A Response to U of M President Mark Schlissel’s Proposed Cuts from the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, working people risk their lives every day, often for meager pay, to perform essential services. In return, they should be able to count on the respect and support of their employers. On April 20th, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel violated that trust when he sent employees an email indicating that wages and salaries for all employees not covered by a collective agreement will be frozen. The email also announced that Schlissel and the Chancellors of UM-Flint and UM-Dearborn would take a 10% pay cut from May 1 through the end of the year, while 13 others (11 Executive Officers plus the Chief Diversity Officer and the Athletic Director) would take a 5% cut.
The pay cuts to top administrators were presumably intended to demonstrate “shared sacrifice.” Instead, they showed how out of touch the President is. Under this plan, President Schlissel’s pay would go from $900,000 a year to $840,000, while the Executive VP for Michigan Medicine would see his salary fall from $1.4 to 1.35 million. Let’s get real: these cuts represent little to no real sacrifice. With the money they have saved from previous years, these two could go to $1 per year (as wealthy people serving in public leadership positions during national emergencies have done in the past) with little real impact on their standard of living.
To put these kinds of salaries in perspective, the median full-time salary at the University of Michigan is just under $60,000. The person occupying that location in the income distribution is a Nurse (Level C) who may well be risking her life for us as you read these words. By contrast, the top administrators targeted in the President’s email are all paid more than $350,000. We do not believe that such extreme salary inequality is ever justified in a public university, but in this moment of combined public health and economic crisis it is grotesque. And it’s not just the 16 individuals identified by the President: over 100 UM employees make more than $350,000 a year, putting them in the top 1% of the national income distribution.
Before a salary cut (which is what a pay freeze is, given price inflation) is imposed on any UM employee earning less than $60,000, the President ought to meet with UM employees and their representatives to explain which units are losing what amounts of money, what steps to deal with the challenges have been taken thus far, and what future scenario the proposed cuts assume. They should then offer a plan — discussed with and approved by UM’s elected Regents — that entails an equitable approach to shared sacrifice, with those at the top making financial sacrifices that hit them as hard as the cuts they demand of employees paid far less. Equity, so understood, is not a precise thing. But the token cuts at the top announced on April 20th surely fall far short of it.
1. Because the cut only applies to salary after May 1st, it’s really a 6.6% cut for Schlissel and the Chancellors, and a 3.3% cut for the other 13, on an annualized basis.