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Shawn Vestal: WSU’s budget crunch likely to hurt students more than highest-paid administrators, faculty

The Bryan Hall clocktower at Washington State University glows at dawn on Sept. 17, 2016. A Pullman police sergeant could face charges in connection with a sexual misconduct allegation by an 18-year-old WSU student. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
The Bryan Hall clocktower at Washington State University glows at dawn on Sept. 17, 2016. A Pullman police sergeant could face charges in connection with a sexual misconduct allegation by an 18-year-old WSU student. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

As Washington State University tries to turn around its financial ship, a couple of faculty members have made a modest proposal: Cut the six-figure salaries at the top of the organization.

They don’t want to cut all the six-figure salaries, mind you. The faculty did not propose, for example, cutting six-figure faculty salaries.

Just the administrative ones.

It’s always somebody else’s salary that needs a trim.

The faculty petition is more rhetorical than practical, intended to focus attention on the fact that administrative positions, salaries and expenses seem always to be spared. It asks President Kirk Schulz to implement a 10 percent pay cut for administrators earning between $100,000 and $199,999; a 20 percent pay cut for administrators earning between $200,000 and $299,999; and a 30 percent pay cut for those earning $300,000 and more.

More than 725 professors, staffers, alumni and students have signed the petition in support at https://sites.google.com/site/financeproposalwsu/.

While that would indeed pare down a lot of six-figure salaries – and while going after administrative bloat in a time of job losses and cuts to student programs would indeed seem an obvious path – it would leave a lot of six-figure salaries untouched.

So one is left to wonder again at a system of priorities in which educators consider it a Swiftian absurdity to cut salaries of $200,000 or more to help offset the consequences of past institutional decisions, but an unavoidable economic reality that students should pay more or get less as a result of those decisions.

This week, the Vice President of Student Affairs, Mary Jo Gonzales, told students that “we are going to do everything we can” to avoid raising fees on students, according to The Daily Evergreen.

Whatever that “everything” amounts to, we can safely predict it will be less than the “everything” – an entire hierarchy and history of priorities – that go toward not cutting salaries in the $200,000-and-Up Club.

Schulz has asked each university department to find its own savings of 2.5 percent each year for the next three years, amounting to $10 million a year. One college has cut the stipends it pays graduate students. The Performing Arts Program has been eliminated. Job cuts are coming, and unfilled positions will be left open.

Phil Weiler, vice president of marketing and communication at WSU, said the wholesale cutting of salaries such as that proposed by the faculty members is the kind of action a university might be forced to take in a dire budget emergency. The current plan is intended to be a more gradual effort to change directions and start rebuilding reserves, which have been spent down in the past several years.

Weiler said Schulz wanted to take a thoughtful approach that allowed each department to identify the least-painful ways to save 2.5 percent.

He also noted that – regarding the question of administration salaries – vice presidents did not take the small salary increase the Legislature granted to university employees in the last budget. At 1 percent a year for two years, those foregone raises are in the ballpark of the percentage cuts being made universitywide.

Weiler also said WSU’s spending over the past several years has been targeted toward important investments with widespread benefits to the state, such as Spokane’s new medical school and a new campus in Everett.

All fair points. But for students who might pay more in fees, or lose part of the rent money, or bid goodbye to their retention counselor, it may seem as though WSU could take a little more off the top – and they might not worry all that much about whether it’s from faculty or administrative paychecks.

Among the 140 people paid more than $200,000 to work at WSU, after all, only half are administrators. Of the 36 who make more than $300,000, 21 are administrators, according to the faculty proposal and based on state salary information.

The professors estimate that the cuts for just those at $200,000 and above could save $4.7 million – nearly half the amount WSU is trying to save each year.

In other words, if everyone in the $200,000-Plus Club was included, those cuts might get WSU almost all the way there.


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