Faculty Salary Equity: Why Is It Our Problem?

By December 1, 2015 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

Most of us have heard the old tale that if you place a frog in a pail of hot water, he will certainly try to escape. However, if you place that same frog into a pail of cold water and gently heat it, the frog will allow himself to be cooked. Oftentimes, this scenario describes issues within higher education. The obvious, high-profile issues are usually quickly attacked with vigor and resolution. Others, however, are left to gently heat up until they boil over into the laps of college administrators and their boards.

One such issue concerns faculty salary equity and whether there is a noticeable difference in salary between groups based on gender, race, etc. Although the salary gap is closing in American higher education, equity issues remain. See the American Association of University Professors’ Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession for evidence of this.

Many methods exist to test salary equity. Experts debate which methods are best, what variables should be used, how the tests should be interpreted, and what remedies should be taken if a significant salary differential is determined. But why should board members be worried about this at all?

Salary equity is an important concern. There are two main reasons why board members should care about this issue. First, if a salary equity case goes to court, the institution could stand to lose a lot of money. Even if the matter does not wind up in a lawsuit, remedies for long-term inequities could prove to be a financial setback for the institution.

Second, there are states that still observe sovereign immunity. This simply means that a state institution doesn’t have to be named in a lawsuit unless it wants to. That leaves a plaintiff to name specific individuals who are affiliated with the institution as defendants in a suit. In many cases, the defendants named are board members. While some courts have revoked a state’s immunity when the issue involves federal law, others have not. Board members who don’t want to go to court may have cause for concern.

Salary inequity does not have to be intentional. According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there are two areas whereby someone can make a discrimination claim. The first, disparate treatment, involves intentional discrimination with a prejudicial motive. Faculty salary equity claims of this type are rarely seen in the courts today.

Disparate impact, however, which is the second area of discrimination claims, concerns unintentional discrimination, and claims of this type are more frequent. Unintentional discrimination is defined as something fair in form but discriminatory in operation. In other words, policies and procedures that your institution uses may cause an unintended discrepancy in salary between groups of people. Statistical tests can be run to determine if this is the case with your institution.

Board involvement emphasizes the importance of equity. It is recommended that faculty salary equity studies be run every two to three years on your campus. This cycle strengthens faculty trust of the institution while catching possible short-term inequity issues before they become long-term problems. However, with other, seemingly more important issues facing administrators and board members, salary equity could take a backseat to funding issues, a capital campaign, or finding a new president. When boards underscore the need to assess faculty salary equity, however, a stronger, more stable institution is sure to be the result.

While faculty salary equity is the responsibility of the administration at your institution, the board’s emphasis on assessing whether salary discrepancies exist will ensure more consistent testing, quicker remedies for inequities that are determined to exist, and fewer legal hassles. Furthermore, your interest in faculty salary equity may strengthen the relationship between faculty members and the administration within your institution. In short, board involvement with faculty salary equity issues may serve to decrease the heat of faculty distrust and litigiousness that could boil over if left unattended.