A group of faculty and students at St. Mary's College of Maryland, which charges the highest in-state tuition of Maryland's public institutions, is advocating a new wage structure it says would keep student costs down by establishing a "living wage" for the lowest-paid workers and capping top salaries.
Students on campuses nationwide — including Harvard University, the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University — have long lobbied for so-called living wages that pay staff enough to comfortably afford to live in their communities. But the St. Mary's group says its plan would be the first to link the demand to the pay of academic and administrative employees.
The proposal comes at a time when President Barack Obama has challenged the country's colleges and universities to develop creative ways to cut costs. He unveiled a proposal last month to rank institutions based on tuition, graduation rates and other factors, as part of a broad plan to make colleges more affordable.
Backers of the St. Mary's plan say it would promote equity and mutual respect on the campus, while keeping upper-end salaries from ballooning out of control. It would require interim President Ian Newbould to take a $25,000 pay cut and at least one full-time faculty member to take a hit of about $35,000.
"It's a way of reining in upper-level salaries and thereby keeping the cost of tuition reasonable and helping those faculty and staff at the lowest end of the pay scales," said Robin Bates, a longtime English professor at the school and a designated spokesman for the group behind the proposal.
But critics contend the plan has no connection to labor markets and would weaken the school's ability to attract top talent.
"You can get a [university] president for probably $150,000, but that might not be the kind of person you want," said Alan Dillingham, an economics professor and president of St. Mary's faculty senate.
Newbould is paid $325,000 — the same as predecessor Joseph R. Urgo, who resigned in June amid an admissions shortfall. The salary figure is on a par with those at some of the "peer institutions" identified by St. Mary's.
The proposal recommends setting a benchmark minimum salary for the school's lowest-paid worker at 130 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four. That would raise the current minimum to about $30,000 from $24,500.
Other salaries would then be determined using specific multiples of that number. The calculations would result in a small boost in minimum pay for staff and many professors, but a reduction in pay for executives and the highest-paid professors.
Full-professor salaries would be capped at $120,000 — $35,000 less than the current maximum. And the president's salary would be capped at about $300,000 — $25,000 less than the current pay.
Capping higher salaries would eliminate one of the cost drivers at the university, allowing it to limit future tuition increases, according to the proponents of a new financial model at the school. The proposal doesn't specify how tuition increases would be held down.
Pay for top administrators has been a point of contention for some St. Mary's faculty members, and the proposal's backers point out that pay for each of the top positions has risen at least 60 percent since 2000.
"The drastic increase in salaries paid to top administrators (both by increasing salaries for particular positions and elevating more positions to the VP-level) does not directly address our mission; instead, it reflects the unchecked exponential growth of executive salaries in higher education as institutions engage in an arms race for executive talent," the proposal states.
In an interview, Newbould stressed that the proposal hasn't won wide support. "This has not been put forward by the union, or the staff and faculty," he said.
Salaries and benefits for staff workers are negotiated through their union, Newbould said. And pay for others is based on market rates at peer institutions, including Beloit, Dickinson and Gettysburg colleges and the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
"We have a list of the organizations that we think are like us and the organizations we aspire to be like, and we regularly survey their compensation and compare ours," said Gail Harmon, a Washington-based lawyer who is chairwoman of the school's board of trustees.
St. Mary's is somewhat unusual in that it's a public honors college. The institutions it considers peers are mostly private, and they often charge roughly three times the tuition St. Mary's does.
Still, the school's $12,245 in-state tuition, not including fees and room and board, is the highest of Maryland's public institutions — 65 percent higher than tuition at the University of Maryland, College Park.