October 24, 2014  

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Future Economic Growth Begins with Investing in University Faculty Today

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Throughout my educational experience, I was fortunate to have inspiring teachers and professors. In high school, teachers helped me to envision a brighter future for myself. In college, my professors prepared me to turn the vision into reality and helped frame my career path. Certainly, my professors had an immeasurable impact on me and my decision to enter the field of education.

While I understood how fortunate I was to have outstanding professors while I was in college, I did not understand how lucky I was that they had chosen to teach at a public university in Mississippi, rather than at the hundreds of public and private institutions across the country. While all facets of the university play a role in the educational experience of the students, the faculty members represent the heart of the university. The quality of each university is only as high as the quality of its faculty.

When the deans and provosts at Mississippi Public Universities have a faculty position to fill, they know they are competing with institutions across the country and around the world. They also know that their existing professors are being recruited both nationally and internationally. They also understand that our students expect and deserve the very best instructors when they enter the classroom. The professors at Mississippi Public Universities are preparing students today to be the innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow, so we all share in wanting the very best.

Certainly, no one enters the field of education hoping to become independently wealthy. There are many rewards to teaching, but salary is usually not at the top of the list. There is no doubt that interacting with students and helping them to succeed in the classroom and beyond is very rewarding. However, faculty members still have to provide for their families and should be able to enjoy the same quality of life that other professionals expect. If a professor can enjoy the same rewards of making a difference in the lives of students, while earning a considerably higher salary by joining the faculty at another institution in another state, why would a professor choose to stay in Mississippi?

Over time, we have been losing ground on faculty salaries. In 2000, faculty salaries in Mississippi were seven percent below the SREB average; the gap has widened to over 15 percent today. According to the Southern Regional Education Board’s2012 Progress Report on the Challenge to Lead Goals for Education, the average full-time faculty salary at public four-year colleges and universities in 2011 was $15,121 lower than the national average and $11,139 lower than the regional average.

While the retirement and health benefits offered to state employees are quite good, extending the health benefits to dependents can be more costly to the employee in Mississippi than in other states. This often serves to increase the pay gap when a potential faculty member is choosing between coming to a public university in Mississippi and taking a position with an institution in another state.

Another factor that we need to remember when considering faculty compensation is that, as budgets have been stretched thin, many positions have been left unfilled, creating larger class sizes and greater student-to-faculty ratios. This is not only stressful to the professors who have increased workloads, it can also impact the department’s and university’s accreditation status.

The Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning recently submitted our budget request to the Legislative Budget Committee. Included in this request was $40 million over this year’s appropriation for new faculty requirements due to enrollment growth, salary increases to bring faculty salaries more in line with SREB average salaries, increases for faculty and staff salaries based on merit, market or promotions and increases in operation costs. This is the best investment our state can make to ensure economic growth and improve the quality of life for all Mississippians.

  • Hank Bounds is Commissioner of Higher Education in Mississippi