Flowers on Louisville's campus

The University of Louisville | Photo by Jeremy Chisenhall

After scrimping due to budget cuts and low pay, new surveys find University of Louisville faculty morale is devastatingly low ahead of a vote to potentially raise their salaries for the first time in two years.

A long-festering morale problem at UofL hit a fever pitch last month when the school’s trustees gave President Neeli Bendapudi a double-digit raise — much more than the potential 2% raise for faculty and staff set for a vote Thursday.

Bendapudi’s raise came partially to reward a strong first year and partially to bring her salary in line with the average for her position. Faculty immediately wondered: What about us?

Bendapudi’s surprise raise provided a stark reminder of what led to what some are calling the university’s lowest morale in years. Despite newfound optimism from Bendapudi’s arrival on campus, faculty surveys show morale issues linger. And they’re largely tied to budget cuts and minimal raises juxtaposed with the exorbitant pay of past officials.

Two surveys administered over the past year — one by UofL, one by UofL’s chapter of American Association of University Professors, both shared with Insider — found similar problems.

Nearly all faculty — 94% — who responded to the AAUP survey said budget cuts affected morale. Fewer resources, particularly those stemming from a 5% university cut last year, hurt recruitment, retention and research, the survey found.

Below-average salaries and a lack of raises negatively impact job satisfaction and morale, faculty said. Three-fourths of respondents said low salaries have impacted their family’s well-being.

The survey outlines how faculty see budget cuts playing out at the ground level. Fewer classes being offered. Not being able to afford top talent. A “mass exodus” of professors, plus more looking for work.

“This is a state of emergency,” one faculty member wrote. “Every single colleague I have is searching for a job.”

Melissa Merry, a political science professor and AAUP president, said the group wanted to better understand the impact of “constant” cuts and how widespread the concerns were. The group, which returned to campus a few years ago partially to tackle the morale issue, wanted to start tracking morale over time.

“There are people at UofL who are truly suffering because of budget cuts,” Merry said in an interview last month, calling the impact on morale and well-being the survey’s most troubling finding.

UofL faculty have not received raises, including cost-of-living adjustments, since 2017, according to data provided by UofL.

In three years — 2010, 2011 and 2013 — employees with “satisfactory performance” received lump bonuses of $700 or $1,200. In other years since 2010, faculty have received anywhere from no raise to a 6% increase.

Salary increase history at UofL

Faculty at the University of Louisville have seen limited raises over the past decade. | Chart from UofL

A separate UofL campus climate survey found much of the same: “Demoralizing” lack of pay increases, being told to do more with less, watching officials — including “failed” former athletic coaches receiving buyouts — pull in much higher salaries.

Bendapudi’s arrival last year, however, generated much of the positive responses in the survey. Her leadership is turning things around after past scandals, leading to a “renewed sense of hope on campus,” the survey said.

“I cannot change the actions of the past, but my administration has been open and honest in our dealings with faculty, staff and students,” Bendapudi said in a statement responding to the AAUP survey.

“I encourage them to continue to work with me to help us achieve our goal of making UofL a great place to learn, to work and in which to invest.”

Pay-centered low morale isn’t new. Three years ago, a faculty work group found UofL professors often made lower salaries than their peers in similar universities. Low pay led to low morale, which led to a negative work environment, professors said at the time.

Comparing UofL’s Arts & Sciences 2013 faculty salaries — the most recent data available at the time — to 111 schools, only 11% of professors met or exceeded the average pay, the group found.

At the time, it would take around $4.3 million to bring UofL’s Arts & Sciences professors’ salaries to the average. The figure does not account for other schools at the university, and the AAUP has not revisited the study since.

Merry said the group shared their most recent findings with the workgroup looking into faculty issues to build UofL’s strategic plan. The plan is set to be finalized this summer and formally launched in August.

Within a day of being offered a raise last month, Bendapudi said she would donate it back to the university. Much of the initial criticism and concern around the raise turned into praise, but the pay discrepancy stayed in many minds.

“(Bendapudi’s) doing a fantastic job…it absolutely makes sense to pay her the market rate,” Merry said. “Where there’s a disconnect is how long that logic extends.”

A potential 2% raise for faculty and staff is set to be voted as part of the larger budget on Thursday. It is unclear whether the raise will be an across-the-board 2% or differ based on variables like position, current salary and experience.

Faculty and Bendapudi have said the raise isn’t enough, but it is a start. “While this is a small increase, it is a step in the right direction,” Bendapudi said in a statement last month.

Cost of living continues to go up in the meantime, Merry said, with faculty “falling further and further behind.”

And it comes with a negative side effect: The raise, if passed, will be funded through a 2.5% tuition increase for students. Retaining professors and boosting morale helps students, Merry suggested.

When the university loses its best scholars, it decreases its reputation, Merry said. UofL often replaces tenured professors who leave for higher salaries with part-time lecturers. The lecturers, she argues, aren’t as involved in research and are less likely to write letters of recommendation.

It diminishes the student experience, she said.