from Mizzou, fewer than 10 professors in three programmes – medicine, veterinary medicine and agriculture – have been affected to date. But the system expects that more professors will see pay cuts as additional academic units adopt criteria for evaluating professors under the new policy.

Alarmed by this policy shift, both in substance and how it was adopted, system professors have been fighting it for months.

Mun Choi, system president since 2017 and also Mizzou’s chancellor since 2020, recently told professors that he is not backing down, however.

“I will not be making changes to the executive order,” Dr Choi said in a memo to Kathleen Trauth, chair of the faculty council and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Mizzou. “Individuals who work for the university, whether faculty or staff, must fulfil important responsibilities that contribute to the mission of the university.”

Dr Choi wrote to Trauth in response to a general faculty poll on a set of council resolutions about the state of shared governance at Mizzou. Some 94 per cent of respondents said they supported a measure calling on Dr Choi and Mizzou’s provost to “commit to practicing shared governance in line with faculty authority”, as detailed in the university’s by-laws. The same resolution asks that Mizzou publish proposed policy changes and solicit faculty feedback ahead of time and that all changes to the system’s Collected Rules and Regulations – including executive orders like this one – be publicised, with older versions archived for comparison purposes.

Some 88 per cent of faculty respondents said they supported asking Dr Choi to rescind the new policy on criteria-based salary reductions for tenured professors specifically. (More than 1,000 professors, or about 47 per cent of those contacted, voted in the poll).

“I will continue to seek constructive input and work constructively with the constituents at the University of Missouri to achieve excellence,” Dr Choi also told Dr Trauth. “I appreciate the dedication of the vast majority of our faculty and staff who contribute to our teaching, research and engagement mission.”

In addition to resolutions, the council and Mizzou’s American Association of University Professors chapter circulated a petition objecting to the new policy on the grounds that it undermines faculty authority and shared governance, ignores existing policies for post-tenure review, and violates widely followed AAUP standards in “allowing the imposition of a major sanction without a hearing before a faculty committee or even the opportunity to appeal the sanction to such a committee”.

The faculty petition also says the new pay-cut policy was adopted at a time of “great personal and professional disruption” and warns that it will hurt faculty recruitment and retention and even student success.

“Tenured faculty balance teaching, research, and service,” the petition says. “Early indications are that [the policy] is being used to punish tenured faculty for alleged deficiencies in research, and it will dramatically redirect faculty time away from helping students. This new policy will discourage and potentially penalise faculty for focusing on teaching, spending extra time helping students, writing student recommendation letters, serving on student committees, supervising student research projects, and other advising and mentoring work.”

Under the new policy, university chancellors “may approve and implement criteria for reducing salaries of faculty members on continuous appointments”, either across campus or by individual academic units. These criteria “must rely on published departmental standards for satisfactory performance or objective and documented indicators of productivity, budget, enrolment or workload needs.”

The policy says such criteria must be “developed and applied so that salary reductions will apply on an equitable basis to similarly situated faculty members and will not be used to single out individuals”.

Affected faculty members may appeal pay cuts to their provost within five days of notification. Salary reductions may not be more than 25 per cent.

Reductions based on performance or productivity may take effect no earlier than the next academic year, while those based on budget, enrolment or workload needs can take effect as soon as the next pay period.

A university spokesman said that the system chancellor has long had the authority to change faculty pay, and Dr Choi has been meeting with other administrators about “areas where we need to be paying attention and there was concern about faculty workload related to salary related to job expectations”.

The spokesman said Mizzou is like any major research university in that it employs a number of research-oriented professors who are expected to attract outside grants that help pay their salaries. Thus far, he continued, reviews of faculty members according to the new policy in medicine, veterinary medicine and agriculture have identified “a very small handful, less than 10 so far, who were not meeting certain criteria that were developed by the administrators of the schools”.

The faculty members’ pay has been reduced temporarily, the spokesman added, and “they are provided with a plan that once they are able to achieve some of those results, there’s an opportunity for that pay to be restored”.

It is unclear even to faculty leaders just whose pay has been cut so far and why, because these decisions are technically private personnel matters. But Carol Ward, curators’ distinguished professor and director of anatomical sciences in the department of pathology and anatomical sciences at Mizzou’s School of Medicine, has publicly revealed that she was initially targeted for a pay cut last summer.

“I received a black folder sharing this news just two weeks after my annual performance review rated me as meeting or exceeding expectations in research, teaching and service,” Professor Ward wrote in an op-ed for the Columbia Missourian. “I have served as a dedicated professor at MU for 30 years, passing up other job opportunities along the way. I am a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the American Association for Anatomy, a William T. Kemper fellow for teaching excellence and an MU Corps of Discovery lecturer. In 2019, I was the only School of Medicine faculty member ever to be awarded the UM System’s highest faculty honour, the Thomas Jefferson Award.”

Professor Ward said she is currently a principal investigator on three active grants from the National Science Foundation and co-investigator on four other grants. In 2020 alone, she published seven peer-reviewed journal articles and two edited volumes, made four presentations at professional meetings, engaged in numerous service activities, and planned a major event before Covid-19. That is on top of coordinating all anatomical education for the School of Medicine, teaching medical students, supervising four graduate students, teaching four graduate classes and mentoring other graduate and undergraduate students in research, she said.

None of this was considered in the first round of medical faculty salary calculations under the new policy, though, Professor Ward continued. “Only three criteria were used to determine whether faculty in my college were ‘productive’: (1) whether salary was brought in as part of research grants – many granting agencies do not offer salary – or clinical work, (2) a subset of teaching activities and (3) administrative responsibilities.”

Professor Ward said she ended up being “spared” from cuts this time around “only by recognition of the administrative work I do, not for most of my other activities and accomplishments”. Other professors without clinical or administrative appointments “were not so fortunate, and, if this system continues, I may not be so lucky next year”.

Salary cuts not only lower people’s incomes, Professor Ward continued, but also decrease “the pensions that MU promised as a means of attracting and retaining faculty, and that many of us count on to sustain us in retirement”.

Professor Ward wrote that she is a strong proponent of “faculty accountability and fiscal responsibility” but that the new policy as applied within the School of Medicine “disregards most of the activities that nonclinical MU professors undertake daily that lead to discovery and innovation, provide our students with training and opportunities, engage the public and enhance the reputation of our university”.

Professor Ward told Inside Higher Ed that Mizzou threatened to cut her pay by 10 per cent per year, up to 25 per cent, for not covering 50 per cent of her total compensation with external grant money or other credited work, such as administrative duties.

“They say if you get your numbers back up to 50 per cent, they will either get you back to your original amount or just increase it somewhat. Details on that seem vague and it’s hard to get a straight answer,” Professor Ward said, adding that it took digging, and time away from her own work, to understand how Mizzou was suddenly evaluating her. “I worked on little else for months to find out what metrics they used and how they were calculated, since we were never given details or formulas.”

Asked about the challenging external funding environment for researchers, the spokesman said that overall grants are up for the university, due in part to how Mizzou has committed resources to helping researchers secure grants. From July 2021 to this January, he said, Mizzou was awarded $132 million (£100 million) in federal research and development funds. That’s compared to $97 million from July 2019 to January 2020. Grant proposals jumped from $440 million to $692 million over the same two periods, he said.

The spokesman said it is likely that faculty members in other programmes may be affected as academic units continue to draft criteria by which to evaluate professors under the new policy.

“This is a general policy, so it can be applied anywhere, not just on this campus, but on any campus within the University of Missouri system,” said Theodore Koditschek, president of Mizzou’s AAUP chapter and professor emeritus of history. “We’re not concerned just about individual cases – I don’t even really know all of the individuals who are affected by this. It’s the procedure, and the way in which this was done secretly – without any faculty consultation, without any advance notice and under the cover of the Covid emergency.”

Professor Koditschek said he and colleagues are also concerned that the policy’s “very vague framework” could be used to target particular faculty members, even though the policy itself nods at objectivity.

The AAUP’s petition further notes that professors’ pay may be cut not just for performance issues but also for issues beyond their immediate control – namely, budgets, enrolments and “workload needs”.

Dr Trauth, the council president, said she expected the policy to become more about addressing workload issues than about attracting external funding as it continues to be applied beyond grant-heavy disciplines. This poses potential academic freedom issues, she said, as a professor identified as having a lighter workload than programme peers could feel pressured to, say, teach a certain course without having sufficient time to prepare – or risk losing pay.

An intercampus faculty governance body, on which Dr Trauth sits, is currently working on suggested workload guidelines to avoid this kind of problem, she said.

Francisco Sánchez, associate professor of educational, school and counselling psychology at Mizzou, said he had accepted a tenured position elsewhere for next year due to the climate on campus, of which the new pay cut policy is only part. He cited the sudden 2020 removal of education dean Kathryn Chval, who was popular with faculty members and seen as a supporter of diversity, equity and inclusion, as one example of a bigger problem.

Regarding the pay-cut policy, Dr Sánchez said, “I can understand if they want to create this new rule about having to meet certain metrics. But it just seems unfair that professors weren’t given adequate notice – something like, ‘You have one year to adjust to the metrics they want, and here they are,’ as opposed to, ‘You haven’t met the metrics, so we’re going to cut your pay.’ There is no time to remedy whatever the issue might be.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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