Monday, April 23, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Reclassifications

A long-suffering correspondent writes:

Knowing that this question will contain a number of (possibly unmanageable) variables I'm emailing to ask anyway and would very much appreciate anything that you might have to offer on the subject of staff (read: merit, not across-the-board) raises and/or promotions/reclassifications within the public university system.

I work for a large, four-year, public research university in a non-academic, revenue-generating, entry-level position. I took my job description and made some mad money for the college for which I work, to everyone's surprise. I took a grunt job that no one wanted and am making it a high-performing revenue-generating program (I understand the power of revenue in the university environment).

I got game, Dean.

I know that my superiors are very pleased with my work, and I've been told that my boss tried to get my position reclassified a year ago but was denied by her boss.

What, if anything, can I do to earn a reclassification from a dean's perspective?

And what's the deal with raises? Is it crazy to imagine my boss going to her boss and saying hey, can I get this employee a raise? Does this happen? How does it happen? Everyone that I work with seems to operate under the assumption that this is, in fact, crazytalk.

Everyone in the system gets the same raise (give or take a fraction of a percentage point) at the same time--
WHY are there NO merit raises? What, if anything, can I do to earn a merit raise when everyone says there's no money but [others in the college/university make very good salaries and the college runs $40K per b-progs and $50K per executive education programs, etc.? The system can support profs and administrators at $90+K but I can't get more than $28K?

I know that there are different measures of success for different jobs, but I find it difficult to believe that there isn't some money available for a modest (and frankly, well-deserved) raise.

I know, everyone feels that s/he "deserves" a raise.
But why aren't there (real) merit raises in the public system?

What might/must I do?

My supervisor has mentioned that I might be given an assistant to supervise (to bolster the case for reclassification) but this seems like just another hoop in the stack because I've also heard that reclassifications generally require.

Solidarity, brother. I have variations on this conversation every single year. Only the names change.

The problem is that public institutions set most salaries at the point of hire, and never look at them again. Once you're on a track, your future salaries rise with the tide. A reclassification basically moves a job to a different track, so the fiscal consequences of it compound over time.

It's a strange system, designed almost perfectly to defeat initiative and reward mediocrity. But it does have certain benefits.

For one, it minimizes the risk that a manager who doesn't like you, or who likes someone else better, will somehow victimize you. If there are no merit raises, then you can't be denied one. (From a manager's perspective, it makes evaluations somewhat less tense, since there's nothing material riding on them anyway.) The private sector, generally speaking, gives management much more leeway.

The usual justification for the aversion to merit pay is that the public sector compensates for below-market salaries by offering extraordinary job security.* If you take away the job security, the argument goes, you'd have to pay a lot more, and the taxpayers aren't willing to pony up. If you take away the job security and don't pay more, good luck filling the jobs. So we underpay, and still manage to fill the jobs by not demanding high performance.

Reclassifications are threats to the very logic of the system, since they implicitly call the terms of the deal into question. They raise the spectre of “salary compression,” or newbies coming in with higher salaries than incumbent employees who've been there longer. Salary compression is usually taken by the incumbents as a slap in the face, so they demand raises, too, and so on up the line. (Some of us believe that salary compression is a sign that you're hiring well. Sadly, this remains a minority view.) So they're done rarely, and only when overwhelmingly necessary, and even then with a great gnashing of teeth.

Deans can't approve reclassifications. At my college, even the President can't. Only the Board of Trustees can, and it doesn't take that lightly. The great fear – and it's not a stupid one – is that if you start to reward a few high performers, then more will crawl out of the woodwork, then more, and before long you're busting your budget. We've been trying for years to get certain jobs reclassed as their responsibilities have grown. We've achieved buy-in up to, and including, the President of the college. But the Board says no, for fear of the precedent.

The irony, of course, is that fear of reclassing exists simultaneously with a rush to outsourcing. So it's not unheard of for some high performer to leave for a higher salary with a contractor, then provide the same service here (at a much higher price) through the contractor. The fig leaf of a separate contractor lets the Board get around the issue of precedent. (From what I've read, the Federal government has become the all-time champ at this.) And, to be fair, a contractor can also work with other clients.

The public sector tries to get by on the cheap. To do that, historically, it has traded security for below- market-level salaries. It may be that that trade is becoming less tenable, and that we'll need to see some of these institutions adjust to market realities. (It's also the case that the public sector probably overpays in certain areas, relative to what the market would bear. See “seniority.” Theoretically, one could solve the market disequilibrium in humanities faculty simply by paying progressively less, until the market cleared. But wages are 'sticky,' as economists put it, so instead we break the faculty into two groups – adjunct and full-time – and achieve the savings that way, justifying it by talk of 'merit.')

The short version of all this is that I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for a reclassification. They happen, but only rarely, and only with great institutional angst.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

*This argument is becoming less true in certain locales, depending on the generosity of the health plans. Public employee unions have historically been very aggressive in pursuing and defending benefits, as opposed to salaries. As the cost of health insurance has climbed faster than just about anything else in the economy, most private employers have done serious cost-shifting to employees. The public employee unions have fought tooth-and-nail on this, with (generally) more success than just about anybody else. So the salaries are still generally below-market, but actual take-home pay may not be, since there are fewer and/or lower deductions from the paycheck. For example, when I came here from Proprietary U, the salary was only about 10% higher, but my take-home pay was about 25% higher, since Deans get the same health plan as the unionized folk.