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Why University of Maine faculty should receive a cost-of-living raise

Posted Jan. 27, 2013, at 10:25 a.m.

The University of Maine System can help to further bolster Maine’s economy, improve teaching and benefit its students with one simple act: provide reasonable cost-of-living raises for faculty.

Don’t reach for your wallet; this won’t raise your taxes.

The UMS should provide a 4.5 percent cost-of-living raise over two years, and it can afford to do so with existing resources.

That’s according to an independent fact-finders’ report released as part of ongoing contract negotiations between the UMS and the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine, the faculty union (of which I’m a member).

That raise would amount to less than one half of 1 percent (.04327 percent) of UMS’s current annual budget, according to the fact-finder’s calculations.

But aren’t the system’s finances weak?

So they suggest, but the fact finders determined that the system’s “overall financial condition has steadily improved since the financial crisis of 2008-2009.”

Indeed, the system’s unrestricted net assets, which are separate from its annual budget, totaled $177 million at the end of the 2012 fiscal year, up from $84 million in 2009, according to its annual financial report.

The fact finders attributed the system’s fatter finances “partly due to the work, effort and sacrifices of faculty members.”

Part of that sacrifice came in our last contract. We agreed to no cost-of-living raises for two years. Our last raise was 1.5 percent in March 2009.

As for work and effort, faculty numbers have declined; class sizes have increased; and we have fewer resources for research and development. We’re doing more with less.

Aren’t faculty overpaid?

It’s true we make more than the average Mainer, but so do doctors, lawyers and other professionals who hold graduate degrees.

We’re required to have the highest credential in our field, usually a Ph.D., to even apply for a faculty job. So the question is whether we’re overpaid relative to our peers.

The UMS believes so. It submitted four studies to the fact finders claiming we’re overpaid.

We think we’re underpaid compared to our peers and forwarded two supporting studies to the fact finders.

The fact finders determined that “faculty salaries are slightly below market.”

So why should ordinary Mainers care one way or another?

Providing faculty a 4.5 percent cost-of-living raise can help bolster Maine’s economy by putting more money in local communities — the seven that are home to UMaine campuses across the state and beyond.

Faculty have been putting less money into Maine’s economy because of inflation. Without cost-of-living raises, our salaries have been declining in real dollars, and most of us have had to cut back on our spending.

For my wife and me, that means we don’t eat out much; we go to the movies less often; and we have put off renovations on our house.

This forced frugality affects Maine businesses, the Maine workers they employ, other Maine businesses that supply them and so on.

But a reasonable raise — one that beats inflation — would help reverse this economic downward spiral.

Putting more money in faculty’s pockets will have a ripple effect, as we’ll likely spend a good portion or all of it. (If you don’t believe me, just ask my wife.)

The UMS could also improve teaching with a reasonable cost-of-living raise.

Research shows that faculty are one of the most important elements in education. And when we feel we’re not valued — literally because our income is falling behind inflation — then naturally morale suffers.

Faculty with low morale are less likely to be their best in the classroom. And that inevitably affects students and teaching, the heart of what we do.

I am thankful that the UMS has frozen student tuition and fees for two years. For too long, the Legislature and the system have asked students and their families to sacrifice by paying more for less.

Now the system needs to support students and their families through improving teaching — and support faculty with a reasonable 4.5 percent cost-of-living raise.

The UMS can well afford it; it will boost Maine’s economy, benefit students and contribute to a better-educated workforce.

UMS Chancellor James Page recently told members of the Legislature’s Education Committee that the system needs to “reinvest what we have.”

Indeed, let’s start by reinvesting in faculty.

Matthew Killmeier is an associate professor of media studies at USM and vice president and grievance representative of USM AFUM.

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