S.D. competes for top-notch faculty

Peter Harriman
Argus Leader

published: 1/3/2003

Wyoming's boost in pay could lure teachers away

The sliding economy has caused a tightening of higher education spending - including faculty salaries - in most states in the nation.

But one of South Dakota's neighbors, Wyoming, is going in the other direction in an effort to attract quality faculty members and the grant and research money that follows them.

It's a move that officials here are watching with concern as they try to improve compensation for faculty and to compete during a time when the state faces a more than $50 million budget shortfall.

On the rising tide of a robust economy, South Dakota five years ago began a concerted effort to bring faculty salaries in the six public universities closer to those at peer institutions.

Since then, "We closed a 20 percent gap to 8 percent," says Robert "Tad" Perry, executive director of the state's Board of Regents.

Ironically, as the economy weakens, the state could gain even more ground. But it will have to come from the private sector, says Gov.-elect Mike Rounds.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that in many parts of the United States, state funding for higher education is following the downward arc of an economy in recession. Public colleges and universities are facing the most sweeping budget cuts in a decade.

Nationwide, spending rose only 1.2 percent in fiscal 2002-03, the smallest such increase since 1992-93. Thirteen states cut spending. North Dakota and Pennsylvania flat-lined it, and 17 states increased funding less than the 3.8 percent South Dakota did.

This is the playing field Rounds and the Legislature, when it convenes later this month, will enter.

"If we have the resources and the will, now is the time to really bite into them," Perry says of competing schools. "We could do some major jumps relative to other states."

That's wishful thinking, says Rounds. The priority in his first year will be to reduce a $54 million budget deficit. "My primary responsibility has got to be working back towards a balanced budget," he says.

Wyoming leads the nation in new spending. In the past two years, it went up 25.3 percent. The next closest in that period was Louisiana, where the appropriation to colleges and universities went up 19.9 percent.

That two-year figure is only part of the story, says Philip Dubois, president of the University of Wyoming in Laramie. In the past five years, state support increased 42 percent.

"Almost all of that has gone towards compensation," he says. "When I came here in 1997, we were 47th in the country in faculty salaries. Our best guess now is we are in the high 30s.

"We feel it has been a real advantage in terms of recruiting faculty, particularly young faculty. Laramie is not an easy sell for graduate students coming out of other institutions. It's a rural area and a small town. It's a culture shock. If you are able to put dollars on the table and get people excited about the vision of the institution, it is easier to recruit them. We're finding we're getting, not all, but most of our first choices."

Perry puts it more bluntly.

"States like Idaho have frozen salaries. Now is the time to pick off quality faculty and administrators from Idaho institutions," he says.

"The first thing you do is protect the people you want to protect, so you don't get raided by others. Then there will be opportunity to go into the marketplace and be competitive in filling positions at the dean or faculty level."

That is sort of what happened at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of South Dakota School of Medicine. As it has seen its funding grow, it has made itself attractive to young guns formerly out of its league.

"We have 12 or 13 applicants from Top 20 med schools," says Martin Gerdes, the institute's director. "We were not getting them a few years ago."

In the world of scientific research, the cream of the crop leverages far more research funding than less-capable colleagues, says Gerdes. And the top people more than pay for themselves in the research money that comes with them.

"There really is a big difference between top and middle-of-the-road people," he says. "We have these incredible people we would not have had otherwise."

Dubois adds that Wyoming "has gotten its two largest grants in the last three years. It is a direct result of being successful in hiring strong faculty."

Increases in the budget at USD's Cardiovascular Research Institute came not from the state but from the federal government. "We've doubled our National Institute of Health budget," Gerdes says.

Although he worries about how much flexibility he has to offer salaries to institute faculty that exceed salary guidelines for the university as a whole, Gerdes says USD President Jim Abbott "brought a lot of common sense to that."

"In higher education, everything is geared towards mediocrity, to a large degree. Abbott made a large part of pay raises performance-driven. If you perform at a higher level, you get a bigger raise," he says.

Abbott himself, who ran unsuccessfully against Rounds for the governorship, predicts only a modest gain for higher education this year.

But Rounds points out that he was Senate majority leader five years ago when the regents first asked for money for faculty salary enhancement.

"It worked," he says. He believes it made the state's higher education system stronger.

And if Rounds can't direct new state dollars to colleges and universities as governor, he hopes to help in other ways.

"I will work with foundations and alumni organizations
ÉÊon their fund-raising activities. I will lend my own efforts to their plans and causes. I have made the same offer to the private institutions in South Dakota as well.

"I will be more actively involved in fund raising."

Abbott points out South Dakota also has gained ground on neighboring states in another way. Its 5 percent tuition hike is far below the double-digit tuition increases in Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota.

Dubois says of Wyoming's gains in higher education funding, "Part of it is luck. We had a state economy here that, while it never did very well during the boom, it has not suffered the way other states have during the recession.

"Another part of it is, we have enhanced legislative relations. I visit them in their hometowns before the session and talk about the needs of the university. Legislators want to have the confidence that public money is being well-spent. That comes from having personal relationships with university administrators."

Perry agrees.

"Basically," he says, "we are trying to get new legislators to have an appreciation that we have a long-term agenda.

"We spend a lot of time to get people to understand what we do and how we get to where we are."

Dubois would warn them, as well, to be vigilant if they want to protect hard-won salary gains. He delivers a cautionary tale:

"In 1983, we were third in the country in faculty salaries at public institutions," he says of Wyoming. "In 1997, we were third from the bottom. It can fall and fall fast if things go sour."

Reach Peter Harriman at 575-3615 or pharrima@argusleader.com