Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
More than half of the engineering faculty at the University of New Mexico would need raises just to reach the 25th percentile for pay in their profession.
The situation is even more pronounced in UNM’s College of Fine Arts, where 80 percent of professors earn less than 25 percent of the national average.
Salary disparities leave UNM particularly vulnerable to professor poaching, according to UNM President Garnett Stokes, who recently stressed the need to evaluate faculty compensation during a presentation to regents.
“Our faculty who are at the junior level are often picked off before we can even get them into the tenure process,” the president said during the board’s September meeting.
UNM’s assistant professor ranks have fallen by 26 percent since fiscal year 2015, something she called a particularly troubling trend. Faculty play a central role in the university’s teaching and research missions, as well as defining the university’s national reputation, she said.
“Recruiting and retaining the very best faculty is one of the most important things we can do to better serve the state of New Mexico; that’s what helps this university contribute to New Mexico’s economic vitality and serve our students in the state with the top-level education,” she said.
UNM’s total main campus faculty numbers have fallen 9.2 percent in the last four years. Though UNM has nine more associate professors than it did then, the ranks of full professors and lecturers have dwindled since 2015.
But assistant professor losses are driving the decrease, falling to 194 from 263. Stokes attributed that to financial conservatism in lean budget years.
“They recruit these wonderful young people and they don’t take care of them,” Faculty Senate President Pamela Pyle said in an interview. “To have a high exodus of assistant professorships is not a sign of a healthy workplace, because if they’re attracted to a job and kept there positively, they’re not in a hurry to leave.”
Stokes said UNM would need $2.2 million in annual recurring funds just to lift its main campus faculty compensation to the 25th percentile. Reaching the median would require $6.3 million.
But Stokes warned the actual costs could be different because simply elevating lower-paid professors’ salaries would create salary compression and hurt faculty with more seniority.
To make the salary comparisons, UNM used data from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources for institutions with the two highest Carnegie Classifications for research activity.
UNM has an R1 designation, indicating the highest level of research activity, though UNM also incorporated R2 figures in its pay comparison.
UNM removed schools from California and the East Coast, where salaries tend to be inflated, Stokes said. She said the national averages UNM used should therefore be “relatively conservative.”
After Stokes’ presentation, Regent Suzanne Quillen stressed the need to view faculty levels and compensation in the context of UNM’s overall priorities, which she said are not always well-defined. She also noted that some of the professor losses were strategic as the university tried to right-size by not filling certain vacancies.
“It’s easy to look at where we are, but we don’t discuss very often: Where do we need to be based on our business model?” Quillen said. “If you have less patients in a hospital, you don’t need as many nurses. … We don’t look at that very often.”
Regent Tom Clifford questioned UNM’s wherewithal to raise faculty pay, citing declining enrollment. UNM’s student head count has dropped six straight years and is now down a cumulative 16.2 percent from its 2012 peak. He said higher salaries might mean raising tuition again.
“Our student population is not in a position to take on a significantly increasing tuition and fee loads,” he said. “And we have some other issues; we have a lot of challenges in terms of the quality of the product and the value we’re delivering to our students.”
Still, Stokes warned of the budgetary implications of faculty turnover.
Hiring professors can be an expensive proposition that involves startup packages or investments in their laboratories. That makes it especially costly to lose them after only a few years, the president said.
Stokes acknowledged that the issue of faculty compensation deserved a more thorough analysis. But she said she wanted regents to see how far UNM was from offering “truly national competitive salaries” and that faculty recruitment and retention should rank among the highest priorities.
“It’s really important for us to think about what investments this university needs to make going forward,” she said.
UNM’s Health Sciences Center has grown its total faculty to 952 members from 898 since 2015, according to the president’s data. But many also earn below the 25th percentile, including 243 out of 722 within the School of Medicine.