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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.