Concerns about faculty hiring and compensation continue despite ongoing investments into administrative departments

Amelia Leaphart    

Disparities between faculty and administrators’ hiring and pay continues to fuel debate at Sewanee, despite the recent partial lifting of the faculty hiring freeze instituted during the pandemic. Faculty say they fear the administration is filling administrative positions but may leave some tenured positions vacant forever, while Sewanee’s leaders say they are positioning the University for the future. 

Average salaries for Sewanee’s top nine administrators have increased 38.4 percent since 2012, while average faculty salaries have increased by 9.4 percent, according to data reported annually by the University to the IRS and the U.S. Department of Education. Between 2012 to 2022 inflation has increased 28.28 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means that top administrative salaries have exceeded inflation while faculty salaries have fallen far behind. 

Annual average salaries for Sewanee’s top nine administrators are derived from reports of compensation and estimated compensation included in the University’s annual 990 nonprofit’s tax returns, accessed on Propublica Nonprofit Explorer. The positions are: Vice-Chancellor, Provost, Vice President of Advancement, Dean of the College, Treasurer, Dean of Students, Legal Counsel, Dean of Admission, and Dean of the School of Theology. 2020-21 figures include partial year salaries for the outgoing and incoming vice-chancellors. For 2015-16 and 2020-21, there was no Dean of Students position filled. Sewanee’s annual average faculty salaries are from data reported annually by the University to the U.S. Department of Education’s IPED Data Center.

Acting Vice-Chancellor Nancy Berner and acting Provost Scott Wilson said Sewanee’s average faculty salary decline is the result of tenured, older faculty retiring or leaving. Since 2012, Sewanee has had a steady growth in hiring visiting assistant professors, who are at the bottom of the pay scale for faculty salaries, and there has been a corresponding decline in the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty.

Katherine Theyson, associate professor and chair of the Economics Department, said retirements have impacted Sewanee’s average faculty salaries. “But the fact that the faculty in tenure lines who are retiring are being replaced by visiting faculty is a bigger issue to the faculty as a whole,” she said.

Wilson said Sewanee’s growth in administrative positions since 2020 has been centered in Sewanee’s new Office of Student Success and its Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).

But faculty say the growth in administrators predates the creation of those two offices. Aaron Elrod, associate professor of Economics and chair of the appointments committee, said professors began questioning why there was a hiring freeze on faculty, but not a hiring freeze for administrators before those two offices were created. 

Before the pandemic, there were open faculty positions and departments were conducting searches to fill them, a process that can take a year to a year and a half. Elrod said some departments were not fast enough in getting hiring contracts signed before a freeze was imposed, so they have had to manage without retiring or departing professors’ positions being filled. The Economics Department acted fast enough to fill two positions before the freeze, but departments such as politics, psychology, environment and sustainability could not fill their positions in time to avoid their positions being frozen, Elrod said. Theyson added that some searches were frozen while candidates were on campus for interviews. Others note that some open positions have been frozen for seven years.

Acting Provost Wilson said Sewanee’s reduction in spending on faculty during the pandemic was similar to that of the University’s competitors. “While Sewanee did reduce its total salary expenditure on instructors in 2020-21, so did our peer and aspirant comparison institutions. In fact, our aspirant institutions reduced their instructional salary pool more sharply than Sewanee did. The only way that average faculty salaries go up when the total amount of salaries paid goes down is by laying off faculty, not hiring replacements for faculty who depart, or reducing continuing faculty from full-time to part-time. Again, Sewanee sought not to lay off or furlough faculty or staff, though it did not hire tenure-track replacements for tenure-track faculty who departed that year.”

Sewanee’s average faculty salary decline began well before the pandemic, according to data reported annually by University to the U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS Data Center. And while average faculty salaries reported by Sewanee’s peer and aspirant institutions grew in 2020-21, the last year for which data is available, Sewanee’s average faculty salaries continued a slight decline. 

Several faculty members noted that hiring of new administrators began before the recent surge in hiring for the new DEI and Student Success divisions. “I think a lot of the faculty took note that we were hiring a number of new administrators, some in areas that I think faculty firmly believe we need,” said Theyson, “but at the same time we were being told there was no way to keep hiring tenure-track faculty at all. There were departments that were suffering.”

The administration began creating the Student Success and DEI offices in 2020. When asked about administrative growth prior to 2020 and the pandemic, Berner said, “I don’t know, I’d have to go back to the data.” 

Conversations about administrative growth and disparities in faculty and administrative compensation is by no means unique to Sewanee. The Yale Daily News and other student publications have reported on the nation-wide growth in universities’ bureaucratic positions.

Theyson said, “I don’t know if faculty are sitting around saying ‘oh, I make x and this administrator makes y, and y is more than x.’ 

The concern among professors is, according to Elrod, where Sewanee chooses to invest. “The product we provide is education services,” he said. “That product is provided by faculty. The student experience is affected by how many faculty there are, and you’re going to need some visiting assistant professors, but also how many long-term faculty there are.”

Theyson said, “Not that we don’t need to invest in support services. I think Sewanee has had a need for quite some time to invest in support services, but it’s a hard thing to watch while there is disinvestment in academic programs.”

Professor of art Pradip Malde questions the University’s leadership. “I’d say that our leadership is lost,” he said, “That’s not to say they are bad people, definitely not, we have good people up there. But being good is not enough. Being well-intentioned is not enough. Leadership is letting go of your ego, thinking creatively, sensing problems, taking risks, and letting those who are most able to educate our students move forward. The thing we have missed many times with our leaders and leadership, is that Sewanee is meant to teach by example. That when a student comes to Sewanee, their learning takes shape in the classroom, their lives are given shape by the community…. For the past few years, our leaders have not understood this.”

Administrators have said changes are needed in faculty, administrative positions, and programs to prepare Sewanee for the “demographic cliff.” That is a predicted drop in the number of college-age students expected by 2026 due to low birth rates following the 2008 financial crash. 

Theyson said she was not sure that is a valid argument. 

“Even if it’s real,” she said, “there’s a suggestion that even if there are fewer students, more of them will go to college in percentage terms, and so there may not be a demographic cliff on the college level. There’s also some suggestions, and I think this is a reasonable suggestion, that institutions at the top of the food chain in some respects are going to be insulated from this.”

She continued, “There’s no reason to suppose that Sewanee will have to fall victim to the demographic cliff. Even though we’ve been falling in the rankings, we’re still a highly ranked institution. If we play our cards right and strengthen our programs, we should be able to attract students.” 

Elrod said, “Whether or not you believe in 2026 there’s actually going to be a cliff, we should be investing in our academic programming if we want to attract students to this institution, no matter what the economic climate is.”

Sewanee has fallen in the rankings of top liberal arts schools, according to US News and World Reports. Sewanee’s rank was 33rd among top liberal arts colleges nationally in 2012, and it fell to 51 in US News rankings released last month, despite advertising on the University’s website and social media that Sewanee ranks in the top 50. This drop has coincided with a growth in administrative positions and stagnating faculty salaries. 

It also has happened as Sewanee’s student body has grown and its tenured and tenure-track faculty has declined. In the fall of 2012, the University had 1,455 students, 143 full-time faculty – 19 of whom were neither tenured or tenure track – and 581 staff, according to IPEDS data. In the fall of 2020, the last year for which data is available, Sewanee enrolled 1,751 students and employed 712 full-time staff positions and 180 full-time faculty equivalent positions, 41 of which were temporary, non-tenure-track hires. That meant the visiting instructors had grown from 13.23 percent to nearly 23 percent of all faculty. 

Asked about the strategic goal of administrative versus faculty investments, Berner said, “Faculty resources are a really important area, and the administration really recognizes that. Especially this administration, me and Scott, we’re faculty. We’re going back to faculty at some point when we’re done being administrators. We have no motivation to do anything that would hurt the faculty, because we understand the role very well. The way the question is worded is to imply that the administration has a goal of lowering faculty compensation.”

Wilson added that investments in the offices of Student Success and DEI are needed to address areas where Sewanee struggles compared to its peers and aspirants: Sewanee’s four-year and six-year graduation rates, retention of first-year students, and diversity. 

“I’m not saying it’s more important than paying faculty well, but in terms of how we’re evaluated by US News and World Report, it’s actually really important,” Wilson said. He notes that graduation rates comprise 24 percent of US News’ annual rankings. Faculty compensation comprises 7 percent of the US News ranking formula.

Malde and others said faculty concerns go beyond faculty pay and University rankings. “There is a perception among the faculty that what administrators are paid, to be more specific, what higher level staff is disproportionate to the effort and the priorities allocated to faculty and more importantly lower-level staff. If we just look at staff salaries, there is a huge difference between funds allocated to upper-level administrators in relation to lower-level staff. There’s a tragic disparity there.”

Malde added that when it came to raising wages for hourly employees, the push has always been from faculty and not top-earning administrators. He said some faculty have gone so far as to propose a cut to their own salaries to narrow the gap between the lowest-paid staff and higher-earning individuals. Lower-level staff, for Malde, includes administrators making under $125,000 and hourly employees. There is no publicly available data for the University’s lower-level salaries. 

When asked about how the administration is addressing the gap between the lowest and highest paid employees, Wilson said, “For the 2022-2023 fiscal year, the University increased the overall wage pool for faculty and staff by 4 percent, based on a 2 percent increase on continuing salaries and wages and a lump sum ($1,456 for salaried employees and $0.70 per hour for hourly employees) for all employees that is equal to an additional 2 percent of the salary and wage pool. This approach to raising salaries had the effect of increasing pay for workers at the lower end of the pay scale by a higher percentage than those in higher salary brackets, thereby helping lower-paid workers to adjust for inflationary pressures.”

The starting wage for visiting assistant professors rose this year from $45,000 to $50,000, with an extra $5,000 increase for professors in STEM fields. By comparison, the average salary for a public school teacher with a master’s degree for 2020-2021 was $53,507 in nearby Manchester, $59,644 in Murfreesboro, $54,492 in Tullahoma, and $47,666 in Franklin County, according to the Tennessee Education Association

Average compensation for the University’s top nine administrators was 2.7 times higher than average faculty salaries in 2011-12, according to data from Sewanee’s 990s available on Propublica’s nonprofit explorer and the IPEDS data center. In the 2020-21, average compensation for top administrators was 3.41 times higher than the average faculty salaries, according to data reported by the University. 

Berner and Wilson said this year’s faculty raises, alongside last year’s raising of the University’s staff minimum wage to $12 an hour, are addressing pay disparities. MIT’s living wage calculator estimates that the living wage for one adult with no children is $14.08 an hour in Franklin County. 

Theyson noted that faculty salaries have not only lagged behind those of Sewanee’s executive staff, but have shrunk in real terms. “I think the thing that faculty are acutely aware of isn’t so much the comparison of our salary to administrative salaries, but the fact that our salaries are not keeping up with inflation,” she said. “I told the dean that I make less in real terms than I did the year I arrived in [2010]. The Dean responded basically saying, ‘yeah you’re not the only one.’” 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index indicates that inflation has risen 51.98 percent since 2005, according to an online CPI calculator. 

“I have 10 years experience in a tenured-track position, I’ve moved up from assistant professor to associate professor, I’m the department chair,” Theyson said, “and I make less in real terms than the day I started here.” 

Malde believes current leadership has failed to make “brave decisions” about faculty hiring. “We keep talking about faculty-student ratios, and where the stress points are in every program, but we don’t say ok, we need 200 full-time tenured track faculty instead of the 160 we have now. If we had that many faculty, if we had leadership who went out to donors and said, this is why we need x-million dollars more in our endowment, I think donors would step up right away. That’s an easier sell than saying we need 20 million dollars to build a new building. Donors are not interested in increasing the enrollment of the University, they are more interested in providing students with extraordinary experiences here.”

Theyson said the shift to hiring non-tenure track faculty risks eroding Sewanee’s brand as a residential college, “One of the arguments is about the need for flexibility of visiting professors, the need for academic staffing. I would say that when you’re an institution like Sewanee, where the culture is to build relationships with your students, if you have a large number of visiting professors, they don’t have the opportunity to build relationships and community, and the fact that we are in such a rural location makes hiring people on short-notice extremely difficult.”

Outside of Sewanee’s value of student-professor relationships, for Theyson, a reliance on visiting professors is impractical in a rural location. She noted that large, urban universities “have very little problems hiring visiting professors to teach a class or two, especially if they’re in the evening. No big deal, but getting someone who’s willing to come and live in Sewanee or drive here is much more difficult.”

A concern for Theyson and Elrod about the administration’s practice of waiting to see how many students enroll, which is usually not clear until May or June, and then seeking visiting instructors means that Sewanee runs behind in the hiring market for fall semesters. The two economics professors contend that this practice is unsustainable.

 Malde adds that it has had an impact on faculty morale.

“Morale is low among the faculty, and the health of student-professor relationships is not a good one right now, either, nor have we done well by faculty retention,” Malde said. “We have lost a lot of good faculty. And I say that much of this can be improved through a more realistic salary level. But salaries are not the only reason for low health in these areas.”

Malde said that Sewanee professors are asked to do too much. He said tenured colleagues at other institutions do not feel the same way. 

Theyson and Elrod agreed. 

“I would say it’s because we’re asked to do a lot of work that at most colleges is done by administrative assistants, because we do not have administrative assistants here. For example, I’ve spent all of my free time today working on an administrative task,” Theyson said. “If I had an administrative assistant, I would have asked them to do it and gone and worked on my teaching.” 

Elrod added, “Most of the burden (is) on the department chairs. They get pulled farther and farther away from what we want to do and are paid to do, which is teach, work on our teaching, and meet with students. And work on our research. When you get pulled from the actual teaching, that’s when you feel like you’re being stretched thin.”

Theyson said she has turned away several people requesting her as an advisor. “I just can’t take it anymore,” she said. 

Malde said that the faculty are just looking for a “wholesome community.” When asked about what was missing, he said, “Trust is missing. I have been hearing that staff are mistrustful of faculty, and the faculty are mistrustful of the upper administration, as is the student body.”