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Despite Explanations, Raises Breed Discontent

Despite Explanations, Raises Breed Discontent

By Marika Garland, Erin Mershon and David McCabe

The unsigned letter, typed in a clean sans-serif, is four pages long. It is dated March 2, 2012 and addressed to the chair of the Kenyon College Board of Trustees, Barry Schwartz.

And it is to the point. The second sentence of the second paragraph of the message, which the Collegian has confirmed was written by a College staff member, reads as follows: As an employee associated with the College for nearly two decades, I have never felt the campus awash in a current of such utter negativity.

[I]t is vital for you to comprehend the extent of the issue at hand: resentment is boiling among the staff and administrators of the College, the writer continues, and ill will is festering among even your most loyal and dedicated employees.

Nine days before the letter was written, President S. Georgia Nugent stood in Peirce Pub and explained to a group of about 75 staff members why they were receiving a raise worth 2 percent of their salaries when the faculty received raises worth 7-10 percent of theirs.

Students dont choose Kenyon for the president, or the registrar, or even business services. They come here for the faculty, she said. The registrar was in the room, sitting alongside colleagues from Admissions, Housing and Residential Life and Athletics.

The luncheon and the letter are pivotal elements of an ongoing battle between an administration that says Kenyon will suffer if faculty salaries cannot compete with our peer institutions and staff members who say they feel disrespected by the compensation changes and the way they have been justified.

Of the 12 staff departments that responded to Collegian inquiries, members of 10 mentioned that either they or some of their colleagues were upset by the discrepancy in raises.

Explaining the Decision

Most Kenyon staff first learned of their 2 percent raise in a Kenyon Today email sent in the second week of February. The email announced the raise, explained the decision and commended both the faculty and staff.

Some staff called the email an inappropriate way to present such controversial news.

Its always difficult to read major news like that over email without having a conversation, said Humanities Librarian Nina Clements.

When she first heard of the raise, Alice Straus 75, administrative assistant in Admissions, sent a five-page letter to Nugent detailing her concerns and outlining other paths the College could have taken. Her letter prompted Nugent to plan a presentation for the next employee gathering, the aforementioned luncheon in the Peirce Pub, sponsored by the Presidential Advisory Communication Team (PACT) on Feb. 21.

Nugent finished her presentation on the new compensation packages and took the few questions that were posed to her.

Then, after some polite clapping, It got really quiet, according to an exempt employee of the College who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his employment.

I think people were stunned, said another exempt employee of the College who cited the same concerns.

What I was trying to do was explain, Nugent said of her discussion at the luncheon. We felt our best effort, the best way to communicate would be to be factual and explain the reasoning. And I think in the end that is not what people wanted to hear.

Despite the tepid reaction some staff members described, Nugent was initially optimistic. I would have said it was very positive, she said. I know that a number of people who were there said that.

For some staff members, however, the lunchtime presentation only fueled discontent.

People were like, Oh, thats not fair, and then when they heard the reasoning behind it that was given, they were like, Oh, thats really not fair, said an exempt employee who also asked to remain anonymous.

Since that meeting, the entire senior staff team has worked to explain the rationale behind the decision to increase staff pay in memos, meetings and discussions with their employees. Just this Tuesday, Provost Nayef Samhat called a meeting of administrative assistants to discuss the issue.

There has been much distress among our senior staff that this decision has been misunderstood and many ensuing discussions regarding other ways to show appreciation for all Kenyon employees, said Jennifer Cabral, director of human resources, in an email.

In the initial announcement and in the later luncheon, Nugent justified the sizeable faculty raises to keep the College competitive in attracting the best faculty. The issue is not new; nearly 15 years ago, the trustees made faculty salaries a main priority.

We responded via our most recent budget action to the Boards long-held objective to attract and retain the best possible faculty, Schwartz said in an email.

The goal since then has been to keep faculty salaries in the top quintile of comparable salaries across the country. Since 2004-05, data from the American Association of University Professors has shown that faculty salaries for assistant and associate professors here are falling below that benchmark.

Before these raises, salary was a significant factor in several candidates decisions not to join the Kenyon faculty, Samhat said.

This year, by comparison, each of the Colleges seven searches for faculty has resulted in a hire of a top candidate. We were very successful, Samhat said.

There have been searches in recent years where weve been unable to hire anybody, said Jay Corrigan, chair of the economics department. Whether thats because of salary or whether it was because of something else, we dont know, because when people turn us down we generally dont know the reasons behind it. This year we did really well.

Some staff members, however, felt that when senior staff explained that low compensation hinders faculty searches, they implied that similar problems did not plague staff searches.

But salary issues are often brought up early in discussions with candidates for staff positions because Kenyon is not always sure it can be competitive in that area, according to Dean of Students Hank Toutain.

When I was hired, they made sure I knew the salary range before I came, because often when people find out what the salary is, they arent interested in the job anymore, Clements said.

Another divisive justification for the discrepancy in raises is that faculty are hired in national searches, whereas staff at least those at midlevel and below are recruited regionally or locally.

For those staff members whose positions, even at midlevel, were recruited at the national level, the implication felt like a blow, according to an anonymous exempt employee.

Theres no way we would be recruiting locally or even regionally only, Toutain said of the Student Affairs staff searches. He clarified that although a secretarial position might draw more local applicants, coaches and administrators in Housing and Residential Life, Student Activities, Multicultural Affairs and Career Development, among others, would all require national searches.

Ill Will is Festering

Those differences between senior staffs explanations and past trends bred far more resentment among staff than the specific difference between the raises for the two groups.

Many left Nugents presentation under the impression that administrators valued professors more than staff members.

The idea seemed to be that the faculty were more significant, that it was more important for them to get competitive salaries than for us to get competitive salaries, Straus said.

Others agreed.

I dont think staff and administrators have heard much in the way of empathy for what theyre saying or feeling about the message thats being sent, said one of the exempt employees quoted earlier.

The sentiment that students dont choose Kenyon for the staff particularly offended a wide swath of staff members.

That was one of her first justifications for this, which was kind of just a dagger to everybody, said an exempt employee quoted earlier.

At the PACT luncheon, Nugent used a hospital metaphor to explain the decisions. The faculty, she said, are like doctors and the staff are like nurses: doctors have advanced degrees that require years of extra schooling and will always earn more money than the nurses even though both roles are equally important to the hospital.

For staff members in the audience that day, the comparison instantly seemed flawed.

Nurses are the people on hand 24 hours a day, the anonymous author of the letter to Schwartz wrote. Theyre the ones who respond immediately in times of crises; they manage relationships with patients and their families.

The impression that some people came away with was that we should be happy to have a job, happy to have any increase, and that we should suck it up because the faculty needed to have bigger raises, Straus said.

Its like we were being talked down to, said the nonexempt employee quoted earlier. Its kind of degrading how important support staff is. If you have the best faculty, dont you want the best support staff? That didnt seem to be what they were communicating to us.

On March 27, as the discussion continued, Nugent sent an email to all employees of the College.

I have been very distressed in recent days to learn that some staff members believe that the salary pools for this year conveyed a message that only faculty members are valued, she wrote. That is simply not true.

It seems that my discussing budgeting decisions with staff members at the recent PACT lunch may have led to misinterpretations, Nugent wrote.

[The email] riled people up even more, said an exempt employee quoted earlier.

Its more than just the salary, Straus said. Its more the attitude that goes along with it that Im unhappy about. Its not the Kenyon I wanted to come work for.

A lot of people are just like, What next? an exempt employee said. What can anyone do thats going to make a difference at this point?

When 2 Percent Isnt Enough

Some staff members have noticed the raise discrepancy everywhere from the gas pump to the grocery store.

Two percent is less than $40 a month. That doesnt fill up my gas tank one time, said the nonexempt employee quoted earlier.

With the $4,000 increase, when the faculty [go] to the gas pump, its not a problem, said Fine Arts Librarian Carmen King, who serves as Co-Chair of PACT with Carol Duvall, executive assistant to the chief business officer. But when a [staff member earning significantly less] a month goes to the gas pump and tries to fill up a tank and gas is a dollar more per gallon, that [has] a big impact on the [staff member].

Some staff members have even had to take on second jobs to make ends meet.

I was a little shocked that they think we should be happy with a 2 percent raise when others on campus are getting way more than that, said the nonexempt employee quoted earlier, who has taken on a second job.

The College feels the same pinch of rising prices, according to Nugent.

We dont get any special discount on the gas that powers the many trucks and other vehicles around campus, or on the food in Peirce for our family of 1,600, she said in an email. Price rises that affect the budgets of individual consumers affect the budgets of institutional consumers in just the same way.

Several other College staff members noted that the inequality in raises has heightened the feeling that staff are overworked and undercompensated. Barb Dupee, a former administrative assistant for the English department, said she retired last year because her workload was too heavy.

[Administrative staff are] all hard workers, and the College takes advantage of those kinds of people, she said. They just exploit the talent and they dont pay them a decent wage.

Many staff members had hoped to see at least a cost of living raise in their paychecks this year, especially given the large raises for the faculty. Calculating the exact change in cost of living is difficult; the Consumer Price Index increased by 3.56 percent last year, according to College fiscal year estimates provided by Teri Blanchard, associate vice president for finance. Based on January and February of this year, it is on track to increase by 1.2 percent in 2012.

The tumultuous economy has some more worried than ever about keeping their jobs. For that reason, many of the staff members who spoke with the Collegian requested anonymity. (Ed. Note: There are a total of five employees quoted anonymously in this article.)

Many suggested that few staff members have approached Nugent or other senior staff with their concerns because the College uses at-will employment contracting. As for all employees across the state of Ohio, your employment can be terminated with or without cause, and with or without notice, at any time, at the option of either Kenyon College or yourself, except as otherwise provided by law, according to Kenyons administration and staff handbook.

If we cause too much friction or say things that the administration doesnt like, there is a chance [we might be fired], said the nonexempt employee quoted earlier.

Other employees attributed the hushed attitude to a lack of efficacy.

I dont believe people are afraid to speak out, said Pamela Sheasby, administrative assistant to the departments of modern languages and literatures and religious studies. I feel that perhaps theres nothing more they can do. They feel their hands are tied the decision has been made.

Nugent was quick to point out that the College has never retaliated against an employee as feared. We would never just fire somebody for no reason, she said.

Some of those employees most vocal on the issue of staff compensation have worked at the College for more than 15 years. Many said this issue has compromised the familial feeling that drew them to Kenyon.

According to Nugent, however, that longevity could influence employees perceptions of their work environment.

If this is the only place youve worked, you really dont have a good sense of whats going on in other workplaces, she said. If you talk to people who have come to Kenyon more recently, they are thrilled to be employed by Kenyon.

In Pursuit of Other Options

Employees dissatisfied with the employment options see several possibilities. Some, including the author of the anonymous letter to Schwartz, predicted a flood of resignations at the end of this year.

I wouldnt be surprised if people leave because they dont feel appreciated, because no one wants to work somewhere they arent appreciated, said an exempt employee quoted earlier.

I dont think the faculty is as mobile as the College is arguing they are, and I think they are going to find out that the staff is more mobile than the College thinks they are, Straus said.

The Colleges Safety officers may pursue a different tactic in the future. They are currently considering unionization, according to Director of Campus Safety Bob Hooper.

Though she praised the unions that represent Kenyons AVI employees and maintenance employees, Nugent expressed concern at the idea of unionization.

Philosophically, it does seem to me that the fundamental premise of a union is in many ways a controversial one [in which] inevitably, staff members are somehow pitted against managers, she said. I dont believe that. I think were all engaged in the same project.

PACT: A voice for the staff?

As co-chairs of PACT, King and Duvall are supposed to have Nugents ear. But when they want to communicate with the president, they are encouraged to email her assistant, Robin Goodstein.

This policy highlights what some staff members see as the problem with PACT: it is designed to act as the voice of College staff members, but it is frequently left unheard.

We really dont have any power to say, This was wrong, King said. All we could do is just channel to her the remarks from people

Still, Nugent said PACT serves as a useful chan
el of communication. In fact, she said, Anyone can email me anytime.

With an issue as contentious as compensation, PACT is often seen as the only place that staff members can go with concerns. Unfortunately, however, PACT has no governing power to achieve the change people seek.

I had about a dozen people worried, King said. Just about every member of PACT had people come to them. Its hard, during a controversial year, to be chair of this, because everyone thinks you can make a change. We serve at the pleasure of the president.

Good Will Between Faculty and Staff

Staff resentment does not seem to target faculty. Staff members agree that professors deserve the raises they received.

I would say everybody at Kenyon deserves a raise, Professor of Mathematics Judy Holdener said. But you have to look at what we need to do to stay competitive. I think its the right decision, and not because Im a faculty member. I want to be able to attract top faculty members. I want good colleagues.

Despite the significant difference between raises, neither faculty nor staff have noticed tension between the two employee groups.

Senior Staff Look Outside for Help

In the midst of staff response to the raises, senior staff members announced their decision to bring in an outside consultant to analyze staff salaries, a move some staff members have described as a diversionary tactic.

The reason were inviting someone to come in is to say, We need to look at other cohorts at the College to see how were doing and to see, perhaps, what we ought to do differently, Toutain said.

Still, some staff remain doubtful that the outside consultant will change anything.

Were doing this comparison survey, but its hard to feel certain that it wont be guided in a such a way to create the results that will confirm the narrative weve already been told, said an exempt employee who was quoted earlier.

Finally Finding the Money

Many staff members still dont understand where the money for such substantial faculty raises came from. According to Nugent, after the College finished funding construction projects including two new art buildings, there was extra money in the budget to accomplish the long-term goal of raising faculty salaries.

We thought the timing and the general economic outlook and the fact that the College is finishing up these building projects made it so that we could have the opportunity to make a real gain here, said Vice President for Library and Information Services Ron Griggs, who sits on senior staff.

The trustees didnt officially approve faculty or staff raises until their meeting in February, but senior staff members discussed the issue at length during their August 2011 retreat. King was present at the first day of the retreat to speak for PACT, but staff members have no direct advocate on senior staff.

The faculty, on the other hand, have representatives in the provost and associate provosts. I also take responsibility for [the decision] because Im leading the faculty, Samhat said. As head of this division, I believe I was a strong advocate on behalf of faculty salaries.

Senior staff believe they have everyones best interests at heart, whether or not each employee group has a representative. The [senior staff] around the table believe its their responsibility to represent the whole institution, Toutain said.

A lot of other institutions like us have reduced staff or cut hours or benefits, and the senior staff at Kenyon has tried successfully over the course of the years to [avoid] that, to make sure that peoples economic compensation at least maintains pace, said Professor of History Jeff Bowman, chair of the faculty.

Kenyons benefits for employees include health insurance, childcare, retirement funds and tuition reimbursement. Using the CPI as a measure of inflation, the staffs 2 percent raise keeps up with the cost of living increase, according to Blanchard.

I know that a 2 percent raise doesnt sound like a lot, because it isnt, but in the world of higher education thats actually about the standard, Griggs said.

For many, though, what stood out about the decision was not the size of the staffs raise on its own but in comparison to the facultys 7-10 percent raise.

No decision is easy, Griggs said. We assumed there would be a possibility that someone could feel really hurt by it. It would be difficult to advance the institution if you had to say, Everyone has to have the same raise. You make compensation based on what you need in order to be competitive.

Moving Forward with Damaged Pride

The anonymous letter to Schwartz concludes with a dire sketch of a college on the brink.

But your actions, and the words of senior staff, have damaged our pride, made us feel irrelevant to the mission of the College, and begun to significantly undermine the good will of this community, it read.

In her office, Nugent acknowledged possible hurt feelings but stood behind her decision.

Im not in any way belittling this concern, she said. I certainly am upset if people feel they are not appreciated here and we dont recognize how much they contribute. Thats very upsetting. Our employees received a wage thats commensurate with what most Americans are receiving. Its hard to be terribly upset about that, but I realize some people are.

Additional reporting by Rosalyn Aquila.

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