In mid-February, when Wheaton faculty members received their contracts from the provost’s office for the 2022-2023 school year, many were surprised to learn that for the second year in a row their contracts did not include a pay raise.
In the years before the COVID pandemic, contracts normally included the professor’s salary and raise. But this year’s contracts informed professors that they would not know how much of a raise — if any — they would receive until after the board of trustees reviewed the College’s budget in late spring.
Professors were still expected to sign the contract by the first week of March, without knowing exactly how much they would be making.
Most faculty members understood the need for a salary freeze during the 2021-2022 year — the College had just gone through a highly unusual, COVID-impacted school year that led to many cuts across campus.
However, an anonymous professor said that the administration did not announce in advance that this year’s contacts would not include a raise, leaving many faculty members confused and upset.
“There was no message from the administration regarding a pay freeze,” said the professor. “My colleagues started asking around, and sure enough, it became apparent that everyone received a pay freeze, which honestly angered the faculty because we were not told about a pay freeze, provided a rationale, nor a strategic response.”
At the February faculty business meeting, held in Coray Gymnasium less than a week after contracts arrived in professors’ inboxes, faculty members voiced questions and concerns to the administration in lieu of addressing other agenda items.
Jason Long, an economics professor and the Business and Economics department chair, described the mood of faculty present at the meeting.
“ some combination of angry, concerned, and frustrated,” said Long. “Some were upset with the lack of information, the fact that raises would be quite low when and if they came, and they weren’t guaranteed at all.”
Mason Laney, a junior studying political science and the Student Body Vice President, sat in on the Feb. 22 meeting and listened as faculty members voiced their concerns to the administration.
“I think it’s good that they’re at least having a conversation openly,” said Laney. “I think the frustration arises from the lack of clarity in the decision-making process, and also how it’s never as fast as people want it to be.”
In response to faculty concerns, Provost Karen Lee announced at an April 26 faculty meeting that she will ask the board of trustees for a 2.5% raise for all faculty, which she expects the board to approve. She will also request the restoration of faculty travel and discretionary funds that were suspended due to the pandemic, which includes $500 given to faculty annually that they can use for professional development-related expenditures such as book purchases and association dues.
“The percentage salary increase for faculty will be approved by the board in the late spring,” Lee said in an emailed interview. “The anticipated 2.5% salary increase for faculty is higher than the national average for colleges and universities last year according to the American Association of University Professors.”
Lee emphasized that the College’s budget is contingent upon the number of enrolled students, and decisions about faculty pay cannot be made without a confirmed amount of tuition money for the fall semester.
“We operate with the requirement of a balanced budget, which means that we cannot spend more than we receive,” said Lee in an emailed interview. “We only know how much revenue is available when fall enrollment is certain. So, while we want to provide pay increases, we need to wait to confirm the amount until we are sure we have adequate revenue.”
According to a 2018 report by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), Wheaton’s average faculty salaries are higher than other CCCU schools.
While the average salary for a full professor at a CCCU school was $69,000, the salary for full professors at Wheaton was $95,000. For associate professors the CCCU average was $59,000 and the Wheaton average was $83,000, while for assistant professors the CCUU number was $52,000 versus $66,000 at Wheaton. However, the cost of living in Wheaton, Ill. is 36% higher than the national average and more expensive compared to many other CCUU schools, such as Taylor University in Upland, Ind., where the cost of living is 25% lower than the national average, or Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich., where the cost of living is 12% lower than the national average. Due to local tax increases and inflation, the cost of living in Wheaton has continued to increase over the two years in which professors have gone without raises.
Silvio Vazquez, Wheaton’s chief enrollment management officer, noted that a COVID-related downturn in new and returning student enrollment has severely impacted the College’s financial resources, limiting its ability to ensure raises.
Since the start of the pandemic, Wheaton’s average yearly enrollment of new freshman and transfer students has declined from 660 students to 574. The diminished enrollment numbers from the 2020-2021 school year represent a loss of upwards of $20 million over four years, though this number does not take into account financial aid and tuition discounts.
“Lower freshman enrollment has constrained our available financial resources, impacting many areas of campus,” said Vazquez in an emailed interview. “Two-thirds of all our expenses are people-related. We want to continue to financially care for our faculty and staff as much as we are able with our available resources.”
The trend of declining enrollment numbers is not only the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and will likely continue for years to come.
More and more Americans — particularly men — are choosing to forgo college, which has led to a decade-long enrollment decline of 13 percent in universities across the U.S. Furthermore, demographics data indicates that the number of high school graduates is projected to decrease due to a decline in birthrates around the time of the 2008 recession. This means that in a few years, colleges will have less graduates applying and the enrollment problem will likely grow worse.
Long acknowledged the financial challenge the administration confronts in the face of declining enrollment, and suggested the school try to downsize its existing faculty in order to better balance the budget.
“I think that downsizing the faculty is going to be a key part of cutting costs,” said Long. “I want to be clear: what I hope we can do is downsize the faculty through attrition, rather than through layoffs. What I’m hoping is that when people voluntarily leave, when they retire, or when they take another job elsewhere, whenever it’s feasible, I’d love to see us not rehire those positions.”
Long explained his hope that downsizing faculty would help the college be able to offer better salaries to those that remain.
“ create some slack in the budget so that we can do a better job of keeping up with inflation and offer competitive wages so that Wheaton can continue to hire and retain good faculty members,” said Long.
In the interim, faculty members worry that even the 2.5% raise is not enough to be sustainable in the face of record levels of inflation in the U.S. Bloomberg reports that the consumer price index increased by 7.9% from February 2021 to February 2022, a 40-year high. Inflation today costs the average U.S. family an extra $296 a month. In the same period, Illinois and local tax rates have risen. Over the past two years, property taxes alone have jumped by 13% for many Wheaton faculty.
Faculty argue that since their raises do not match the high inflation rates, they are essentially taking a paycut. This reality is making some professors question whether or not they will be able to continue teaching at Wheaton without more significant pay increases.
“This is the first time I have considered if I can afford to stay at Wheaton College,” said the same anonymous professor. “If we continue to have zero wage growth, I will probably, in the course of time, be forced to leave the college. Even though my pay is the same, if inflation continues to be high, a gap will widen between my income and the cost of living.”
Long called for the administration to announce a clear plan to address both faculty members’ salary concerns and the College’s financial future.
“I think that the administration is doing a good job communicating to us the situation we’re in, but I don’t think they are doing as good a job communicating to us how they think we’re going to improve our situation,” said Long. “ is what I want to see, but I’m willing to wait for it. I am looking for plausible and realistic ideas for how to get there.”