Staff merit bonus, no pay increase, balanced budget all topics for new year
The University of Texas-Pan American professors haven’t had a raise in three years.
Marie Mora, an economics professor who has been at UTPA for 10 years, is frustrated by the financial situation that has resulted in a lack of pay increase.
Mora believes that if the reduction in state financing proves to be long term, which it probably will, faculty and staff members with other employment options might take them.
“It would leave the less skilled faculty who don’t have many other options, and the student’s education would suffer,” she said.
The reason for the University’s tight budget has to do with larger economic factors beginning with the worldwide recession of 2008 and extending to now. In 2011, the Texas Legislature, facing a drastic shortfall, had to make difficult decisions to cut expenditures, and higher education took a hit. According to The Texas Tribune, of the $1.25 billion that Texas excised from its 2010-11 biennial budget, $518 million was taken from higher education.
At UTPA, the average salary for English professors is $52,000 while mathematics professors make about $57,000.
UTPA also had to make critical, cost-conscious decisions. Texas public universities dealt with the cuts in different ways. Many schools weren’t able to absorb the debt without laying off faculty and staff, but UTPA avoided making any layoffs by using alternative measures. The University has balanced necessary programs of austerity with the occasional effort to keep faculty and staff morale high.
Faculty and staff may not need to worry about any further financial woes, though. UTPA’s budgetary status has seemingly improved from last year; plus, a recent tuition increase helped increase funds.
According to Robert Nelsen, UTPA president,there might not be any more economic troubles in the near future.
“We are not expecting any further budget cuts,” he said. “(Currently), the University’s budget is balanced.”
However, to hedge its bet, the school has continued to walk the path of caution and austerity. In April 2012, Nelsen announced the prospect of optional retirement for tenured faculty. The Voluntary Separation Incentive Program provided participants a one-time payment equal to half their base salary, or in other words, half of the fixed amount of money paid to employees in return for work performed, not including benefits or bonuses.
Forty-three tenured faculty members opted to retire early, which allowed UTPA to refill the vacant positions at 80 percent of the original cost. As a result, about $400,000 was saved.
VSIP was put in place in 2011 as a way to save the University money. The program helped deal with salary compression, which occurs when the salary differential between junior and senior faculty is smaller than it should be. Salary compression, when left unchecked, can result in new hires receiving salaries higher than existing employees. This is called salary inversion.
There have been other cost-cutting moves along the way, all designed to make up for the decreasing amount the school expects annually from the state. But some decisions were made for the short-term benefit, and morale. On July 30, Nelsen released a memo detailing a one-time merit payment that was granted to faculty and staff in December.
According to the memo, although the University’s budget is balanced, nothing is set in stone because the state has requested that UTPA draft two more potential budgets, one with a 5 percent reduction and the other with a 10 percent reduction. It could well be that System schools will have to give back money again. So the merit pay was a bold stroke to take, given the circumstances.
ONE-TIME MERIT BONUS
The University will spend $2,476,329 from its reserves to pay for the one-time merit bonus for professors who qualify.
The faculty and staff merit payment will go to “employees whose job performance and productivity is consistently above that normally expected or required” according to the 82nd Legislature’s 2011 General Appropriations Act.
Faculty and staff view the upcoming bonus from different angles.
“I think the merit bonus is a great idea, but a one-time merit bonus doesn’t make up for the annual cost of living increases,” chemistry professor James Bullard said.
Because inflation increases every year, the value of the dollar decreases and professors aren’t compensated for the decrease. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the cost of living in 2012 rose 2.2 percent from 2011. So, the value of 10 dollars in 2011 is worth about eight in 2012.
Mora views the bonuses as bandages.
“Merit payments are better than nothing but are not a long-term solution,” she said. “I am concerned about the long-term morale.”
Some UTPA faculty members aren’t sure if Texas will be changing its budget plans any time soon.
Rajiv Nambiar, Manufacturing Engineering department chair, said Texas public universities are being dealt the financial blow because higher education is considered a luxury from the state’s perspective, not a Constitutional right.