Faculty and staff welfare surveys offer look into employee satisfaction

Alexandria Anderson, News reporter

Each year, quality of life and satisfaction among faculty and staff is gauged by the faculty welfare survey and the staff engagement survey; both of which show that important items have a majority disagreement.

Various questions, concerning topics like diversity and inclusion, salaries, general satisfaction and opinions on administrative work, asked members to answer on a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Most questions had neutral or agreed responses. However, questions about salary and general satisfaction stood out to have a majority disagreement.

In older and more recent faculty welfare surveys, questions about salary had similar responses. In the question that asked for a response on the statement “relative to years of service and rank, my salary is satisfactory”, a majority of faculty strongly disagreed in every survey since 2009.

In the 2009 faculty welfare survey, 40.2%, or 138 faculty members, strongly disagreed. In the 2020-21 survey, there was a slight increase, with 46.88%, or 165 faculty members, strongly disagreeing.

Another notable part of the faculty welfare surveys were the answers to faculty morale questions, on a scale from very poor to very good. In the 2020-21 survey, 39.3% of faculty answered poor, and 37.4% answered very poor. These ratings are not just due to the conditions of this year — ratings have fluctuated between poor and very poor since the 2015-16 survey.

Jordan Basham, staff senate chair and director of content for WKU public media, spoke about staff satisfaction and quality of life at WKU. Most issues arose due to compensation.

“I think from my involvement on the staff senate, we and the rest of the governing bodies on campus and administration, continually look at different ways to improve staff satisfaction,” Basham said. “We discussed some next step opportunities that are related to benefits that are separate from compensation, so things that make WKU a unique place for benefits and looking at ways to enhance those.”

According to Basham, the staff senate acts as a place where staff can have an open conversation about areas where the university may not do as well and find ways to improve these areas. Personally, Basham sees more campus-wide social events as a way to improve staff work-life balance specifically.

“Efforts like Topper Fest, the event this fall, I think that was a new approach here,” Basham said. “It was an event that focused on not just engaging the employees but their families too. The basic hope for work-life balance is to provide people with quality time with friends and family and to provide an opportunity for those things to come together.”

David Brinkley, WKU staff regent and executive director of public broadcasting, spoke more specifically on the ways the university is working on the compensation side to improve staff satisfaction. Brinkley received a $25,428 raise at the last Board of Regents meeting.

“As we transition further into the RAMP model of budgeting, we will see additional departments restructure positions and prioritize compensation based on their internal capacity,” Brinkley said. “This is being strongly encouraged by administration and several departments have successfully completed this process already. WKU has changed the approach to governance and enabled staff to have more comprehensive roles in determining aspects of budget, strategy, governance, and benefits.”

Julie Lee, faculty senate chair and an instructor in the nutrition and dietetics department, explained her thoughts on faculty satisfaction from her standpoint as faculty senate chair and as a faculty member herself.

“Compensation is always an issue, particularly with those who are salary compressed and unfortunately there’s not a lot employees can do about that,” Lee said. “But it is something that the senate is bringing up and attempting to address. There was a resolution last year about that and it’s something I bring up every month in the meetings with upper administration.”

Faculty members will be receiving raises this year out of a 2% monetary pool, in which 1.5% is going to faculty for these raises. The other 0.5% is planned to go towards aiding those that are salary compressed, however some have expressed concern on exactly how many faculty members will be helped with that 0.5%.

During the last Board of Regents committee meeting, salary changes were approved. Some increases were more than 25%. These salary changes will be up for approval at the next meeting on Dec 10. Each employee receiving a major raise is due to a “reclassification” of their position due to the 125 employees who left due to the Voluntary Incentive Separation Program (VSIP). The Board of Regents Oct. 22 agenda said “RECLASSIFICATION – Used when an employee’s job title, salary grade and/or salary are changed as the result of a material increase in duties/responsibilities.”

The highest raise was 50.69% and it was given to Ronald Wilson, associate vice president of philanthropy and alumni engagement. His former salary was 82,944, with the increase, his salary is now 124,992.

“Because we have people who have been here for decades, and over the last 10 years we’ve had basically no raises,” Lee said. “But cost of living increases have been running over 3%. For years now, groceries have been

at a high percent increase for over a decade. Those kinds of things, it really takes a toll on how far my salary goes now versus how far it used to go.”

Raises and compensation in regards to years of experience is where a majority of faculty dissatisfaction appears to be coming from. Faculty salaries have not risen with the cost of living. Lee said the need for a more flexible work environment has led to a higher acceptance of lower compensation.

“It’s difficult and it’s one of those work-life choices that some people have made,” Lee said. “Some of us teach because we love it, some of us teach because we have kids, because we wanted a more flexible schedule, because of many different reasons.”

For many faculty members, a tradeoff had to be made between work-life balance and compensation. Lee said she believes that it is the rising cost of living and the state of the economy in the past decade that has made it so difficult for faculty to work with the compensation they are given.

It is in these issues concerning salary that Lee thinks has caused the consistently low rating of faculty morale.

“I think that’s affected morale here, over time,” Lee said. “It wasn’t just that we weren’t getting raises, it was also every year the state was cutting 13 million, 9 million, 11 million and some years that was additive, and some years it was the same […] everybody has to scramble and take a cut somewhere. And I think a lot of people were fine with that for a while, and then it got to the point where it was like, ‘okay, this isn’t changing’.”

Lee said the university doesn’t know how many people they are going to help with salary compression.

“It’s going to be what they can manage and it’s going to be done incrementally over time. This compression didn’t occur at a fast manner either. The president is committed to making changes happen and addressing those issues,” Lee said.

Lee hopes that with more discussions concerning compensation and raises, faculty morale will grow. She said from her experience in the industry, however, there were things other than compensation that were used to raise employee morale.

“I know when I was the executive chef working at a hospital, it was different,” Lee said. “Every year I gave bonuses, I gave prizes, I gave gift cards, I gave turkeys and hams. Every year I gave raises. There was a base raise, there were merit raises, it was how the company functioned. So I have a very different viewpoint on employee morale.”

Lee’s examples point to other things that could be used alongside faculty compensation.

“It’s not something that we have ever done here at Western, those kinds of things,” Lee said. “It’s just a very different environment. My employees felt valued with the attention and the little things. It was the fact that I was recognizing them for going above and beyond and for doing something, like ‘here’s a thank you’.”

Kirk Atkinson, an information systems professor, said improvements lay in faculty compensation.

“I would say that my quality of life feeling is high, overall,” Atkinson said. “I’ve been here for a few years, I am tenured, and that makes a difference probably. But I work with a really good group of colleagues and I think that is what really makes it. My overall rating, I would say it’s high.”

Atkinson explained his colleagues and students mainly benefited his quality of life as a faculty member. What is viewed as unfair compensation is the main thing that brings down this quality of life.

“Something I think that all faculty would like to see is some external and internal market equity in terms of salaries,” Atkinson said. “It’s a very common occurrence, something called salary compression, that happens everywhere.”

Atkinson said the university hires new people as assistant professors who make more than he does as a full professor. He described that as “just the way it works” and how it happens in higher education sometimes — schools try to take slow steps to repair salary differences.

“Western for years has lived with the ‘across the board’ method,” Atkinson said. “Everybody is going to get a little bit, so you know people that are already compressed are still compressed and those demands continue to change. Most faculty would just like to see a little more, and they’re trying to work on this. So I think the salary compression issue and market inequity would be a good one to work on.”

Atkinson was a faculty advisor for the WKU student chapter of Delta Sigma Pi. He said working with students was “rewarding.”

“I think from a personal perspective, I would like to see closer work with the students,” Atkinson said. “I think overall the university does a pretty good job dealing with students, but I think there are times that maybe it could be better. Overall, faculty have their students’ best interests at heart, I really believe that.”

News reporter Alexandria Anderson can be reached at [email protected]