Letter to the Editor: Pitfalls of Merit Pay

David Keeling

Merit pay at WKU should be part of a cost-of-living increase.

Staff and faculty are delighted that WKU has allocated funds in the current budget to provide salary increases effective on January 1, 2019.  There is broad concern, however, about plans to allocate some of these funds to “merit” increases. WKU has struggled over the past decade and more to provide adequate salary increases to stay ahead of annual inflation and to keep pace with salaries at benchmark institutions.  WKU staff and faculty have fallen way behind their peers financially, morale is at a very low point these days, and many excellent employees have left the university to take up positions at other institutions for higher salaries, better benefits, and improved working conditions.  Less-fortunate employees have lost their jobs because of budget cuts. Both are a result of poor budget decisions, ineffective management, and excessive expenditures on resources that have not always supported WKU’s core teaching mission.

Merit pay sounds like a great idea philosophically – let’s reward those staff and faculty who have worked hard to meet the institution’s goals. However, when salaries are so far below the rate of inflation, any merit pool would have to be substantial to make any real difference.  In reality, WKU cannot argue convincingly for merit pay without bringing salaries up to the rate of inflation or to a level that equals salaries at benchmark universities. For example, an employee earning $60,000 in 2008 would need to be earning $70,500 today just to be level with the annualized rate of inflation since 2008.  This would have required at least a 17% base salary increase over the past decade – everyone at WKU knows that this just hasn’t happened!

The funds available for a potential “merit” pool are so low in reality that any attempt to distinguish one employee’s efforts from another will only push morale lower, create tensions within departments and units, and result in broadly negative impacts on the institution.  All employees have given more than they have received at WKU since 2008. Giving one employee an extra $35 a week over another, for example, based on extremely arbitrary and wildly varying interpretations of “merit” makes no sense in the current budget climate. Staff, faculty, the Senate, and our elected regents should speak out against a merit pool and insist that all salaries should be above the 10-year rate of inflation before any consideration of merit funds.  It’s the right thing to do.

David J. Keeling

University Distinguished Professor of Geography