W.Va. higher education still facing changes

WHEELING – In 2011, the West Virginia Legislature passed Senate Bill 330 with the intent of bringing classified staff salaries at the state’s colleges and universities up to current standards.

Two years later, the bill’s true impacts are just coming to light, and many in the higher education community are concerned over what they see as negative changes in how higher education statewide would operate.

The legislation, which became law in June 2011 but has yet to be fully implemented, would make several changes to higher education, officials at West Virginia University and West Liberty University said. Chief among their concerns is that the law gives the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission a greater level of control over salary and compensation levels for all university employees – classified, non-classified and faculty.

Previously, state code had set the pay levels only for classified employees – secretaries, mechanics, electricians and similar jobs – and the bill’s original intent was to update that salary structure, which last had been changed in 2001. But during the 2011 session, changes made to SB 330 lumped faculty and non-classified employees into the salary mix.

Another concern with the law is what’s known as “relative market equity.” According to information provided by West Liberty University, the relative market equity study, which is due in December from Fox Lawson & Associates, a consultant hired by the HEPC, determines the average pay scale for faculty, non-classified and classified staff at all state institutions, and then compares that scale to other HEPC-designated “peer institutions” and also similar jobs in the local community.

Taking it a step further, the law also requires “internal equity” at each school of 5 percent among the three classes of employees. For example, if a school’s faculty average pay is at 90 percent of its peers, and its classified and non-classified average pay is at 80 percent, the school would have to find a way to either bring the classified and non-classified average to 85 percent by increasing the salary scale, or lower the faculty pay to 85 percent.

What that would mean, and one issue of major concern at West Virginia University, is the ability to recruit and retain faculty members -and pay them appropriately – would be seriously hampered.

“Any changes or limitations in what we can do in terms of compensation and personnel decisions affect hiring, recruitment and retention not only for the faculty and staff, but also our more senior administrators,” said Lisa DiBartolomeo, chairwoman of WVU’s Faculty Senate and a university Board of Governors faculty representative. “This adds an unnecessary layer to the administrative process.”

Concerns from Morgantown

As DiBartolomeo noted, one of WVU’s primary concerns is with losing its institutional control to a state agency in Charleston. The university and Marshall University, in 2005, received legislative approval for “substantial independence” from the HEPC for most decisions, said WVU Board of Governors faculty representative professor Robert Griffith. This has allowed WVU to speed up its growth over the past several years while also continuing its work to become a “research very high” institution – WVU currently is classified as “research high” – as determined by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

SB 330 could change that, he believes.

“Senate Bill 330 stands to harm this institution by lumping us in with a (number) of much smaller institutions with totally different missions,” he said.

WVU, for example, has a medical school and a law school among its offerings, and those faculty members require a higher level of compensation. That could change, depending on the consultant’s report, and if it does it would limit the university’s ability to recruit qualified faculty in those posts.

Griffith also is concerned with the peer institutions HEPC would use to compare against WVU. He said of the current peers, 17 are rated “research very high” by Carnegie, and that WVU’s faculty salaries are at about 83 percent of those institutions, which gives the university room to grow. If, however, the consultant chooses to compare WVU with peers that are in the “research high” category, WVU is at the current market rate, which he said would limit the university’s ability to expand.

“Using salary averages doesn’t make sense in the first place,” Griffith said. “Look at engineering – even within engineering there are several designations where salaries vary greatly,” he said.

Aside from concerns with how salaries for all employees are set, Griffith said the law also changes the percentage of staff that can be non-classified and also the definition of how non-classified staff are determined.

Previously, faculty were counted in determining the percentage of non-classified staff, which meant WVU had about 15 percent of its workforce in that designation. But the new law requires faculty not be counted, he said, which raises the university’s non-classified staff to about 25 percent of its total workforce.

“The bill says this year we are supposed to be at a maximum of 25 percent, then 20 percent moving forward,” he said of non-classified staff.

How this would impact WVU comes with retaining certain groups of employees. For example, Griffith said outgoing President James Clements moved the university’s information technology staff to non-classified status to help retain workers by upping the pay scale. Under the law, though, Griffith said Mark Toor, vice chancellor of human resources for the HEPC, intends to move IT employees to classified status, which means WVU would again have trouble hiring and retaining those workers. The HEPC has said all non-classified employees must answer directly to the president or be in a policy-making position.

WVU Professor Roy Nutter, who wrote a summary of SB 330 to help others in higher education understand the law, said the bill was “so complex, so big,” that no one understood until now just what changes would be made. Like Griffith, he believes the university’s future is tied to the bill’s implementation.

“We are trying to build a university that is a top research university that (builds) the economy of West Virginia,” he said. “I think we’ve done reasonably well to date, but to keep moving forward we have to be competitive in hiring people. With this law, I’m really concerned that we won’t be competitive nationally in hiring high-quality faculty.”

It’s not just WVU’s faculty members that are concerned with SB 330. Staff Council President Lisa Martin praised the bill’s original intent to deal with classified staff salaries, but said including faculty and non-classified staff, along with creating relative market equity, is leading the law into a “gray area.”

“This was done with very good intentions, but look at where we are today,” she said.

Martin noted WVU has about 3,000 classified employees, with an average tenure of about 15 years. She anticipates the classified staff salary to come out on the high end of the scale, meaning those who are new will continue to receive low wages.

DiBartolomeo said another concern at WVU is coming from students. It has been estimated that it will cost a minimum of $30 million to implement the changes through the law, and that money ultimately will have to come from students through increased tuition and fees.

She and others are urging the WVU community to begin a letter-writing campaign to state lawmakers on the law.

“It’s really becoming a grass-roots effort, to unite all these classes of employees and also parents, alumni and the greater Morgantown community,” she said.

Other views

Jim Stultz has been in human resources for 41 years, and he said during that time he’s never seen anything as complex as SB 330.

As West Liberty University’s current vice president of Human Resources, he’s become very familiar with the law over the past few months. And he’s come to one conclusion – he doesn’t think it’s possible to implement.

“Sooner or later, this whole thing, if it isn’t changed, is doomed to fail,” he said.

Stultz agrees with others that the law’s original intent made sense. “But the … challenge of having this all-encompassing (law), so broad in scope … I don’t see how it can be enacted. It’s so darn complex. I’ve read it a number of times, and I can’t make sense out of how the language reads.”

He suggested pulling back on the law’s implementation until more study can be done.

“I think if some reason can prevail – I’m not suggesting SB 330 be totally dumped, but why can’t we put a moratorium in place, pull the thing back, get some professional help and look at this relative market equity issue, really determine what is necessary and what makes sense,” he said. “I know this is all in code now, but there’s got to be some practical way to look at this and bring it into 2013 thinking. The way it’s set up is archaic. I don’t know of anybody who has this kind of salary program.”

Stultz also expressed concern over the loss of institutional control related to compensation for faculty and non-classified staff, and questioned how the state, which already is facing budgetary issues, will pay for relative market equity without dropping the entire bill on students.

HEPC spokeswoman Jessica Tice said along with relative market equity, the law created the position of vice chancellor for human resources at HEPC to oversee and monitor the human resources function at each state institution. The legislation also creates a number of new studies and reporting requirements to bring best human resources practices to the state’s colleges and universities.

She noted Fox Lawson is continuing its work on the relative market equity study.

“At present, the commission is working with Fox Lawson to design and implement appropriate parameters for the salary surveys they are conducting. Due to the complexity of the project requiring surveys of three different classes of employees at the individual institutions, work is continuing on some of the design parameters and methodologies,” she said.

She also has said that WVU, for example, would not have other institutions in West Virginia as its peers. Some of WVU’s current HEPC peers include the universities of Florida, Kentucky, Utah, Maryland, Louisville, Iowa and Tennessee, among others.

State Sen. Evan Jenkins, R-Cabell, was one of SB 330’s original sponsors. He said he is aware of concerns with the law, and that he will urge legislators to take a further look once Fox Lawson completes its study.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, noted he met about a month ago with Joyce McConnell, dean of WVU’s College of Law, and WVU law professor Robert Bastress to discuss SB 330. He said he prefers to wait until the relative market equity report is completed to pass any judgment.

“It’s hard to get out and criticize this until that report comes out,” he said, noting it should be ready in December. “If it needs fixed, we’ll be inclined to take a look at it. You just hate to start throwing a fit and protesting it before you see what the consultant says.

“I think something that needs to be remembered is that the consultant’s report will be recommendations only, this is not set in stone.”

Sponsors for SB 330 were senators Robert Plymale, D-Wayne; Robert Beach, D-Monongalia; Erik Wells, D-Kanawha; Jenkins; Ron Stollings, D-Boone; and former senators Dan Foster and Richard Browning.