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Editorial: WWU raises ignore the reality of tough times

It would be a small matter if the impact of large faculty pay raises at Western Washington University were confined to the northwest corner of the state, but that’s not the case. The leadership of the state university in Bellingham recently decided to boost salaries 5.25 percent this school year and 4.25 percent each of the following two years. Department-chair stipends were increased 15 percent. Meanwhile, the pay of the university’s classified staff, like that of other state workers, remains frozen.

Among the first people to complain, according to the governor’s office, were the presidents of Washington State University and the University of Washington, where faculty pay has been largely frozen and holding the line has been a challenge.

Western Washington President Bruce Shepard’s chief reason for the pay hikes is familiar to all employers: to lure and retain high-quality workers. However, his college is alone in ignoring the budgetary realities and the economic slowdown and pressing forward anyway.

Because of declining state investments, colleges and universities have had to hike tuition significantly. Western Washington recently adopted a 16 percent increase. Some of that will go toward pay hikes. Granted, the university’s faculty salaries have been historically low among its peer institutions. Of the state’s universities, only The Evergreen State College has lower pay. But the timing is all wrong to try to catch up now.

The Legislature just finished another tough budget-cutting session in which higher education averted feared reductions. But budget writers may not be as sympathetic next time if universities respond by raising salaries.

As Sen. Ed Murray, chairman of the state Senate Ways and Means Committee, told the Seattle Times: “They deserve the increases, as do people at the University of Washington and Washington State University and everyplace else. But deserving and our ability to pay for it are still two different things.”

Rep. Ross Hunter, chairman of the state House Ways and Means Committee, concurred: “You have a 5 percent raise for one group of people. Nobody else in the state is getting a 5 percent raise.”

It’s a feared ripple effect that prompted Gov. Chris Gregoire to fire off a blistering letter to Shepard, noting that she and legislators did not intend big pay increases at the same time as tuition hikes. Other universities have used the increases to bolster student financial aid.

A better way to handle the problem would’ve been to strategically raise salaries in those areas where key faculty are leaving or threatening to leave. But Western Washington University hiked salaries across the board, as if every instructor were of equal value and they all had one foot out the door.

The Great Recession hit nationwide. Times are tough all over. The threat of greener pastures is overblown.

The faculty raises at Western Washington University should’ve been weighed against all of the recent budget cuts and the ability of the state to pay. Because they weren’t, holding the line just became more difficult.

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