Salary situation could turn critical

Nick Lowrey

SDSU faculty are some of the lowest paid in the country.

The faculty at SDSU have experienced a hard three years when it comes to getting paid. For three straight fiscal years they, like every other state employee in South Dakota, have received no increase in their salaries. The state legislature enacted the pay freeze in 2009 for fiscal year 2010 in reaction to the recession that began late in 2008.

Prior to 2008, faculty earned raises based on a combination of performance evaluations, market based calculations and priority decisions made by administrators. In its fiscal year 2011 fact book, the South Dakota Board of Regents says that state faculty as a whole is now 7.57 percent behind the regional salary average. If the pay freeze continues, that gap will likely widen.

There are several problems that may result from the growing disparity in faculty salary. According to Ron Utecht, an SDSU professor and board member for the South Dakota Council on Higher Education, it is becoming difficult to recruit the best faculty.

“It’s not impossible,” Utecht said. “But very difficult … If you want the best teachers you have to pay for them.” Dr. Gary Aguiar, an SDSU political science professor and the president of COHE, said a low salary combined with the current pay freeze devalues the prospect of teaching in South Dakota.

“If you’re known as a state with low salary, you won’t get many applicants,” Aguiar said. “So you can’t pick the cream of the crop.”

Utecht said that dynamics are changing in the academic world. Some of the things that drew faculty to SDSU in the past are losing their appeal. In the increasingly urban world, potential educators are no longer drawn to the rural setting. As a result, salaries have become more important as a means to draw faculty to SDSU, the state’s largest university.

Aguiar said one of the most concerning issues at SDSU is the potential for a rise in the faculty turnover rate. Many new educators come to SDSU and spend four to five years publishing papers and doing research before leaving for higher pay.

“We develop our faculty very well, we invest a lot in their teaching and their online teaching. We provide junior faculty with a lot of research support,” Aguiar said. “But what we’re basically doing is graduating the best faculty in the country.”

SDSU has already seen the impact of the pay freeze in the form of retirements. Instead of staying for an extra few years professors have sought other options.

“We had more retirements last year than I’ve seen in a long time,” said Wes Tschetter SDSU’s associate vice president for finance and business. Tschetter went on to say that the loss of just one or two key positions in a department could be devastating if they are not replaced quickly.

The effect of high professor turnover on students can be far reaching.

“You’re getting less experienced instructors, and they’re not going to be around when (students) need counseling advice, or a letter of recommendation, they’re just going to be around maybe as long as students,” Aguiar said.

In August, the BOR announced that it would be making a pay raise of up to four- percent its top priority in its fiscal year 2013 budget request. However, BOR employees and exempt staff are prohibited by state law from receiving across-the-board pay raises based on inflation. Instead, their pay raises must be based on a complex system of performance evaluations, market calculations and administrative priority decisions. This could leave some staff left out even if pay raises are approved.

If the legislature fails to approve the salary increase, the BOR may have to raise tuition even further.

“Our contingency plan unfortunately usually has to be tuition,” said Janelle Toman director of communication for the BOR. “Because, if we can’t get [funding] from the state, the only other place we can get it from is the student.”