Administrator versus faculty pay: Administration disputes data, Purple stands by reporting

Amelia Leaphart
Editor-in-chief

Acting Provost Scott Wilson has disputed The Sewanee Purple’s recent coverage analyzing and comparing administrative compensation and investments versus faculty hiring and pay. His four-page letter contended that we made methodological errors and misrepresentations and published misinformation. We stand by our reporting. 

Data included in our October 11 and 27 editions came from data submitted annually by Sewanee and other institutions and nonprofits to the U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS Data Center and the Internal Revenue Service. In all but one instance, the methodology used to analyze and compare this data was that of the IPEDS Data site and ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer.

ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer is a nationally recognized source for public information and analysis of nonprofit finances. The media website takes executive compensation data from each nonprofit’s annual 990 tax returns and calculates percentages of the organization’s total expenditures. The site takes the only data that educational institutions and other nonprofits are required to make public and analyzes it to offer the public a means for comparing financial information from similar organizations.

The acting provost’s letter stated that The Purple misrepresented data because we published a graphic that compared average annual administrative compensation–data compiled by averaging Sewanee’s top nine administrators’ compensation as reported on the University’s annual 990s– with average faculty salaries reported annually to IPEDS. Wilson also disagreed with our method of averaging the compensation of Sewanee’s top 9 administrators over the past 10 years because the University paid two vice-chancellor salaries in fiscal 2020-21.

However, we noted those issues in our reporting. Additionally, we pointed out that the data included years in which Sewanee’s Dean of Students position was vacant. We also clarified significant pay anomalies in the graphic. Considering the graphic spans from 2012-2021, we stand by how it accurately illustrated Sewanee’s pay trends.

When The Purple published that data, our graphic included the caveat that the average administrative compensation figures were derived from each annual 990’s reported administrators’ compensation, while the average faculty salary figures came from the average salaries reported by the University to IPEDS. There is no publicly available data for total faculty compensation or staff pay; we utilized the only information that is publicly available.

Our graphic for administrative compensation added the reported compensation with other estimated compensation received from the institution by each of Sewanee’s top nine administrators. We recognize Wilson’s argument that using only administrators’ base compensation would have been a more exact method of comparison with average faculty salaries. However, that comparison would have shown similar trends, with a widening gap between administrative and faculty pay. It’s also worth noting that our graphics reflected issues that have been raised by Sewanee’s faculty. That concern was the subject of a presentation to Sewanee’s Board of Regents in June about a continuing partial freeze in hiring tenure-track faculty while the University has seen a 43 percent increase in hiring of administrators making more than $125,000 annually since 2020.  

The faculty representatives’ report to the Regents noted: “The [faculty] Budget Priorities Committee….found that the number of administrators increased from 67 positions in 2020

 to 76 positions in 2022, while the number of tenure line faculty decreased from 146 to 136. This committee found that most of the growth in the administration in the last two years has occurred in the upper echelons, with a 43 percent increase in the number of administrators earning $125K or more; in comparison, the starting salary for a tenure-line faculty member is $62,000.”

Wilson said our published data on average faculty salaries for peer and aspirant institutions were incorrect. He brought this point up during an interview. I subsequently reviewed the data, available in annual summary reports produced by IPEDS and confirmed that the data we published was accurate. 

The Purple used Sewanee’s chosen comparison group of peer and aspirant institutions submitted annually to IPEDS and the resulting averages generated by IPEDS to show how the University’s average faculty salaries measure up to that comparison group.  Acting Vice-Chancellor Nancy Berner, in our interview, and the acting provost, in his letter, complained that our comparison group unfairly combined average faculty pay from our chosen peer and aspirant institutions. They told me that Sewanee’s average faculty pay is actually higher than institutions they consider our peers and is only below that of aspirant institutions–a distinction not made by the U.S. Department of Education’s annual IPEDS data reports.  

The provost’s letter stated that The Purple unfairly suggested that faculty salaries have been cut. The graphics actually showed that Sewanee’s average faculty pay has dropped, and our reporting included the contextual information that the decline could be due to recent retirements of higher-earning tenured professors and replacements of departing tenured faculty with visiting assistant professors. 

In the third section of his letter, Wilson wrote that The Purple is not making apples-to-apples comparisons across institutions. This, too, is a problematic complaint. The numbers and percentages we used come from ProPublica and are based on information all organizations are required to report in their annual 990s. According to IRS instructions for filing 990s, institutions must report compensation of:

• Current officers, directors, and trustees with no minimum compensation threshold.

• Current key employees earning over $150,000 of reportable compensation.

• Current five highest compensated employees other than officers, directors, trustees, or listed key employees earning more than $100,000 of reportable compensation.

• Former officers, key employees, and highest compensated employees who earn over $100,000 of reportable compensation, with special rules for former highest compensated employees.

• Former directors and trustees paid over $10,000 of reportable compensation annually in the capacity as a former director or trustee.

Wilson’s letter stated that Sewanee’s governing ordinances designate more employees as officers than many of our peer institutions. He wrote that means the total executive compensation reported in our 990s skews higher than our chosen peers and aspirant institutions. However, the executive compensation reported in 990s used in ProPublica’s analysis includes more than the salaries of each institution’s officers.

We welcome responses from all members of Sewanee’s community. We will continue reporting on this issue. 

 Read Scott Wilson’s full letter here.

One comment

  1. If there was nothing to hide, they’d publish all faculty and staff salaries like all public universities do.

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