Western Washington U. president gets F for fiscal irresponsibility

Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard made a case for subjecting college faculty agreements to state review this week, something the presidents of other higher education institutions wish he hadn’t done.

Shepard agreed to boost the salaries of faculty by 5.25 percent this year, and 4.25 percent in each of the next two years. Professors and instructors also receiving promotions will get 10 percent increases. And, it doesn’t end there: If you are a department chair, you’ll receive an additional 15 percent increase in your stipend.

Meanwhile, the rest of the university’s classified staff, along with every other state worker, gets zip. The Legislature froze the salaries of faculty at the University of Washington and Washington State University, and state worker pay has been frozen since 2009.

Of course, Gov. Chris Gregoire is hopping mad, as are the legislators who fought hard to protect higher education from further painful cuts in the last, extended budget session. As are other college presidents.

Shepard offers the lame excuse – borrowed from the pre-recession era – that the increases were necessary in order to retain and recruit quality faculty.

That’s baloney, because the increases were applied across the board and we know that not every professor at WWU is rated equal, and not every one is threatening to leave.

A better approach would have mirrored the one taken by The Evergreen State College. TESC gave minimal increases to faculty in the short term, in exchange for taking on more work.

And they are working strategically with the Legislature to establish a multi-biennial plan to help them address uncompetitive faculty compensation over the long term. Evergreen’s average professor salary ranks 514th out of 574 public universities, 34 places lower than WWU.

Evergreen is giving faculty a 2.75 percent increase in each of the next two years, though professors will see all of it in the second year, none next year. And 2 percent of the raise is based on the expectation that faculty will assume the new task of helping students write a new, required academic plan and then monitor the plan throughout the school year.

Evergreen’s short-term increase is based on the presumption the college will receive no new state funding, a fact to which WWU seems oblivious.

Rep. Ross Hunter, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, says, “I’m looking forward to seeing what Western’s budget looks like next year and how they plan to pay for these raises.”

Good point. Now that WWU is committed to the increases, and if the state’s economy doesn’t improve, the university could be forced to cut programs and services for students, piling on top of this year’s 16 percent tuition hike. What good is a fat and happy faculty without a full student body?

At the same time the good Shepard was handing out his gifts to faculty, The Associated Press was reporting that a majority of the nation’s economists expect the economy will grow slowly over the next four years. They predict GDP growth of about 2 percent annually and that the unemployment rate will stall above 6 percent.

This was neither the right time or the right method to address faculty compensation. The WWU Board of Trustees should take that into account when conducting Shepard’s next performance review.