The University of Wyoming is in danger of sinking into mediocrity unless it continues to attract and retain the best faculty available, the retiring dean of the College of Arts and Sciences warned Saturday.
During his commencement address for graduating students, Oliver Walter faulted the Wyoming Legislature for having a short-sighted policy on faculty salaries.
The university builds grand buildings and envisions "top-tier" status, but unless it attracts and retains the best faculty available, "we will not continue our progress and will sink into second-class status," Walter said.
He urged the graduates, students' parents and friends of UW to seek a reversal of this policy.
The best universities, he said, have two essential characteristics: great students and great faculty.
Although the university has made considerable progress on the student front, "we are rapidly putting the quality of faculty in jeopardy," Walter said.
Currently, he said, faculty salaries at UW are in the 25th percentile nationally, meaning that 75 percent of all American universities offer more lucrative faculty salaries than UW.
UW salary increases are based on merit, he said, but faculty members have not received merit pay adjustments for four years.
Walter noted that former Gov. Dave Freudenthal was quoted as urging the state to appropriate more money for the College of Engineering on grounds that “you get what you pay for.”
Although Freudenthal wasn't talking about faculty salaries, his statement applies equally to the compensation provided for UW faculty, Walter said.
Walter is retiring in July after 43 years with UW. He joined the political science faculty in 1970 and served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for the past 24 years.
David Bostrom of Worland, the president of the UW Board of Trustees, said Walter is correct in saying that faculty salaries are a concern.
"We have known for some time that we are losing very good professors who are being picked off or poached by other institutions," Bostrom said Monday.
Bostrom said the trustees discussed the situation during a meeting last week.
"It is something at the top of the list for the board of trustees. We will be visiting with the Legislature and the governor's office about it," he said.
Bostrom said he isn't being critical of the Legislature because it's a complicated and difficult budget situation.
One question, he said, is whether it is fair for the university to get money for salary increases when other state agencies do not.
"My position is if we believe the University of Wyoming is the tool for economic development and is important for the continued growth and success of the state, we have to have a serious conversation about the quality of education -- if we're losing quality professors," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, is a former long-term co-chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee. He said Walter has been critical of the Legislature in the past.
Nicholas said that when he was first elected to the Legislature 20 years ago, university faculty salaries were well less than market. Although faculty members received annual pay raises, Nicholas said, they never were enough to consistently get beyond 70 percent of market. In the recent energy boom, the Legislature had enough money to get university salaries up to 90 percent of market.
It is different financial landscape than it was 20 years ago when the president of the university made less than $200,000, Nicholas said. Today the president makes more than $400,000.
Walter's salary undoubtedly increased considerably in that time period as well, Nicholas said.
Recently, with the expectation of flat revenues, the Legislature took a step back in order to manage the state budget, Nicholas said.
Yet the state is absorbing increases in health insurance premiums, he noted. And retirement pay is being maintained although the retirement fund has an unfunded liability of about $1 billion, he said.