Growing inequality threatens our society.
A few years ago, such a provocative claim might have had limited support beyond a public park in lower Manhattan. Today a rising tide of voices warns of the ill effects of the increasing concentration of wealth and income. The warnings come from academics like Thomas Piketty, politicians like Sen. Elizabeth A. Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and, at times, President Obama. Now even the self-described "zillionaire" Nick Hanauer, in a recent Politico article, implores us to avoid what he characterizes as an impending rush of pitchforks.
Higher education could continue following Wall Street, vaulting more college presidents into the top 1 percent and coursing toward calamity—or it could lead by example, joining Kentucky State University’s interim president, Raymond Burse, on a different path. He recently declined a salary of nearly $350,000 per year when he returned to the helm of this historically black university, where he had been president from 1982 to 1989, and where the lowest-paid employees are making the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Instead, he volunteered to take a $90,000 pay cut, to be used to raise the bottom pay level on campus to $10.25 an hour.
Burse’s decision, while newsworthy and important (especially to those getting a 40-percent raise), is only a temporary fix. Without further changes, inflation will return the lowest-paid workers to their former paltry purchasing power. Burse’s noble but one-time action could be swept away in wave of increasing costs and increasing inequality. The power of growth will eventually overwhelm any fixed minimum wage, even Seattle’s $15 per hour.
As for the other side of Burse’s decision, his own pay cut, this solution again is only temporary. The practices that lead to soaring administrative pay remain in place, among them pegging administrators’ salaries to those at richer and reputedly better institutions, and the misplaced belief that one person at the top deserves credit for successes generated by an entire campus community.
While the path Burse took is but a detour that ends right back on the same road toward the pitchforks, it does suggest a permanent solution. There is a way higher education could return to its mission and work to permanently avoid the revolt that Hanauer predicts.
At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a public honors college, a group of faculty and staff members, students, and alumni have put together a proposal that would permanently cap the growing ratio between the top and bottom earners on the campus. The St. Mary’s Wages plan would establish a benchmark minimum salary for the lowest-paid full-time employees that would rise with inflation. Tenure-track faculty members would make at least twice that benchmark. Different groups of workers (for example, associate professors, professional-staff members) would be guaranteed wages above specified fixed multiples of the lowest salary.
On the other end of the salary scale, no professor would be allowed to make more than four times the benchmark. Vice presidents would be capped at a factor of seven times, and the president’s total compensation package would never exceed 10 times the lowest worker’s pay.
By establishing a minimum wage that rises with inflation, workers at the bottom, including assistant professors, would be protected from having their earning power erode. Multiplying by that slowly rising benchmark to cap pay for everyone would guarantee that increasing inequality didn’t threaten our campus community. If others followed suit, we could reduce the threat that the Occupy movement, Piketty, and others see to our society.
We proposed the plan in the 2013-14 academic year, but the Faculty Senate decided by a narrow margin not to forward it for fuller discussion at that time. Since then we have fostered more-extensive conversations among faculty and staff members, students, and our new president, with the goal of ensuring that the details are acceptable to all.
Academics around the world are on the front lines of the fight to protect the environment from the dangers that climate change will bring. In the same way, we should be taking up the fight to protect society from the dangerous rising tide of economic inequality.
Raymond Burse, a retired executive at General Electric, was well positioned to take the first step, at Kentucky State. Other institutions, especially public colleges whose missions include protecting the public trust, should step forward and turn higher education, and eventually the private sector, down the path of more fairness and fewer pitchforks.