Compression inversion

Terry Engle has taught at USF for 24 years, is regularly published and has received consistently strong evaluations. His salary, however, has failed to keep pace with his performance.

Engle, a tenured accounting professor, makes $50,000 less than the national average for peers in his academic discipline, according to an Oklahoma State University (OSU) study. Furthermore, several assistant professors recently hired in his department make $38,000 more than Engle.

“Money is a symbol of what the institution thinks of you. When you’ve given your heart and soul for 24 years, and they’re bringing in entry-level people at almost $38,000 more than you, its depressing,” Engle said.

Engle is not alone. Many professors across campus face the same problem.

It’s called compression inversion – a reality of the business of the academic world, where universities lure new talent with bonuses and incentives while more veteran employees receive raises at roughly the rate of inflation.

Dwayne Smith, vice provost of faculty and program development, said he understands professors’ frustration, but to adjust all professors’ salaries to market value immediately is unrealistic.

“To wholly address (inversion) would bankrupt the University,” Smith said.

A tentative agreement reached by the United Faculty of Florida and USF during the latest round of collective bargaining stipulates that faculty employed 25 years or longer and with six years of satisfactory evaluations are to receive a salary increase up to 80 percent of the OSU market average, but capped at $10,000 total. Robert Welker, chief negotiator for the USF chapter of UFF, estimates that 18 professors will receive the raise. But with only 24 years of employment at USF, Engle is not one of them, and neither are many other faculty members.

“There are a lot of silent people out there,” Engle said.

Engle said he bears no resentment to the recently hired assistant professors, nor will he slacken in his work for the University. But his feelings over the issue are consistent.

“It has a real demoralizing effect, makes you feel like your institution doesn’t care about you,” Engle said.

What is compressioninversion?

A salary is compressed, as defined by the Human Resources Glossary, when “pay differentials between classes of workers … are too small to be equitable.”

Engle would be compressed if inexperienced faculty drew pay comparable to his own. But his problem exceeds compression. Unadjusted, compressed salaries will inevitably become inverted, with new hires receiving substantially higher salaries than their older counterparts, said Robert Forsythe, dean of the College of Business Administration.

In certain departments, especially in business colleges, the number of doctoral graduates has dropped. As a result, schools scramble to attract a small pool of applicants who could be fielding offers from several institutions. According to Forsythe, the faculty market behaves like any other, subject to supply and demand. Therefore, the starting salaries offered to assistant professors in certain disciplines have risen dramatically.

No easy solution

“I’m not unsympathetic (to Engle and others in his predicament),” Smith said.

According to Smith, the disparity among salaries frustrates USF’s goal of greater prominence as a national research university.

“(Administrators) recognize that to (achieve that goal), we have to improve our salary structure. It’s a part of the sticker price,” Smith said.

Forsythe agrees. “If (salaries) don’t (increase in proportion to those paid to new faculty), we will lose these productive senior individuals to other research universities,” he said.

Meanwhile, the problems remain.

“While they may say they’re addressing inversion, the dollars speak for themselves: This is a very low priority for (the University),” said Engle.

Welker concurs. “The University has different priorities. There’s a limited amount of money to go around,” he said in a phone interview.

In response, Smith maintains that the situation is complex, with no easy solution in sight. The University will have to fund such an adjustment.

“It’s going to take a very significant investment … if I had to guess, over the next five years, we’re looking at well over eight figures.”