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Columbia Spectator Staff

At a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences last Wednesday, University President Lee Bollinger spent almost 40 minutes fielding questions about the impending cuts to faculty and staff benefits. Since the cuts were announced last month, faculty members have reacted to them with almost uniform exasperation, saying they will lead to faculty flight and make it harder for Columbia to recruit top professors. The substantial cuts to health care benefits, retirement plans, and college tuition benefits for employees' children were recommended last month by a task force of professors and administrators. The University's "fringe pool," which employees contribute to out of their salaries and which pays for their benefits, has been losing $25 to 35 million per year, and the task force was charged with eliminating that deficit. Classics professor Stathis Gourgouris said that everyone who questioned Bollinger at the meeting opposed the cuts. "I have never seen A&S faculty of all ages, ranks, and persuasions so united on an issue," he said in an email. "The unanimous demand was that the administration go back to square one and reconsider entirely the proposed cuts." Provost Claude Steele, a co-chair of the task force, said the task force members tried their best to make the cuts—which would only apply to full-time professors, researchers, administrators, and librarians—as painless as possible. But professors say that the recommended cuts would only hurt Columbia. Reaction has been especially strong among Arts and Sciences professors, who are among the lowest-paid at the University. "I have spent the better part of the last week in discussion with various faculty across the entire Arts & Sciences, all of whom feel that the changes in benefits would have a hugely negative impact on our ability to attract the best faculty," Physics department chair Bill Zajc said in an email. And while faculty members knew that cuts were coming, that has done little to temper their frustrations with the University. SLASHING BENEFITS The cuts to tuition benefits and retirement plans will only affect new hires. It is the cuts to health care plans that would have the biggest impact—both because they would affect all employees and because health care costs are the biggest part of the deficit problem. Despite the cuts to tuition benefits and retirement plans, the cuts to health care will have the biggest impact because they will affect all employees, not just new ones, and they make up the biggest component of the debt problem. "You could cut and cut and cut those and you still might not satisfy this beast of increasing health care costs," Steele said. The main recommendation for changing the University's health coverage is making its "100 percent plan"—under which all health care costs are covered—more expensive, encouraging employees to switch to its "90 percent" plan under which the University pays 90 percent of costs up to an out-of-pocket maximum. Earth and Environmental Science professor Maya Tolstoy, the co-chair of the University Senate's Commission on the Status of Women, expressed concern about the consequences of more employees choosing to use the 90 percent plan. "That's very significant for a junior woman who's going to have a child, if she has to pay 10 percent of the cost involved in that," Tolstoy said. "That's going to be very significant for her." One explicit goal of the changes is forcing employees to think more carefully about how they incur health care costs. The report notes that, "When medical treatment costs the individual relatively little, people tend to consume more services without questioning their cost and value." The Commission on the Status of Women faulted this view, saying in its preliminary end-of-year report that it is also important to remember that when costs are high, individuals are less likely to seek necessary health care. "I'm concerned about whether or not you really want to be discouraging people from going to the doctor," Tolstoy said. "And personally, I let my doctor make the call about what tests I need." Faculty members also say they are worried that the recommendations don't include estimates about how much the health care plans will cost—something Steele said would become clearer in a few months. Columbia currently covers the full cost of tuition for employees' children who attend Columbia, and half the cost of tuition for those who attend other colleges. Under the new proposal—which will only apply to employees hired after it is implemented—only 80 percent of Columbia tuition and 40 percent of other schools' tuition would be covered. The University would also cut its contributions to employee retirement plans. This change is being grandfathered in as well, so current employees will keep the plans they already have. To try to make sure that new employees still have enough money to retire, the University would automatically enroll them in a savings plan that would put away three percent of their salaries per year, although they would be able to opt out. Steele acknowledged that this new plan is a "trade-off," but said it will benefit employees. "The [new] system is more in line with what people generally think is the best strategy for retirement benefits to put the money in early, then you get the benefit of compounding over the years," Steele said. "So that's another principle that I think is an improvement, even as it involves some cuts to the amount that the University puts in." Medical School professor Jessica Kandel, a member of the task force, said she believes the retirement proposal is reasonable. "The proposed plan seemed to meet the goals to ensure a sufficient retirement package (so that officers could actually afford to retire), while controlling the University's retirement costs," Kandel said in an email. But some faculty members objected to the concept of forcing junior professors to put away more money earlier. "That's going to put a very big burden on people whose salaries hover around $75,000 per year," English department chair Jean Howard said. Steele also noted that not every recommended change is a cut. The task force also recommended the establishment of a $1 million fund for pre-kindergarten education for employees' children and expanding health care funds for same-sex domestic partners of employees. But it is clear that employee benefits will be reduced substantially. "We're going to be paying more for our health premiums," Howard said. "We're going to be paying more for our children to go to colleges." RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION Many professors see the cuts as the latest in a string of blows to faculty living standards at Columbia. Since the economic recession began, faculty salaries have increased zero to two percent each year, while rent for faculty in University-controlled housing has increased at least 2.5 percent nearly every year, pushing real wages down. This effective salary decrease has hit Arts and Sciences faculty members especially hard, as they generally have lower salaries than professors at the University's pre-professional schools, such as the Law and Business Schools. A recent study by the American Association of University Professors indicated that Columbia professors are the second-highest paid in the country, but faculty members said that this does not reflect reality. "I don't shop at grocery stores in Cambridge, Massachusetts," astronomy professor Jim Applegate said. "I care about my salary here in New York City." Steele said that tuition benefits would still be among the best in the country after the cuts, but faculty remain unconvinced. History department chair Mark Mazower said that Columbia has traditionally given relatively high tuition benefits because of its low salaries and the high cost of living in New York City. "If you cut what was generous but you don't raise those elements where we do poorly, then you are in a very difficult situation," he said. Faculty members have said that the fringe benefits cuts, coming on top of declining real wages, will hurt the University's ability to recruit the best professors and to keep the professors they have. "A lot of the people you want to recruit have small children or are going to have children soon," Applegate said. Before makings its recommendations, the task force commissioned the consulting firm McKinsey to study the benefits at 16 peer institutions. The University has not released the data, but Zajc, one of nine members of the Arts and Sciences faculty governing body, said that someone who has seen the data told him that Columbia's pension plan is the worst in the Ivy League. Steele had a different assessment. He said that Columbia would be in the "middle of the pack" with regard to retirement plans, and "right in there" with regard to health care plans. But for many Arts and Sciences professors, the cuts are problematic regardless of how benefits at other universities compare to those at Columbia. "I don't think that people like paying more for health care, but this was assumed as inevitable," Gourgouris said in an email. "The problem was that increasing premiums were concurrent with cuts in salary and benefits." Mazower said that if changes are not made, faculty members are likely to come to Columbia, receive good training, and then leave mid-career. "They will see [that] if they get tenure and stay at Columbia, they will lock themselves into a cycle of declining living standards," Mazower said. Declining real wages also mean that longtime faculty might be forced to postpone retirement. Applegate, who is 56 right now, said that instead of retiring between ages 65 and 70, he might be forced to work until 75 or 80. "Unless something is done about this structural problem in the Arts and Sciences, to be blunt, this starts to look like the teach 'til-you-die plan," Applegate said. "Because that's the only thing left to squeeze." MANHATTANVILLE VS. SALARIES At the Arts and Sciences faculty meeting with Bollinger last week, professors expressed discontent that faculty benefits are being cut as the University is spending on big capital projects. "We have the utter discrepancy between, on the one hand, the President presenting a real bright picture of Columbia having solved its space problem with the Manhattanville project ... and Columbia's most successful capital raising effort in its history (nearly $4 billion), while, on the other hand, an announced project of stark cost-cutting of salary capacity and health-tuition-retirement benefits across the board," Gourgouris said in an email. Bollinger told Spectator that the funding for Manhattanville has and will continue to come primarily from donations that would not have been given for other projects. "While it may appear, and I really do understand this, that there are these extremely important and bright buildings that are on the horizon and you might conclude from that, that that is money being taken away from other things we might do, like increased salaries, the fact of the matter is it's not a correlation," he said. Still, many painted the cuts as part of a larger problem with how the University treats its faculty members. History professor Susan Pedersen said that by allowing the living standard for faculty members to erode, Columbia is breaking its "moral contract" with its professors. "We accept that, in hard times, everyone will tighten belts," Pedersen said in an email. "But we also expect that the institution will not, as common policy, steadily degrade the living standards of the faculty. That is how Columbia operates and I find it very shocking." Mazower said it is especially important to protect the Arts and Sciences faculty, who hold most of the responsibility for undergraduate education. "If you allow for a long-run degradation of the faculty living standards alongside other things ... that will have implications for the College, and it will have complications for the staffing and teaching of the Core," he said. BACK TO THE START Steele said that faculty and staff input will be taken very seriously, and could lead to changes in the new benefits package. But the plan is still for the Board of Trustees to approve the finalized changes next month, he said, in time for the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. He added that if these or similar recommendations are not implemented, the effects on the University could be drastic, with $25-35 million in debt continuing to accumulate each year. "You have to pay that somehow, you have to pay those costs. You have to pay the hospitals, you have to pay the retirement claims, you have to pay them," Steele said. "So that comes out of the core mission of the University—our instructional budget, our ability to hire faculty, our ability to give financial aid to students. Just every aspect of our University would have to feed that beast of increased health care costs." "We just have so much resources and they're not as much as we need to do all the things we want to do, so we're year after year in a position where we always struggle to get the right balance," Bollinger said. The University has held several town hall meetings for faculty members to give suggestions for changing the recommendations, and the University Senate's fringe benefits committee is also discussing a response. The task force's recommendations include the establishment of a permanent committee to review these benefits every year—but faculty members are pushing for immediate changes, maintaining that the cuts are too severe. Pedersen said she has heard people talk about the declining living standards for A&S faculty since she came to Columbia eight years ago, but that no one has made a real commitment to improving them. "It's all very upsetting," Pedersen wrote. "This is one of the finest Arts and Sciences faculties in the country. It should be able to count on the institution's leadership to make sure it is treated properly." Correction: A previous version of this article overstated the annual rent increase for Columbia faculty. Spectator regrets the error. sammy.roth@columbiaspectator.com

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