At St. Mary’s College, a Salary System to Match Its Mission

October 18, 2013, 11:20 am

sustainabilityIn today’s guest post, the faculty of one institution proposes ethical principles for re-thinking the cost of higher education. Robin Bates, Professor of English, has been at St. Mary’s College since 1981. He has written several articles on cinema, has received two Fulbright awards to Slovenia, maintains the blog Better Living through Beowulf, and is author of the book How Beowulf Can Save America: An Epic Hero’s Guide to Defeating the Politics of Rage (2012, self published). Laraine Glidden is Distinguished Professor Emerita, and has been a faculty member and administrator at St. Mary’s since 1976.  Her authored and edited books as well as scientific articles, many of which are published with undergraduate co-authors, are in her specialty area of children, families and disabilities.

The Chronicle regularly features articles about the exponential growth of tuition and executive salaries – with little if any hint that the two trends might be related. But the fact is that they are related, and neither serves the broader mission of higher education.

That’s a problem. At St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM), we’ve proposed a solution.

As a public liberal arts honors college, SMCM has adopted a set of values and goals that emphasizes social responsibility, diversity, accessibility, and maintaining a community built on respect. We believe that these values and objectives should be reflected in the way we pay employees for the essential work they do. To accomplish this, we have developed a proposal for benchmarking salaries – one that would complement the current practice of marking salaries to those at peer institutions. The proposal intends to:

  • bring wage policies in line with the College mission
  • establish a living wage that adjusts for inflation
  • limit future spending by capping faculty and administrator pay
  • hold down tuition increases

Overview: The St. Mary’s Wages plan ( would work like this. A benchmark minimum salary for the lowest paid full-time employees would adjust with inflation. Other categories of employees would have pay ranges based on the benchmark. Faculty and administrator pay would be subject to caps, also based on the benchmark. Thus, all college employees would earn a living wage – one that wouldn’t be eroded by inflation. The caps on higher salaries would eliminate one of the drivers of costs, limiting future tuition increases and improving the College’s ability to implement its mission of inclusiveness. We would continue to serve and protect the public interest.

 History: The catalysts for the development of this proposal were the increasing disparity between the lowest and highest paid employees on campus.  From 2000 to 2008, salaries for the highest paid administrators rose more than 60%, far ahead of inflation at 37%.  In contrast, salaries for faculty in that period had risen 22%, 29%, and 46% for Professor, Associate Professor and Assistant Professor ranks, respectively.  By 2010, the President’s salary of $360k was nearly 15 times what the lowest paid employees made.

The faculty and students at SMCM have a long history of fighting for a Living Wage for staff. In 2002, the faculty and the Student Government Association (SGA) supported a living wage and suggested the level contained in the current proposal. In 2006, students occupied the president’s office, passed living wages resolutions, and held rallies in support of the cause. In 2012, a student-led movement culminated in a hundreds-strong march on the administrative building. All of these efforts were tied to the College’s mission.

We are not the first to propose using pay ratios to constrain pay disparities. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream originally maintained a 5:1 ratio between the highest and lowest paid. In higher education, Dr. Constantine Curris, a former president of three different institutions, argued for such a policy in a 2009 Chronicle article.

Proposal Details: Under the St. Mary’s Wages plan, a benchmark salary for the lowest paid employees would be set at 130% of the poverty line for a family of four, currently $29,976. This would ensure that no family of four with one full-time wage earner would need to depend on SNAP (formerly called food stamps). Other salaries would be subject to minimum and maximum pay levels based on multiples of the benchmark salary. For example, the President’s salary would be free to adjust based on market forces anywhere between a minimum of 7.5 times the benchmark (currently $224,820) and a maximum of 10 times the benchmark ($299,760). Assistant Professors would start at no less than 2 times the benchmark ($59,952) and all faculty would be capped at 4 times the benchmark ($119,904).

As inflation raised the benchmark, those numbers would change so that even someone at the maximum salary would be eligible for cost-of-living raises. For faculty, other salary considerations (including merit pay, raises for 5 year reviews) would set pay levels in between the top and bottom caps. The staff union, which has signaled its support for our efforts, would retain the right to bargain on behalf of all union members.

Benefits & Risks: Implementing the St. Mary’s Wages plan would create enormous cohesion across the College community. Instead of seeing the budget as a zero-sum game where large raises for administrators mean less for everyone else, a more collaborative attitude would prevail. With higher wages for faculty, especially at the Assistant Professor level, we would be in a better position to recruit new talent.

In addition, we would not only be living our core values of community and social responsibility, but emphasizing the commitment to accessibility contained in our public charter. Increasing wages for the lowest paid employees and capping one of the drivers of increased college costs both align with recent legislative pushes. Although tuition increases have been driven by other forces as well (e.g. health care, energy), executive compensation represents an area we can, and should, control.

While capping executive pay might make the recruitment and retention of top administrators more difficult, we believe that, like the dedicated faculty who are drawn to the mission of a public liberal arts college, there are also many talented executives who would be attracted to a school committed to its values and with a salary plan consonant with its mission.

Conclusion: By implementing the St. Mary’s Wages plan, we would be practicing the values laid out in our mission. A more equitable salary structure would demonstrate respect for all of our community members, especially those who are most vulnerable. This plan would also demonstrate our commitment to social responsibility and civic mindedness. Finally, by limiting future salary increases and thereby keeping tuition affordable, we would enhance accessibility, affordability, and diversity in our student body.

And we would, as one student organizer put it, “end the insane interlocked upward spiral of tuition and executive salaries.”


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