Tennessee Tech's Debate Over Professor Pay Reveals Potential Pitfalls Of Self-Governance | Nashville Public Radio

Tennessee Tech's Debate Over Professor Pay Reveals Potential Pitfalls Of Self-Governance

Jun 22, 2017

Professors at Tennessee Tech University say they're seeing some downsides in their freedom from the Board of Regents. Six universities broke away from the state system in the last year. Now, they're finalizing their first budgets.

This is uncharted territory for these schools — setting their own tuition increases, deciding on pay raises. The state gave campuses enough for a 3 percent raise, but schools can use it how they want. At MTSU this month, the trustees unanimously approved a cost-of-living raise to everyone. But Tennessee Tech decided to give faculty and staff 1 percent, then distribute the rest based on merit.

And board member Johnny Stites, a prominent developer from Cookeville, wanted to go further: He doesn't mind giving a mediocre employee no raise in order to reward someone who is innovating.

"It's going against what we've been talking about, of being a world-class university with innovation, with great employees, who are compensating the ones who are contributing in meaningful ways, and we're not compensating as well those that are along for the ride," Stites said.

After watching the June 15 meeting, Julia Gruber, an assistant professor of German, says she senses that the faculty is being seen as "the enemy."

"To hear that we are not worthy of 1 percent of a raise throughout ranks — I'm speechless, really," says Gruber, who is also the head of the local American Association of University Professors.

Josephine McQuail, an English professor at Tennessee Tech who leads the AAUP's state chapter, says the flexibility of independence has benefits, such as establishing the new College of Fine Arts, but it also means a layer of oversight has been lost.

"The Board of Regents was kind of quality control, I think," she says.

At Tennessee Tech's board meeting, trustees also approved a 3 percent pay hike for university president Phil Oldham, despite a lack of objective metrics. The faculty representative on the board was the only one to vote no, citing the school's shrinking enrollment and $3 million budget deficit.

"I'm just wondering about the timing," said Melissa Geist, a professor of nursing. "When we've been talking all day about metrics and faculty and how are we going to evaluate the faculty, what you guys have just said that we're evaluating is effort and passion. Is that what we're also going to evaluate [in faculty]?"