In a year when East Tennessee State University slashed its budget across-the-board by 6 percent and its president said the university tightened its belt, a Community Watchdog investigation revealed the salaries of two ETSU administrators jumped by more than $20,000 each.
We first started reviewing salary data from the Tennessee Board of Regents back in September. We analyzed the data by comparing 2013 and 2014 higher education salaries. The names of two ETSU employees quickly jumped out.
According to state records, neither of the two employees changed job titles between July 1, 2013 and July 1, 2014, but ETSU Associate Vice President of Information Technology Mark Bragg and Executive Associate Vice President for Finance and Administration Gregory Wilgocki received significant salary increases.
“If we’re able retain the outstanding faculty and staff who comprise the university, we do what we can on a case-by-case basis to keep them,” ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland said when questioned about the raises.
University salary information revealed not long after Bragg received a $2,500 equity raise in the second half of 2013, his six-figure salary skyrocketed by another $20,000 in February 2014 to $144,000. Over the course of one year that means his salary increased by roughly 19 percent.
University documents show Bragg was offered another higher education job in Tennessee. In order to keep him, Dr. Noland went all the way to the chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents to authorize a $20,000 “competitive salary increase.” Even then, the university argued Bragg would still be vastly underpaid compared to his counterparts across the nation.
“Mr. Bragg plays a critical role in directing, planning, administering, coordinating and controlling information technology at all ETSU facilities,” Dr. Noland wrote in a January 14, 2014 letter to the chancellor. “This critical salary increase is required to properly retain and compensate a uniquely qualified executive staff member. The current CUPA-HR Administrators in Higher Education Salary Survey notes a median salary for a Chief Information/IT Officer of $186,604 (doctoral institutions/budget quartile 2).”
Nearly a year later, Dr. Noland maintains it was critical to keep Bragg at ETSU.
“We just simply could not afford to lose our director of OIT at a point in time when we were implementing new technologies and moving through what was a pretty interesting budget year for us,” Dr. Noland said.
University salary information also revealed not long after that Wilgocki collected a $1,000 equity raise. His salary jumped by another $25,000, bringing his pay to $175,004.01. That increase over the course of one year equaled 17.5 percent.
Justification paperwork provided to us by the university at our request shows ETSU executives believed Wilgocki was long overdue for a raise. They argued his administrative responsibilities increased significantly when it came to his expanded role overseeing finances for the colleges of Medicine, Pharmacy, Public Health and Clinical and Rehabilitative Health Sciences.
“I am requesting a long overdue stipend for Greg Wilgocki, Executive Associate Vice President for Finance and Administration,” former Quillen College of Medicine Dean Dr. Phillip Bagnell wrote in a letter to a university executive. “Greg’s responsibilities have significantly increased in recent years…During this time of growth, Mr. Wilgocki’s income has not increased and is well below the AAMC data for Principal Business Officers for public medical schools in the United States. The median total compensation for PBOs in community-based schools (N=20) is $185,050. Including ETSU, a total of 26 of the nation’s 135 accredited medical schools (October 2011 data) are classified as community based. As PBO positions vary in level of responsibility, the median for PBOs with Chief Financial Officer titles is $243,950 (N=31) and for those with Associate Dean titles is $213,790 (N=29).”
Dr. Noland says Wilgocki’s increase was only fair.
“This was a salary increase that was more than deserved,” Dr. Noland said. “It was commensurate with the increase in responsibilities that he had absorbed over a five or six year time period and, once again, it was a recognition without making this investment. This was a highly marketable individual and we didn’t want to lose him.”
What about the timing?
Dr. Noland has said on multiple occasions the 2013-2014 budget year was a difficult one for the university.
“I recognize that as an institution we have to make strategic decisions to move the university forward in good budget times and bad,” Dr. Noland said.
Although he says the timing wasn’t great for Bragg to be offered another job, Dr. Noland stands behind his decisions to give both men their increases. He argues if the men, who both have sparkling records, took other jobs somewhere else, it would have cost the university much more to search for their replacements.
“If we lost these two individuals we would have had to invest much more than we did to keep them,” he said.
That said, one of the men is leaving.
Bragg is retiring on Jan. 9, not even a year after ETSU gave him a big raise to stay. Dr. Noland says he is not going to play “Monday morning quarterback” about his decision.
“I can’t go back and kind of evaluate the decision at this point in time,” he said. “I made it on the best information that we had based upon recommendations.”
The revelation of these salary increases comes as a surprise to ETSU adjunct instructor Dennis Prater. The freshman English instructor says he works another job at a local community college and waits tables. Still, despite spending more than 40 hours a week working three part-time jobs, he says he’s lucky if he cracks an income of $20,000 a year.
“That is more than I make per year,” Prater said of the raises. “It makes me wonder about the priorities and it also makes me feel what I’ve felt many times, that adjuncts slip through the cracks in higher education. Cuts in academic departments, while increasing the salary for administrators, just doesn’t seem to me to meet the mission of the university. I think that there needs to be a public conversation about it.”
Prater says he hopes this sparks more discussion about pay inequality campus-wide.
Dr. Noland says that is a conversation he is already having. He says employees university-wide are well below the national average and he wants that to change.
“I understand particularly for adjuncts we need to make some additional investments in adjunct compensation, but we need to make additional investments across the board,” Dr. Noland said. “We’re paid less than 80 percent of market salary across the board, so it doesn’t matter if you’re a support staff or you’re a dean or a faculty member or you’re a head of OIT, we have some areas of opportunity at the university to address salary.
“Part of the reason we’re going through this 18 to 24 month process of changing the way we budget at the university is so we can take those efficiencies and redirect those savings back into salary. It’s our plan as we move forward to every year begin to move the needle on salary equity. We did not get into this position overnight. We’re not going to get out of it overnight, but for two of the three years I’ve had the honor of being president of this university we made investments in salaries,” Noland said.
Data provided to us by the university reveals when compared to 12 similar institutions across the country, ETSU’s average faculty salary of $54,501 in 2010-2010 was well below the peer average of $69,733.
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