Dr. Berman Announces First Improvements in Faculty Compensation in Eight Years

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  October 14, 2017

In early August President Dr. Berman sent an email to the entire faculty of Yeshiva University announcing–for the first time in eight years–increases in faculty salary and benefits. According to his statement, a “modest allocation of funds” has been set aside for merit-based salary increases starting in Fall 2017 and, as of September 1, 2017, the retirement plan match for employees with salaries above $62,000 has been increased from 2% to 3%.

Dr. Berman’s August 2017 announcement coincides with one of the benchmarks set in the university’s Strategic Plan for 2016-2020, released in 2016, and chaired by Vice President Josh Joseph. One of the plan’s “strategic imperatives” was to “develop a plan with benchmarks by summer 2017 to improve faculty compensation (salary and benefits) that meets the collective goals of the University.”

Dr. Berman’s announcement comes after several years of benefit cuts and a wage freeze enacted in response to the university’s critical financial situation following the 2008 financial crisis. Due to a high risk investment strategy YU’s investments lost about $525 million in value between 2007 and 2009. At the same time the university was also running an annual deficit of over $100 million.

The benefit cuts and wage freeze were one of many measures taken to deal with the university’s financial crisis. While the wage freeze was only meant to last two years, the university’s finances failed to turn around and–other than a 2% increase in 2013–it has continued for the past eight years. It should also be noted that given the rate of inflation, a salary freeze in one year can actually more closely resemble a salary cut in the next. Retirement benefits were similarly affected by the school’s financial meltdown. The matching benefits for the 403b retirement plan, in which the employer matches a certain percentage of the money that the employee places towards his or her retirement fund, were cut from 7% to just 2%, far below the average for private universities.

While Moody’s still rates YU’s bonds with a B3 junk rating, in February 2017 the credit rating service changed YU’s outlook from “negative” to “stable” for the first time since 2009. Although the University has by no means solved all of its financial problems, the change certainly reflects a positive steps towards its financial recovery, which could possibly have helped  enable Dr. Berman’s August announcement.

Of course the “modest” merit-based raises and 1% increase in retirement matching–still 4% lower than it was before the crisis–are only small steps in rectifying the problem.

Dr. Berman acknowledged this himself in his statement, noting that “these steps are, of course, only minor improvements, and I am deeply aware that more needs to be done in the future.”

But while he tried to emphasize that his announcement should “serve as an important signal” that  the “well-being [of faculty] is critical for the future of YU,” The Observer was unable to receive any information on benchmarks for future improvements from the President or his office, beyond the statement “YU continues to work on this issue.”

In fact, the Strategic Plan has not been updated to account for Dr. Berman’s latest announcement, so that the administration currently has no stated goal or commitment for when the next improvements in faculty compensation will be made.

While Dr. Berman ended his message by assuring that “Over this summer, we are working hard to plan for the inaugural year of this new administration during which we will lay the groundwork for a multiyear plan of growth and success,” no such plan with specifics on future improvements to faculty compensation has been made public.

Without clear cut commitments going forward, the assertion that the new changes should serve as an “important signal” that improving faculty compensation is a priority for the new administration, may be hard to swallow for a faculty that has faced significant financial belt-tightening and administrative ambivalence over the past years.

Indeed the financial stresses have left a mark on the faculty and its morale. In a 2013 survey on retirement administered by the Faculty Council, 88% of faculty responded that they would need to return to the pre-benefits cut rate of 7% matching to retirement funds in order to retire on time. Because of the impact of the cuts, one respondent even wrote anonymously that “I have no intention of retiring until I can no longer physically do my job.” The Council concluded that “the principal problem is not that faculty members do not know they need to save for retirement: it is that they are financially unable to save enough.”

Chair of the Faculty Council in 2016-2017 and professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Dr. Charles Swencionis, told The Observer in May of last year–before these new measures were announced–that the faculty is “extremely frustrated” with the administration’s handling of the compensation situation. “We certainly feel unappreciated,” he said, “morale is low.”

Dr. Matthew Miller, an English professor at Stern College, echoed a similar sentiment on faculty morale when speaking to The Observer about the past wage freeze and cuts as well as Dr. Berman’s announcement. “The wage freeze and benefit cuts have taken a heavy toll on overall morale and enthusiasm for myself and colleagues I know. Like many, I experience considerable financial anxiety.”

Still, he stressed that he “love[s] working at Stern” and that he “work[s] hard to keep these feelings separate from [his] teaching and endeavor[s] to create productive and upbeat classes.”

Miller appreciates Rabbi Berman’s indication “that he wishes to increase support where he can” and the need, “given [the] financial problems,” that “improvements must be gradual.” In light of these factors, Miller called the announcement “a welcome first step.”

But he also emphasized that in terms of the compensation cuts, “more will need to be done to create the career incentives necessary to motivate the quality of research and publication required for Yeshiva University to compete with its peers and retain its reputation as a research institution.”

On Dr. Berman’s new announcement, Co-Chair of the Faculty Council for 2017-2018 and Finance professor at Sy Syms, Dr. S. Abraham Ravid was also quick to note that “the University is still facing significant challenges” in light of the “years of stagnant pay, benefit reductions, and departures of some well respected professors.”  

Still Ravid took a more hopeful stance, telling The Observer that he “welcome[s] President Berman’s announcement” as a “very positive step,” and that he even sent the president a congratulatory email on behalf of the council right after the new measures were announced. “I am looking forward to working with him in bringing YU back to the table with the best faith based institutions in the country,” he said.

Dean of Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Karen Bacon, agreed that “if the goal is to bring us back to where we were [before the crisis]– in our retirement matching rate and yearly salary increase–then this [announcement] is not achieving that goal.” But she pointed out that it is “movement in the right direction.” 

Dr. Bacon said that she is eager to return to merit based salary increases “because our staff is very meritorious.” According to Dr. Bacon, merit based increases are determined based off of student evaluations, syllabus evaluations, use of innovative teaching methods, research productivity, grant earning, and participation in the University and its programs. “When I was responsible for making recommendations for raises I was very confident [with my recommendations] because the faculty is doing a wonderful job,” she said.

While Dr. Berman’s announcement is of course a welcome improvement from the cuts and stagnation of previous years, the fact that there is no clear goal moving forward may be a cause for concern. If the administration fails to create and commit to future benchmarks of improvement it may be difficult to regain the trust of the faculty and raise faculty morale. Still, by starting the first full year of his tenure with such an announcement, Rabbi Berman has set a positive and welcome tone, indicating that this issue may–finally–be taken seriously.