Collaborative Decision Making Regarding Salary Policy: A Case Study

By Frank Boyd and Hans-Joerg Tiede

As part of this year’s report we include a case study of compensation discussions on one specific campus. Like all feature articles in Academe, this case study represents the views of the authors and not necessarily the formal policies of the AAUP. It is presented here not to serve as a model but to stimulate discussion around shared governance in faculty compensation. We had initially commissioned a second case study, but it was not available at press time. We invite further case studies from AAUP chapters with or without collective bargaining for inclusion in a future edition of this report.

The AAUP has long held that collaborative decision making by administrators and elected faculty representatives should undergird institutional decisions about resources. Unfortunately, the times when resources are scarce and institutions most need a functioning system of shared governance also tend to be the times when governance processes are most likely to break down. Abstract disagreements about the definition and purpose of shared governance are magnified when institutions move from theory to practice, especially when institutions face difficult choices about budgetary and salary matters. This essay presents a case study in addressing salary policy through shared governance. We first describe the work of the Faculty Salary Task Force we convened at Illinois Wesleyan University. While the focus of the task force was on revising the salary policy, aspects of the collaborative effort of the faculty and administration are applicable to other areas of institutional decision making. Second, we describe the reforms that resulted from salary-policy recommendations proposed by the task force and subsequently adopted by the faculty and the administration.


Illinois Wesleyan University is a small, highly selective liberal arts institution that enrolls approximately two thousand students. The institutional mission of IWU, which combines traditional liberal arts curricula with professional and preprofessional majors, presents specific challenges for salary policy: how can salary equity be balanced with the market demands of recruiting faculty members in disciplines that are prone to market pressures? In addition to economics and business administration, IWU has a number of market-driven fields not typical for its kind of institution, including nursing, risk management, accounting, and finance.

When the 2010–11 academic year began, salary policy was already a carryover from the previous academic year’s agenda. IWU’s governing faculty body, the Council on University Programs and Policy (CUPP), had identified faculty salaries as an issue of concern after the financial downturn of 2008. Salary increases had been modest through the early 2000s, and as at many institutions, continuing faculty members received no increases during the 2008–09 and 2009–10 academic years. By that time, the university had already fallen behind the institutional benchmark of faculty salaries at the eightieth percentile of baccalaureate institutions (category IIB) in the AAUP’s Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession. Moreover, as the faculty and administration began discussing salary policy, members of the faculty raised specific concerns regarding starting salaries, salary compression, and salary inversion. Faculty members criticized the lack of a clear policy for starting salaries, particularly in market-driven disciplines, and highlighted how larger starting salaries in those disciplines seemed to be at odds with institutional norms.

The formal discussion of salary policy that began in a November 1, 2010, meeting of the faculty led to informal conversations among faculty members and administrators in the weeks that followed. It soon became clear that various salarypolicy issues were interrelated and that a focused discussion was needed to shape overall salary policy. Ultimately, the task force was created to address these issues.

Addressing the Challenge

Salary policy, perhaps as much as any other policy, should be developed through shared governance structures and processes. At IWU, planning for the task force began in meetings with the interim provost and CUPP. It was quickly agreed that the authors, who served as the interim provost and the chair of CUPP, would convene and jointly chair the task force and that CUPP would establish a hybrid committee with both appointed and elected members. Beside the co-chairs, this task force had two members appointed by CUPP from the ranks of the faculty serving on CUPP and two additional faculty members elected at large by the whole faculty. This structure recognized CUPP’s constitutional role and provided an opportunity to elect faculty representatives with specific expertise.

Once its membership was in place, the task force discussed the year’s meeting schedule and operating procedures. Taskforce members identified opportunities to share and discuss data and to present to the faculty formal reports of their work. The CUPP chair and the interim provost presented a report in the monthly general faculty meeting, which at IWU is open to the entire faculty. This monthly report helped strengthen the task force’s credibility and informed faculty members of the ongoing progress of the task force. Finally, the task force scheduled two open forums at which the co-chairs presented data and preliminary recommendations.

Before turning to the substance of salary policy, the task force considered how to bring action items to the faculty. Historically, task forces at IWU have presented their draft recommendations to the faculty for comment and then presented final versions to the administration, which would usually adopt them. In this instance, however, the task force decided to bring the proposed policy changes to the full faculty for a vote to ensure that the policy revisions would carry the weight of a joint decision. A policy that governs salaries for all faculty members requires broad-based support to gain recognition. Furthermore, the acceptance of such a policy by future administrations— especially a policy that could restrict the ability of the provost or dean to negotiate starting salaries—is more likely if it has the formal support of the faculty.

CUPP’s charge for the task force was to address the cluster of salary issues that had come to the fore in the previous months and to consider those issues in the context of a comprehensive policy for all faculty members, both full time and adjunct. From year to year, the broader university budgeting process determines the size of the faculty salary pool. Faculty leaders and academic administrators are part of that process. The task force was concerned with specifying the policies that determine the distribution of those funds, addressing topics such as starting salaries for full-time faculty members, inversion of faculty salaries and compression between faculty ranks, adjunct salaries and policies for periodic raises, and salary increases received upon promotion in professorial rank.

Existing Salary Policies and Practices

The work of the task force began with a review of how salaries conformed to the guidelines of existing policies. The first goal was one that dated back to the 1980s: faculty salaries, as IWU’s board of trustees had repeatedly affirmed, should meet or exceed the eightieth percentile of category IIB institutions as reported in the AAUP’s Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession. The second goal was to address salary inequities that were discovered during a systematic analysis of faculty salaries in the mid-1990s. That analysis found significant salary disparities between faculty members in traditional liberal arts disciplines and those in so-called market-driven disciplines. It also found that faculty members initially appointed at a senior rank commanded higher salaries than those who had risen through the ranks. (The study did not, however, find statistically significant differences between salaries of male and female faculty members.)

IWU put in place an equity-adjustment plan to address the salary gaps by comparing each faculty member’s salary with the median salary in that faculty member’s rank every year. The plan establishes an “acceptable gap” between an individual salary and the median, on the basis of a faculty member’s length of time in a rank. Raises were also associated with promotion in rank, although for many faculty members the equity adjustment far exceeded the raises.

The distribution of salary increases needed to be reviewed as well. The most common method is to distribute raises based on a percentage of each faculty member’s salary from the previous year. Faculty members often view this approach as inherently fair, despite the fact that those earning the highest salaries also receive the highest raises each year. An alternative approach that had been used on occasion at IWU provides across-the-board raises that combine a percentage increase with a fixed-dollar increase, providing those at the lower end of the income spectrum higher overall percentage raises than those at the upper end.

The latter practice was adopted in the 1990s, when the provost, who also serves as dean of the faculty, met annually with CUPP to discuss the amounts of the percentage and fixeddollar increases as well as faculty salary issues more generally. Such consultation is useful if there is a significant salary pool to divide, but the conversations became less important in the context of the very small or nonexistent raises of the late 2000s and early 2010s. As a result, the consultative process fell into disuse; moreover, the routine discussions of salary benchmarks were not conducted between the provost and CUPP.

Substantive Issues  The most pressing issue confronting the task force was the emergence of very high salaries for faculty members serving in market-driven disciplines. Over recent decades the demand for faculty members in these disciplines has increased dramatically. As the AAUP’s 2010–11 Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession noted, the average salaries of full professors in a variety of market-driven disciplines, when taken as a percentage of the average salary of full professors of English language and literature, have also risen significantly. For example, in business administration and management, the national average rose from 111.4 percent in 1980–81 to 150.9 percent in 2009–10.

IWU’s existing salary policy did not address starting salaries. The provost’s discretionary authority over starting salaries allowed her to compete for new faculty members in market-driven disciplines, but the higher salaries in these disciplines had little effect on the median salary for associate and full professors (no equity adjustments for assistant professors exist). The task force sought to define a salary differential between new appointments in market-driven disciplines and those in the liberal arts that allows the university to appoint qualified faculty members while maintaining a broader sense of institutional equity. The final policy, which establishes a set of salary benchmarks that the provost should not exceed when recruiting faculty members in market-driven disciplines, represented a compromise among these competing institutional goals. Like many compromises, it was an ideal policy for nearly no one.

A second and related issue concerned salary inversion and compression. Salary inversion occurs when a junior faculty member’s salary exceeds that of a more senior colleague with similar credentials. While recognizing this as an issue of significant concern, the task force noted that the equity-adjustment mechanism would reduce the inversions over the long term and that salary policy should seek to prevent large inversions when making new faculty appointments.

Salary compression, however, proved to be more difficult to define, since it often involves the salary gap between faculty ranks. Institutions might measure compression by asking a variety of questions: What is the difference between the median salary for assistant professors and associate professors? What is the salary gap between senior associate professors and those newly promoted to professor? What is the salary gap between faculty members at assistant and associate ranks? The gap between assistant and associate and associate and full professor salaries is rarely equal, and institutions must define the level of compression that they believe is acceptable. Between-rank compression is a problem that must be addressed through governance-driven policy. The task force recognized such compression as a salary issue that merits annual review, even though no immediate action was required.

The goal of IWU’s salary policy is to promote equity within each rank, but in doing so the policy causes within-rank compression. The IWU equity-adjustment policy causes within-rank compression by moving faculty members who are below the median salary toward the median. Over time, a large number of faculty members will be clustered around the rank median, creating compression within the rank. While this kind of compression is not universally applauded at IWU, it is seen as a byproduct of the policy goal of equity and was approved by a vote of the faculty. One way to avoid such compression is to adopt a fixed salary scale based on rank, like the one at Reed College described by Paul Marthers and Jeff Parker in their article “Small Colleges and New Faculty Pay” (Academe, July–August 2008). However, this approach to ensuring equity also brings with it difficulties in recruiting faculty members from specific disciplines.

The task force also took up the matter of full- and part-time contingent faculty salaries. IWU was paying adjunct instructors salaries that exceeded national averages and those of other colleges and universities in the immediate geographical area, with rates ranging between $3,600 and $4,900 per course depending on the training and experience of the instructor. Yet these rates had not been increased in at least fifteen years. The task force examined whether there should be a mechanism for providing raises to the approximately eighty to ninety adjunct faculty members hired each year. The task force agreed that full- and part-time contingent faculty members who have taught for more than two years at IWU would receive the same incremental percentage raise as tenure-line faculty members. As with other salary policies, this policy would be reviewed each year for its viability and, especially, for its impact on the faculty salary pool.

Finally, a strong consensus on reestablishing a consultative process on salary policy emerged. As noted above, the routine consultations between faculty members and administrators had ceased to occur, principally because there had been very small or no salary increases for a number of years. Unfortunately, allowing these formal consultations to lapse also affected the transparency of the policy process and diminished the faculty’s confidence in its role in shaping salary policy. To restore transparency and to help facilitate future policy adjustments, the task force reaffirmed the necessity of annual discussions between the provost and CUPP.

Statement of Policies

The following policies were proposed by the task force and adopted by the faculty and the administration. They were subsequently presented to the board of trustees as an informational item:

  1. Determination of faculty salaries. An “acceptable-gap” salary equity system is applied to all continuing faculty salaries every year. Acceptable gaps for associate and full professors are based on a comparison to averages within a rank at several points—when someone enters the rank and when he or she has been in the rank for five years and ten years. When someone is promoted to associate professor, his or her salary is adjusted to be no more than $10,000 below the rank average (the median is used in all these tests); after five years in the rank, it is to be no more than $5,000 below the average; and after ten years, it should be equal to the average. Similarly, the gap for full professors should be no more than $13,000 when they are appointed and no more than $7,000 after five years; after ten years, the salary should be at the rank average.
  2. Annual (standard) raises. Annual raises for full-time faculty members should combine fixed-dollar amounts with percentage raises. The provost should seek CUPP’s advice annually on how much of the salary pool increase should go toward fixed-dollar amounts and how much should go toward percentage raises.
  3. Raises for adjunct instructors. Salaries for adjunct faculty members should be increased by the same percentage as full-time faculty salaries.
  4. Starting salaries. The statement noted, “While we understand that the university has to balance the competing demands of market pressures and equity, the university ought not pay a beginning assistant professor a starting salary that exceeds either the median salary for full professors or two times the average starting salary in non-market disciplines. Paying starting salaries that exceed either of these two points shifts the balance too far towards the market pressure side. In setting a starting salary, the university ought not create inversion within or across ranks within a discipline/department.”
  5. Raises for promotion. Promotion raises are $3,600 for both professorial ranks.


Salary policies in higher education are the product of any number of factors, including resource constraints, strategic goals, and institutional culture. And while the salary policies adopted at Illinois Wesleyan University are in many ways unique, aspects of the policy are applicable at a variety of institutions. Our broader goal in this essay has been to emphasize the joint processes that have been followed in shaping this important institutional policy. Several lessons emerge from our experience.

First, institutions should use existing committees and governance processes whenever possible. All too often, institutions employ ad hoc procedures and committees or other means to address difficult problems. At IWU, we developed an early consensus on using standing faculty committee structures to establish the task force. We used routine elections and appointment procedures for identifying the faculty members and administrators who would serve. Thus, the membership of the committee and the connection of the task force to the existing system of governance was never in question.

Second, significant policy items should be brought to the appropriate faculty body for a vote. These votes should move beyond broad statements of principle—though such statements are also important—to address specific policies that inform the operations of the university. It is common to pass faculty resolutions on important issues, but these votes can serve as procedural substitutes for a policy action that actually addresses the difficult institutional choices before us by expressing principles rather than concrete proposals. Faculty members and administrators need to use voting and other governance procedures to arrive at shared policy choices, especially in difficult areas such as salary policy.

Finally, our governance processes and policies need to be transparent. At IWU, the salary task force shared its work with faculty members and with administrators, ensuring that both constituencies were engaged with the substance of the task force’s work and reinforcing confidence in the process itself. In the future we believe that this confidence can be leveraged to address other institutional challenges, whether they concern resources, curricula, or other areas of the university’s work.


Frank Boyd is associate provost at Illinois Wesleyan University. His e-mail address is [email protected]. Hans-Joerg Tiede is professor of computer science at Illinois Wesleyan University and at-large member of the executive committee of the AAUP’s Assembly of State Conferences. His e-mail address is [email protected].