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Low faculty pay may be to blame for ‘brain drain’

Florida officials may have to look beyond touting the peninsula’s white sand beaches, warm climate and lack of a state income tax when it comes to attracting university faculty.

“For many years, they thought they could pay lower salaries because of the ‘sunshine factor’ —because people enjoyed living here so much that they were willing to be paid less,” said USF Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith. “Today, people have to cope with so many things. I think the ‘sunshine factor’ has gone bankrupt.”

More than a dozen faculty members have left USF over the past year after the state slashed more than 15 percent from the University’s budget.

As Florida determines how to cope with a projected $6.1 billion budget shortfall — and bills in the House and Senate consider higher education as a primary target for some financial dieting — USF may face an even greater challenge this year in attracting and retaining faculty.

Though research opportunities and the quality of a school’s facilities may be major factors in a professor’s decision to leave, one study suggests that one of the state’s biggest challenges is its comparatively low faculty pay rates.

Over the past few decades, Florida universities have become known for paying faculty members some of the lowest salaries in the nation. The most recent Faculty Salary Survey by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found that 60 percent to 80 percent of professors nationwide — whether at the full, associate or assistant level — make more than their USF counterparts.

“It’s deplorable,” said Faculty Senate President Larry Branch. “It shows that the Legislature doesn’t value higher education as it should.”

The top of the bottom

Though salaries for professors at Florida universities rank in the bottom half of the nation, two analyses show that USF’s salary rates are higher than those at many of the state’s other 10 public institutions. The AAUP survey reports that USF’s full professors are the fifth highest-paid in the state, receiving an average of about $101,900 a year.

USF’s status is actually higher than that, Smith said, because the figures the AAUP used in its survey are from the 2007-2008 fiscal year and have since changed.

This was most likely because the University hadn’t finalized its compensation structure for this school year by the time AAUP needed the information, he said.

If the more recent figures are used — and assuming that all other universities’ average salaries haven’t changed — USF ousts Florida State University for the fourth-highest position, paying full professors about $105,200 a year.

USF would still fall behind the University of Central Florida, which pays full professors an average of $115,800 annually; the University of Florida, which creeps behind UCF with an average of $115,200; and Florida International University, with an average of $106,300. FSU pays full professors an average of $103,400.

Smith said he thought most of the universities surveyed submitted their most recent information, because their figures had changed from this year to the next. Spokespeople from FSU, UF and UCF said they didn’t know if the figures used in the AAUP study were up to date.

Balancing University growth and faculty benefits

Though faculty pay is determined through negotiations — known as collective bargaining — between the University and the educators’ union, United Faculty of Florida, the size of USF’s pool of money for professors and instructors largely depends on state funds, Smith said. When legislators whittle away those funds to make up for gaps in the state’s budget, University resources are strained to make up for it.

With a smaller amount of money to draw from, administrators often must choose between raising faculty pay and hiring new employees. At a growing university like USF, officials will typically choose the latter option, Smith said.

Over the next few years, that mentality should begin to change at the Tampa campus as USF focuses on improving its quality and prestige, which some say will help USF retain top faculty members.

“Ten years ago, the mentality was ‘build it and they will come’ (to the Tampa campus),” Smith said, explaining that the University has planned to slow expansion of the campus.

As the Tampa campus’ growth stabilizes, demand for professors and instructors is expected to decline, allowing more of USF’s pool of salary funds to be spent on raises.

Salaries tethered to politics

Even with this measure in place, improving USF’s standing in faculty pay rankings would likely require the state’s backing — and its benefits would probably be reaped by new employees.

“Let’s say the Legislature embarks on a plan to bring the state universities to the halfway point on the pay scale — bringing pay to the 50th percentile,” Branch said. “It’ll start with new hires. It’s very hard to adjust the salary of (an employee) who’s already here.”

That’s because new hires aren’t already set at a certain level of pay, with raises and benefits determined by an annual contract. The new faculty member enters what’s essentially a free market, Smith said, and the University can offer any starting salary it sees fit.

“It’s sort of like a decrease in the quality of housing stock in an older city, where you demolish the old and build new homes,” Branch said. “It creates huge burden for those living in that lowest quality housing, but it’s the only way you improve. If we’re paying faculty at the lower end (of the AAUP pay range), the obvious way to improve is to bring faculty in at midpoint.”

More support from the state is needed to improve faculty pay overall, Smith said. Otherwise, the University could only divert money from one area to another.

 Pay affects prominence

A major part of USF’s strategic plan involves molding academics, University policies and campus life to more closely mirror those of American Association of Universities (AAU) institutions. Universities can only join the AAU if its members decide to extend an invitation.

The amount USF pays its faculty influences the University’s ability to attract and retain top professors, which in turn affects its chances of receiving an offer from the AAU.

“In order to be eligible for the AAU, you can’t be scrambling to make ends meet,” said Sherman Dorn, president of the USF chapter of United Faculty of Florida. State budget cuts to education are driving faculty members to leave the University, which expands class sizes and bogs down teacher workloads, making USF seem less appealing, he said.

USF will have to improve its salary structure in order to be a better candidate for AAU admission, Smith said, which is a “serious concern” for the University — and other Florida institutions.

“We’re a relatively young university, about 40 years old, and we have to build our reputation and our programs nationally,” said UCF spokesman Grant Heston. “That starts with attracting and retaining top faculty, and pay is a big part of that.”

Though UF has already achieved AAU status, spokeswoman Janine Sikes said budget cuts have begun to widen the gap between the university’s average salaries and those of the AAUP.

“It limits our ability to compete and recruit against other AAU universities,” she said.

AAU status doesn’t make a university immune to budget cuts and salary disparities, Dorn said, which is evidenced by UF’s financial struggles. In the end, it all comes down to money.

“If you have significant turnover because you can’t pay your faculty high enough to be competitive, you aren’t going to make any goals,” Dorn said. “Unless your goal is having a significant turnover, of course.”