Op-Ed: An Immodest Proposal — Cap Salaries of Higher-Ed Administrators, Faculty and Staff

The cap would give moral authority to administrators who will have to cut programs, furlough employees, reduce hiring and approve layoffs in response to the pandemic
Frank A. Felder

The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a tsunami of human suffering and economic deprivation that will continue for the foreseeable future and is disproportionately imposed on lower- and middle-income families and minorities. Although it is too early to put final numbers on the deaths, illnesses, loss of income and savings and debts, as well as accompanying health, social and economic consequences, they will be gargantuan.

Public universities and colleges pride themselves on being major social institutions that improve society through education, research and service. Higher education also aims to reduce social and economic inequality and to foster diversity, opportunity, and advancement. This pandemic is imposing major challenges to the ability of public universities and colleges to fulfill their missions.

Given that New Jersey currently ranks second in the United States for the number of COVID-19 cases, the need for the state to demonstrate leadership is particularly acute. Now is the time for New Jersey public universities and colleges to respond with clear and decisive action that demonstrates their commitment to the educational and social values they champion.

Addressing financial shortfalls

The president of Rutgers University recently announced steps that his office is taking to address the university’s financial shortfalls, including 10% and 5% salary reductions for selected senior administration officials. (For some reactions to his proposal, click here.)

Nevertheless, more needs to be done than modest pay reductions of a few highly paid individuals if New Jersey universities and colleges are going to lead the way in responding to this pandemic while upholding the values they cherish. Leadership and highly paid employees need to show that they are willing to make personal sacrifices before asking others to do so. For these reasons, I propose the following:

  • All administrators, faculty and staff at all New Jersey public universities and colleges agree to an annual salary cap of $80,000. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New Jersey’s median household income between 2014 and 2018 was $79,363, so these caps would be in line with the typical family’s income before COVID-19, which is by no means a hardship.)
  • Employees would still receive health care and retirement benefits on the same level as other university and college employees who earn $80,000 per year, so the total annual compensation would be substantially larger than $80,000.
  • No other monetary payments such as bonuses, incentive payments and so forth would be made to employees whose salaries are capped.
  • The salary caps would last for at least two years, from July 2020 through June 2022.

Capped employees would forego future payments that retroactively compensate them for lost salary and bonuses.

Many important details would need to be considered and worked out, but the leadership of public universities and colleges can implement the above framework. All they need to do is commit to it voluntarily. Once that is done, other administrators, faculty and staff can follow suit.

Voluntarily and collectively accepting this salary cap would achieve several goals. First, it would help reduce the impending budgetary crunch that the state’s public universities and colleges are facing. Although it will by no means completely solve the problem, the salary cap is a solid first step.

The salary cap will also provide moral authority to administrators who will inevitably have to cut programs, furlough employees, reduce hiring and approve layoffs in response to the pandemic. The reduction in salaries will not reduce the hardships of those that will suffer as a result, but it will demonstrate that all was being done before more drastic measures were taken. To reiterate: Sacrifice should first be borne by leaders before asking others to do so.

Finally, if public universities and colleges lead by adopting this voluntary salary cap, other sectors of New Jersey may follow. Leaders from state and local government, major companies and nonprofit organizations may also implement salary caps to demonstrate their commitment to responding to this pandemic in an equitable manner. Senior government officials and private-sector leaders can exhibit their dedication to their organizations and the state by taking meaningful and material actions.

The impacts and implications of COVID-19 are yet to be fully felt and addressed. New Jersey’s success in responding to this unfolding tragedy depends on everyone believing that we are truly in this together. For those of us in higher education who have the resources and incomes that others do not, it is no time for modest leadership.