University makes “no promises” amid student push for higher wage

“Pay thy neighbor,” demands a poster in favor of raising employee wages. Photo by Colton Williams (C’21), poster design by Sewanee Young Democratic Socialists.

By Colton Williams

Since early September, Sewanee students have actively pushed for a higher starting wage for University employees. However, the University will not be considering a wage increase for the University’s lowest-paid employees until its current budget deficit of between $7 and $8 million is eliminated.

Dr. Doug Williams, treasurer of the University and professor of economics, said that currently, the University “will not be considering any new costly initiative unless it contributes to financial sustainability.”

The Student Government Association (SGA) newsletter from October 20 stated that “VCB [Brigety] is working with the Board of Regents to try to figure out a way to increase staff wages over time. The administration’s first priority has to be taking care of us next semester, and then they’re going to (no promises) work on a wage increase tier into the plan to make up our $8.1 million deficit.”

The call for a wage increase began in the Purple with opinions editor Max Saltman’s (C’21) piece on low wages at the University. Since then, the SGA passed a resolution in favor of higher wages, members of the faculty supported a similar resolution, and the student-led #StandUpSewanee movement has raised money for McClurg employees in particular. 

The starting wage for University employees in the lowest career band is $9.75/hour, and employees were not given hazard or differential pay for working in a pandemic. At the same time, University employees were paid in full from March to August, when there were no students, and will continue to be paid over the extended winter break. 

Williams claimed that it would cost $3.7 million to raise the starting wage to $15/hour, which accounts for increased wages and benefits and “adjustments needed to maintain internal equity” on the pay scale.

Regardless of the deficit, Williams said that the University’s priorities still might not result in pursuing a higher wage. “If the University were not facing a large deficit and had $3.7 million of surplus cash to spend annually, then the question would be how should that surplus be used to best serve the educational mission?” Williams said. “Should it be used to increase the University’s minimum wage? Should it be used to replace student loans with scholarships? Should it be used to increase faculty salaries to make sure Sewanee continues to attract the best faculty available? Or should it be used for something else?”

Ivana Porashka (C’21), president of the SGA, said that a pay raise for University employees would align with the University’s larger goals.

“To request a pay raise for all University employees from $9.75 to $15 an hour may seem counterintuitive during a time in which the University has a deficit of 7.5 million dollars due to COVID-19 testing and health measures,” Porashka said. “However, this deficit was willingly undertaken in order to protect our community. Max Saltman’s resolution to increase wages, passed by SGA and the College Faculty, overwhelmingly aligns with the precedent the University’s taken.”

77 percent of the college faculty, in a meeting on October 2, supported a resolution calling for higher wages for staff. 

Dr. Matthew Irvin, associate professor of English, said that “there were very few people arguing that wages should remain low. I want to make it clear that I don’t speak for the faculty, but my impression of the meeting was that it seemed that most people were in favor of wage increases, and it was a matter of the practical concerns of raising the money.”

The college faculty, in any iteration, cannot directly make any decisions about a wage increase. Nor should they, Irvin argued, saying that faculty should not speak for staff. Instead, he sees the role of the faculty on this issue to be one of advocacy. 

“I don’t think it was just a kind of symbolic vote,” Irvin said. “I think people are genuinely interested in this.”

Williams said that because of the budget deficit, the University is “not considering any new large spending initiatives” of any kind, and emphasized that the spending priorities of the University are complicated, with the need to balance the various areas which aid in the University’s educational mission. 

Williams also indirectly rebutted the claim, made by one member of the Board of Regents in communication with a student, that the University would have to raise tuition in order to finance a wage increase.

“Because of market competition, Sewanee would have a difficult time passing the cost of higher wages on to students through a tuition increase,” Williams said, “unless other universities were also increasing wages (and tuition) at the same time. So there would likely have to be a source of funding other than an increase in tuition in order to pay for a higher minimum wage.”

Though the University will not consider a wage increase until the budget deficit is eliminated, Williams praised the students pushing for a higher wage for University staff.

“An important product of a liberal education is graduating students who are humane and civic-minded,” he said. “It would be disappointing if students did not care about these workers.”