Administration won’t award merit-based pay to professors

The Gateway has traditionally been written by students, but in the newspaper’s long history, publishing work by professors is nothing new. Such a letter would perhaps be most appropriate in the Letters to the Editor section, but since the Letters section is quite relevant and contentious this week, and since professors’ salaries affect every students’ education, we feel that running this letter in the Opinion section proper is appropriate. This is JC Cahill, Professor of Biological Sciences.

Dear University of Alberta students,

Welcome back, or welcome to, the U of A. Even as a long-time professor, I share the excitement of the new academic year. With a new President, Provost, and Chair of the Board of Governors, it’s an exciting time. It’s also the first year in our history that the Fall academic term has begun without a contract between professors and administration.

That might seem trivial, but it could have more immediate effects on your education than changes to campus leadership. I will not broach the technical issues that lie behind this matter; instead, let me engage you with the one that seems counter-productive to ensuring excellence of the institution and unhelpful to your learning: the withholding of merit-based salary raises for professors. This is a decision made long before the oil prices started to fall, fires and drought ravaged the province, or the government changed.

The performance of professors including those with tenure, is subject to robust evaluation every year by a Faculty Evaluation Committee (FEC). FECs consist of professors from all departments in one’s home faculty, tasked with deciding how “meritorious” each colleague’s performance was over the prior twelve months. Evaluations are based upon all the scholarly and service activities performed during the prior twelve months, including the quality of teaching, publications and creative works, reports and patents, and service to society. Each year, FECs decide which professors performed particularly outstandingly, which were more typical, and which did too little to deserve a merit increment.

FECs have done their job, and have awarded varying amounts of merit to thousands of professors. Prior to this year, the university would have provided modest raises (typically 0-4 per cent of base pay) based upon those outcomes. These are not luxurious raises, however, merit raises are about much more than money. Because of the rigour of the FEC process, merit awards are the most tangible way our employer has of telling us how well or how poorly we professors are performing service and scholarship. In the worst circumstances, consecutive years of poor performance can lead towards the dismissal of a tenured professor, or denial of tenure.

Regrettably, the U of A administration this year has chosen to not place any value on the FEC decisions already made, and is rewarding those individuals ranked most meritorious exactly as those ranked as unmeritorious, with both groups receiving a $0 raise. By refusing to reward professors for the increments FECs have decided professors deserve, the university’s administration has removed the only incentive the system has to motivate us to excel inside the classroom and beyond.

Imagine this happening in your courses. Suppose your professor requires you to perform a number of graded activities. You complete each dutifully and take pride in your mastery of the subject. Your professor, recognizing your unusually meritorious performance, awards you a higher grade on that assignment than received by others. Yet at the end of the year, the university assigns each student exactly the same grade. Or suppose that though you have completed all of the requirements for an Honours degree, the university decides that for this year, all students will receive the same designation, regardless of performance. Over time, such actions would be devastating to the quality of education, and lead to a pit of mediocrity on the bank of the North Saskatchewan.

For your professors, this is not hypothetical. No matter how much we worked to make the classroom experience positive and valuable, to push back the edges of knowledge, and to enhance the quality of life of Albertans, the U of A’s administration has taken the decision to reward those efforts no more than if we had not even tried. Of course, money is not the only reward for work well done, but it is the principal one the U of A has used for decades.

And so, in this year of exciting change on campus, it might be helpful to know that you are also in a school beset with labour strife. Broken trust inevitably has a dampening effect on motivation, effort, achievement and morale everywhere, including universities. The U of A has truly excellent professors, and most will continue to work to the best of their abilities. However, what will an organization which ignores excellence look like in the future?

Nonetheless, we must soldier on, and I offer a fair warning to the students in my class: yes, differential performance on your exams WILL result in different letter grades in December! I do this because it supports our motto, Quaecumque vera.

Enjoy the academic year, and best of luck in your studies.


  1. Unfortunately Lil bast we live in a world where markets determine wat a prof is worth. So if ua drops their balls in the salary dept most of the profs will leave for ryerson waterloo and even Carlton leaving dedmonton more of an intellectual cesspool… The Lil bast are in fact the bog on this one

  2. Whether the merit increments are withheld or not given out at all, the fact remains that the Bog is acting outside of a legally binding agreement.
    Withholding the merit increments, in principle, as deciding to withhold salaries until a later date.
    BOG just doesn’t have the right to do that.
    It is disingenuous of them to force us to grieve it in order to get what is ours by right.
    Its a waste of my AASUA dues and AASUA time.
    What’s next, withholding student grades for a couple of months?
    And then force the SU to take them to court to get the grades?
    Seriously, if they treat faculty like this, it is not long because they do it to students, too.

  3. The “opinion” is incorrect in at least two ways:

    1) The decision was announced in June 2015 – this is long after the plunge in oil prices and the change from PC to NDP.

    2) The increments are not zero but delayed until an agreement is reached with AASUA – it is disingenuous to suggest all will be given $0. Administrations announcement of the delay in increment awars read “increments that have been awarded for July 1, 2015 implementation will not be added to salary until after negotiations with the AASUA have been completed.”

  4. People here are missing the main point, which is that the Board of Governors, unilaterally overruled a legally binding process by which merit increments were decided in the 2014/15 year. As JC pointed out, major effort and resources go into the determination of the merits, with committees comprised of the Dean, all the Dept Chairs, a certain number of elected members from each faculty on campus, and a representative of the Presidents Advisory Committee.
    This process is tightly regulated by the overarching Faculty Collective Agreement and by Agreements voted on by each Faculty Council.
    Under the Postsecondary Act, it is the legally-binding way in which increments are decided.
    It is ludicrous that the BOG has tried to unilaterally overrule this LEGALLY_BINDING process.
    It is nothing short of hubris for them to do so and a huge waste of time and money for the AASUA to have to file a grievance about something that is so blatantly wrong.
    In effect, it is as if the Chair of the Board of Governors unilaterally decided to lower students’ marks.
    The argument is NOT whether or not they should be lowered, BUT by which process????
    Students are very naive if you don’t realize that the hubris that causes BOG to think its above the law will inevitable hit students next. Maybe a unilateral decision to disregard the postsecondary act on your tuition.
    Basically a BOG that will unilaterally deny faculty a portion of the salaries is capable of violating every other agreement that was made. Good luck to the students when they do that to you.

  5. negotiated across-the-board salary increases are standard and have not kept up with inflation for years at the UofA. also all ranks of academic staff (which includes APO/management, librarians, contract teaching staff, research staff, assistant and associate professors, sessionals, and FSO: salaries are capped except for the highest level of professorial staff which make up a minute fraction of this UNION. all staff at the UofA are unionized and thus “operate like union staff.” these staff members should be awarded their service increments just as other unionized staff receive them, provided that their work is satisfactory or above (ie. deserving of merit). give me a break.

  6. I’m not condoning Professor Cahill’s perspective, but I understand his frustration: University of Alberta’s senior administrators have not done well with their responsibility to protect the institution, and for years the professoriate has bourn the brunt of cutbacks while senior administration has bloated. Mostly this has been kept from students, because professors in general care about the quality of students’ educational experience, and know that students have other things to worry about.

    But things are coming to the point where many professors and other members of the academic staff association (called AASUA) are saying ‘enough is enough’.

    So Dr. Cahill’s remarks can be thought of as an expression of collective frustration.
    However, there are some points, made by Dr. Cahill and others in the comments, that require correcting:

    Firstly, FECs rarely award merit (remuneration) increases on the basis of teaching. So the lack of merit increases does not directly disincentivize quality teaching per se. What it affects is the morale and potential for a faculty member to move up in rank from assistant to associate to full professor. It affects their sense of having being shown respect by the administration.

    What does affect the rewards from FEC is an individual’s productivity in terms of research and publication. But in a situation like the one where professors find themselves now– loosing departmental support staff, loosing basic equipment like telephones, loosing full-time colleagues to share the load of work within a department, inevitably there is less time to do research and write and publish about it. And so when professors are pulling double or triple duty and are told zero dollars are available for increases, that is a problem. Especially when they see bloat in the senior administrative level, the parts of the personnel structure that have zero student contact, and rarely do research either.

    Secondly, professors, librarians, lab instructors, and many other forms of personnel are paid according to set scales. Professorial pay is not unlimited, contrary to what “Insider” thinks. You can look at the pay scales here:

    Thirdly, professors do not belong to a union. In fact the academic staff at all universities in the province of Alberta, are not allowed to belong to a union. Academic staff are legislated by the Alberta Post Secondary Learning Act, to belong to a collective bargaining association. At UAlberta it’s the AASUA. This means that in Alberta, academic staff lack the protections of a union including the right to go on strike when a contract negotiation has failed. So that even though the current contract negotiations have stalled, even though the University’s senior ainistrayion has decided to withhold merit increases allocated on last year’s productivity and excellence, even though the University is ‘bargaining in bad faith’, academic staff, including professors, must keep working.

    So, while I deplore Dr Cahill’s assertion that lack of merit at FEC will provide disincentives to good teaching, I welcome the fact that The Gateway published his letter, thereby opening to the student body awareness of the problems with the senior administration at the University of Alberta, problems affecting all professors. I encourage all students to become more aware of what is happening to universities in Alberta and other parts of the country. The post secondary education system is being destroyed by overt political policy. You have a right to know about this.

  7. Did you know that professors salaries are not capped? They do not operate like Union staff. They have no upper salary limit. On top of negotiated salary increases these merit levels can increase their base salary every year over the duration of their career.

  8. can we clarify that these “merit increments” are the same as increments received by ALL staff of various unions (NASA, AUPE, UNA, HSAA, etc.) for every year of full time work. these increments are awarded yearly for satisfactory service and withheld for poor work. this is how unionized staff move up their assigned pay grade until they reach the maximum pay step. the only difference is that academic staff (AASUA) must do exceptional work to receive this increments (that are pretty much a given for other unions for staff who do satisfactory work and cannot be withheld for administrative reasons).

  9. These professors who have no motivation to excel without raises and bonuses should look into changing professions.

    The Board of Directors should look into cutting salaries to spite ^H^H^H^H^H^Hcut costs

  10. I can’t believe someone that perceives “reality” like she described, is actually a Professor. It’s a shame how our educational system fails at allowing people like this to poison the minds of our future generations. Also, this is proof that millennials are not the only ones living in a entitled surreal universe.

  11. I could not believe what I was reading. And this is comming from a Professor? Scandalous…
    No incentive without bonuses? Bonuses for doing your job well? Unbeliveable. It’s more like you still get paid your salary even when you perform poorly at teaching. Being a teacher should be passion based. Be eager to educate young minds and help shape a better future should be your passion. If not being paid bonuses results for you to have no motivation in doing your job, then you should look for another one.

    However, I do believe teachers on any level should get paid very decently. They are critical in equipping young people with the tools necessary to not only have better chances in life, but also to have a cascading effect on next generations showing them how crucial a solid and broad education is.

  12. Load of sniveling. “…the only incentive the system has to motivate…” Really? What about a job well done, pursuing science, giving a hand up to the next generation, for the love of it. I feel privileged to work at the U of A, to leave my mark on the future and to know I have done the best I can do. Merit is extra to the regular salary, it is not equivalent to student grades. We should all be striving for an A all of the time. You are whining about not getting the stick-on gold star.

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