OPINION: "AT-PLEASURE" PAY

By Barbara Bowen, PSC President

CLARION

MAY 2001

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The beauty of the full-time faculty salary structure at CUNY is that it combines two systems for recognizing advancement: promotion on the basis of merit—as judged by one’s peers—and compensation on the basis of increased experience and expertise.  The explanation for this double system is, like all good explanations, historical.  CUNY was among the first universities to be unionized, and the PSC is one of the oldest higher education unions in the country.  At CUNY as at other unionized universities, a newer structure of systematic increases with seniority has been overlaid on the older, guild-based structure of promotion through academic ranks.  Steps plus ranks: a formula that combines fairness with professionalism, solidarity with autonomy.  In other words, we already have merit pay, the only kind of merit pay that is acceptable in a university.

But misleading demands for “merit pay” have become a hallmark of this round of contract negotiations in the City, an artifact of the neo-liberal mania for measuring everything in terms of money and numbers, and a particular hobbyhorse of Mayor Giuliani.  In the scenario presented by CUNY management, “merit” for faculty would be determined not by one’s peers, but by one’s boss.  When the current round of contract negotiations with City workers began, Giuliani boasted that there would be no across-the-board raises for employees, only individual merit pay.  He has already been proven wrong, as settlements in the last six weeks have upheld the principle that the workers who create the wealth of the city must be allowed to share in it, that working people deserve a fair raise.  Now CUNY management has jumped on this bandwagon: CUNY’s proposals, if accepted, would mean the end of the salary structure that has succeeded for almost thirty years in supporting both ambition and collegiality simultaneously. 

Management proposes replacing systematic salary steps with eligibility for individual raises, at the discretion of the President.  “Replace the current system of step increases with a minimum/maximum range for each title.  Presidents may provide annual discretionary salary increases within the range,” reads the CUNY proposal.  No guarantee of any increases at all (“Presidents may provide . . . ”), no regular increases with increased experience, and—so far—no proposal for across-the-board raises.

This proposal goes to the heart of our current salary structure and threatens core principles of academic life.  CUNY management also calls for granting the Chancellor the right to “approve salaries above the range for a tittle in meritorious instances.”  And the salary proposals are coupled with a final proposal to establish “a program for the distribution of one-time, lump sum awards to instructional staff based on meritorious performance.”

Look at these proposals carefully; don’t mistake either one for real rewards for merit.  For what is proposed here is discretionary pay or pay “at-pleasure,” to use a favorite phrase of CUNY’s negotiating team; it is not merit pay. CUNY’s first salary proposal imagines a workplace in which you might work for years and never receive an increment in your base pay that recognizes the skills you have acquired through years of work in the profession.    Whether you receive an increase and the amount of any increase you receive would be entirely at the discretion of the President.  No one has to spell out how such a system is ripe for abuse or how it could undercut academic freedom.  Think about how the gap between women and men as wage-earners originated, or how that gap and another based on race might be deepened by a system of Presidential discretion. Even when managers have the best of intentions, the historical evidence is strong that racism and sexism will be perpetuated in discretionary pay scales.  Nor is the second proposal, even though it coyly uses the word “meritorious,” true recognition of merit: it invokes one-time bonuses, not additions to our base pay.

There’s a certain sinister logic to these proposals, coming as they do after years of a starvation diet at CUNY.  I can’t imagine there’s anyone among us who doesn’t at least momentarily think, “Ah, at last, merit pay—I’ll be recognized for the real quality of my work and finally get the salary I deserve.”  Decades of calculated underfunding for CUNY have meant that our salaries are no longer competitive with those of comparable institutions; all of us are underpaid. The prevailing culture of scarcity—in which we don’t have sufficient chalk or toilet paper, let alone salaries—makes us vulnerable as a group to the lure of individual merit pay.  Don’t be fooled, though; CUNY’s proposal is for discretionary, not merit, pay.  And the truth is that discretionary pay is a strategy to hold down salaries; it substitutes the promise of individual increases for real advances in base pay. Ultimately, discretionary pay would deepen CUNY’s culture of scarcity, pitting faculty members against one another in permanent competition.

What we need at CUNY is an increase in the base pay and an adjustment of workload that makes us competitive with other comparable institutions.  We also need equity for workers whose salaries have been disproportionately depressed and access to promotion for those without such access now.  We need to end the incentive to hire part-time faculty by paying our part-time colleagues on the basis of equal pay for equal work.  And we need increased steps at the tops of the salary scales so we won’t have hundreds of people stuck at an unchanging rate of pay. 

To those who might say that management needs the flexibility in salary in order to recruit and retain the best people in the field, we would reply that our current system already allows for that need: College Presidents are entitled to advance an individual by two salary steps rather than one, colleges can hire new faculty at any point in the salary scale, and management can award the rank  of Distinguished Professor in recognition of truly extraordinary scholarship. Add to this the responsiveness to market forces that our current system also displays—there are separate salary scales for faculties in law and medicine—and the result is a remarkably supple structure. 

I have lived under “merit pay,” and it was horrible.  At the private liberal arts college where I taught before coming to CUNY, faculty clustered around a bulletin board at the end of the semester to read the quantified results of each other’s student evaluations.  We knew that the numbers on the evaluations, regardless of their reliability in telling the whole story about a course or measuring one’s total contribution to the college, would pay a large part in determining our salaries. It was a breath of fresh air to come to CUNY and be free of a system in which it seemed that fairness was impossible.

To give up our carefully balanced salary structure for the sake of illusory increases— and to risk losing the labor solidarity that we need now more than ever—is a mistake we cannot afford to make.