A key committee of the University of Virginia’s board voted to back President Teresa A. Sullivan’s plan to significantly boost faculty salaries.
It’s a boost that will likely come largely in the form of merit-based pay raises.
Sullivan laid out her goal — which is to make UVa one of the top 20 Association of American Universities schools, as ranked by professor pay — earlier this year. UVa is now 26th among the roughly 60 AAU members.
"If we falter of hesitate on this front, no other front will matter," Sullivan said as she reiterated her point before Thursday’s board meeting.
The Finance Committee of the Board of Visitors adopted a resolution calling for the university to meet the goal by the end of the 2016-2017 school year.
"The goal is not to increase every faculty members pay by the same amount nor is it to get every department at the university to the same level," said university spokesman McGregor McCance after the meeting. "The goal is to raise overall average faculty salary here through a system of merit based on peer review."
Board member William H. "Bill" Goodwin Jr., who served on the board some years ago, recalled during the meeting that, during his first tenure on the board, the university had slipped to a similar place in the AAU faculty rankings. At that time, board members tasked Leonard W. Sandridge, now senior adviser to the board, then a top administration official, with fixing the problem. He did, but more hard times hit the university, and the metric dropped again.
"It’s been clear to me that this was something that’s been eroding our ability to be competitive," Sullivan said.
Sullivan told the board the university must move from "great to greater."
"We are not trying to move from mediocre to good or from good to great," Sullivan said.
Goodwin said that the cost of boosting faculty salaries is a substantial cost, it’s relatively minor in the context of such a large university.
He said he thinks it’s about one tenth of one percent of the budget.
"I don’t want to dwell on that because, one, my numbers could be wrong," he said, eliciting chuckles from the board.
In September, Sullivan said that the move would cost about $65 million.
Sullivan said UVa has the moral authority to drive a transformation of public higher education as a secular institution where values matter.
The university, she said, has an opportunity to recast itself as American higher education in general faces tough times.
She’s pointed to the rapid aging of the university’s faculty as an impetus for a new hiring wave that will define the university for a generation to come. She has said it’s imperative the university get it right.
"I just think that the sine qua non of a great university is a great faculty," said board member R. Macdonald Caputo.
Foreign natures are racing to replicate the American public university system, she said.
"The Chinese are building the equivalent of Ohio State University every month," Sullivan said.
She recounted a meeting with a Chinese education official who said that country, in looking for a model for higher education, looks to The University of California at Berkeley in the West and the University of Virginia in the East.
"We are a model for them, but that also means we are a rival for them," Sullivan told the board.
Faculty Senate Chairman George Cohen was supportive of the move after the meeting.
"I think it’s terrific," Cohen said. "I think it’s a wonderful commitment to the faculty and the future of the university."
Cohen said the "devil may be in the details," but that the merit-based proposal Sullivan had showcased to the Faculty Senate was broad, not a narrowly focused reward for only the very highest-ranked professor.
And, he said, some faculty pay decisions already involve an element of merit.
"I think the assumption there is that I think that merit is relatively sparsely distributed among the faculty. In fact, I think merit is widely distributed among the faculty," Sullivan told the Faculty Senate in August. "Because it’s merit doesn’t mean it has to go to a tiny fraction of faculty."
Committee members also passed a resolution Thursday calling for more long-term financial planning. The resolution was separate, but board members discussed it in the context of faculty salaries.
"You have to marry up planning, fiscal planning and spending," said board member John L. Nau III.