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Despite Explanations, Raises Breed Discontent

In comparing their raises to the faculty’s raises, some staff members feel undervalued.

Published: Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11

The unsigned letter, typed in a clean sans-serif, is four pages long. It is dated March 2, 2012 and addressed to the chair of the Kenyon College Board of Trustees, Barry Schwartz.

And it is to the point. The second sentence of the second paragraph of the message, which the Collegian has confirmed was written by a College staff member, reads as follows: “As an employee associated with the College for nearly two decades, I have never felt the campus awash in a current of such utter negativity.

“[I]t is vital for you to comprehend the extent of the issue at hand: resentment is boiling among the staff and administrators of the College,” the writer continues, “and ill will is festering among even your most loyal and dedicated employees.”

Nine days before the letter was written, President S. Georgia Nugent stood in Peirce Pub and explained to a group of about 75 staff members why they were receiving a raise worth 2 percent of their salaries when the faculty received raises worth 7-10 percent of theirs.

“Students don’t choose Kenyon for the president, or the registrar, or even business services. … They come here for the faculty,” she said. The registrar was in the room, sitting alongside colleagues from Admissions, Housing and Residential Life and Athletics.

The luncheon and the letter are pivotal elements of an ongoing battle between an administration that says Kenyon will suffer if faculty salaries cannot compete with our peer institutions and staff members who say they feel disrespected by the compensation changes and the way they have been justified.

Of the 12 staff departments that responded to Collegian inquiries, members of 10 mentioned that either they or some of their colleagues were upset by the discrepancy in raises.


Explaining the Decision

Most Kenyon staff first learned of their 2 percent raise in a Kenyon Today email sent in the second week of February. The email announced the raise, explained the decision and commended both the faculty and staff.

Some staff called the email an inappropriate way to present such controversial news.

“It’s always difficult to read major news like that over email without having a conversation,” said Humanities Librarian Nina Clements.

When she first heard of the raise, Alice Straus ’75, administrative assistant in Admissions, sent a five-page letter to Nugent detailing her concerns and outlining other paths the College could have taken. Her letter prompted Nugent to plan a presentation for the next employee gathering, the aforementioned luncheon in the Peirce Pub, sponsored by the Presidential Advisory Communication Team (PACT) on Feb. 21.

Nugent finished her presentation on the new compensation packages and took the few questions that were posed to her.

Then, after some polite clapping, “It got really quiet,” according to an exempt employee of the College who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his employment.

“I think people were stunned,” said another exempt employee of the College who cited the same concerns.

“What I was trying to do was explain,” Nugent said of her discussion at the luncheon. “… We felt our best effort, the best way to communicate would be to be factual and explain the reasoning. And I think in the end that is not what people wanted to hear.”

Despite the tepid reaction some staff members described, Nugent was initially optimistic.  “I would have said it was very positive,” she said. “I know that a number of people who were there said that.”

For some staff members, however, the lunchtime presentation only fueled discontent.

“People were like, ‘Oh, that’s not fair,’ and then when they heard the reasoning behind it that was given, they were like, ‘Oh, that’s really not fair,’” said an exempt employee who also asked to remain anonymous.

Since that meeting, the entire senior staff team has worked to explain the rationale behind the decision to increase staff pay in memos, meetings and discussions with their employees. Just this Tuesday, Provost Nayef Samhat called a meeting of administrative assistants to discuss the issue.

“There has been much distress among our senior staff that this decision has been misunderstood and many ensuing discussions regarding other ways to show appreciation for all Kenyon employees,” said Jennifer Cabral, director of human resources, in an email.

In the initial announcement and in the later luncheon, Nugent justified the sizeable faculty raises to keep the College competitive in attracting the best faculty. The issue is not new; nearly 15 years ago, the trustees made faculty salaries a main priority.

“We responded via our most recent budget action to the Board’s long-held objective to attract and retain the best possible faculty,” Schwartz said in an email.

The goal since then has been to keep faculty salaries in the top quintile of comparable salaries across the country. Since 2004-’05, data from the American Association of University Professors has shown that faculty salaries for assistant and associate professors here are falling below that benchmark.

Before these raises, salary was a significant factor in several candidates’ decisions not to join the Kenyon faculty, Samhat said.

This year, by comparison, each of the College’s seven searches for faculty has resulted in a hire of a top candidate. “We were very successful,” Samhat said.

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