Faculty Senate lobbies for closer look into benefits packages

Media Credit: Andrew Goodman | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Joseph Cordes, an economics professor and chair of the Faculty Senate finance committee, was critical of the University's recent changes to its tuition benefits program. He said that it was disappointing that the updated program didn’t grandfather in current student employees to allow them to keep benefits, unlike changes made to the program in the 1990s.

Faculty Senate leaders brought a year-long battle over how much the University invests in employee benefits to a new tipping point Friday.

Charles Garris, the chair of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, criticized administrators for not investing more in employee benefits packages, and senate members Friday argued that the University should increase the funds set aside for benefits. The confrontation came after months of back-and-forth between faculty and administrators about how much employees should contribute to rising health insurance costs.

“A larger issue concerning many faculty is why the administration feels that it is appropriate to impose benefit cuts on faculty and staff at a time of massive spending by the administration on multiple building projects for which fundraising has lagged,” Garris said. “Some faculty believe that the tuition benefit cuts signal a very prevalent willingness within the administration to impose the costs of their misjudgments on the faculty and staff.”

Vice President for Human Resources Sabrina Ellis announced in September that GW would roll back its tuition benefits this January, which would save about $750,000. Those savings would help limit how much out-of-pocket health care costs rose this year, although they still increased about 3 percent.

About 1,000 employees signed a petition this month asking the University to allow employees enrolled in degree programs to keep their current benefits.

Kathryn Newcomer, director of the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, introduced a resolution at the meeting Friday to grandfather in all current employees so their benefits remain the same as they when they were hired. The Executive Committee will review the resolution next week and bring it to the senate floor next month.

Faculty have said they shouldn’t have to cut tuition benefits to make health care more affordable, and that GW’s packages have been reduced so much that total compensation doesn’t compete with similar institutions.

Provost Steven Lerman and Vice President for Human Resources Sabrina Ellis sent a letter to faculty, staff and students last week acknowledging the concerns about the policy changes, but reaffirming that they will go into effect after the new year.

“We recognize that any reduction in benefits is not ideal,” the letter said. “However, even with this change, we are confident that our tuition remission benefit continues to be competitive when compared with peer institutions and the use of the savings from this change to reduce the increases in health insurance premiums paid by everyone at GW was the right tradeoff.”

A group of four professors from the Appointment, Salary and Promotion Policies and the Fiscal Planning and Budgeting committees will spend the next few months reviewing GW’s benefits packages and how they compare to competitor schools.

Ben Hopkins, an associate professor of history and international affairs who will serve on the subcommittee, said the group will look for ways to grow the pool of money set aside for benefits. It will likely present to the Faculty Senate this winter.

“The pool needs to grow, that’s the long and short of it,” Hopkins said.

Tyler Anbinder, a history professor who is also on the committee, which is still waiting to have its first meeting, said the University’s benefits have shrunk in the last five years, so the difference between average total compensation at GW and similar schools has widened.

GW’s human resources office has told employees that it cannot make major changes to employee benefit packages without the Faculty Senate budget committee first approving an increase in the money their office can distribute, Anbinder said.

“It’s frustrating first because what the University is doing is in a sense secretly cutting our pay,” he said.

GW typically increases the pool of money set aside for employee compensation by about 3 percent annually, but senators expressed concern that they could return to the same conversation year after year if administrators don’t look to change that trend.

Joseph Cordes, an economics professor and chair of the Faculty Senate fiscal planning committee, said it was disappointing that the new tuition benefits program didn’t grandfather in current student employees to maintain their benefits.

Cordes said when GW last adjusted its tuition remission package in the 1990s, the updated package was made available to new employees, but not those who had been hired before the changes were implemented.

“Grandfathering in is something that’s fairly widely, if not uniformly, accepted in a lot of situations,” he said.

Kim Roddis, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, said the benefits committee has looked at changing the tuition remission policies because they can, in some ways, make it difficult to hold on to staffers.

“It makes it hard to hire individuals not interested in exercising the tuition benefits option and hard to hold on to people after they’ve finished their degree,” she said.

Still, Gregg Brazinsky, an associate professor of international affairs and member of the Executive Committee, said the cap on how much money is set aside for compensation is the “crux of the issue,” since it’s problematic to try to improve benefits from year to year when the total amount added to the pool hasn’t increased.

“What are the prospects for raising the cap? Is the University in a position to do? Will it ever be in a position to do?” he said. “Or is it something that because of the recent crunch on enrollment in a few schools or something because of other financial commitments that has to be there?”

Lerman said it would be difficult for the Board of Trustees – who have the final say over the University’s budget – to increase money for compensation after revenue decreased.

GW brought in about $10 million less than it had expected to after a decline in graduate enrollment hit many of its college last year, and also spent about $10 million more than it had planned.

Lerman said the University should look farther ahead, since it consistently runs higher than national averages in terms of how much it spends on health care.

“This is something the whole University has to be worried about in the long term. I don’t see that problem going away in the short term,” Lerman said. “Having a conversation in the senate and other parts of the governance system is worthwhile.”

Michael Castleberry, a professor of special education and member of the Benefits Advisory Committee, said the committee discussed the trade-offs of changing the benefits, but that the effects of changes to tuition benefits on staff members didn’t come to their attention early enough.

The changes could make it hard for GW to keep and maintain good faculty who understand how the University’s systems works, he said, and for the University to be competitive in hiring staffers in D.C. if it’s known that GW often changes its benefits deals.

“They’re hard-put to see how they can function if there was to be dramatic turnover or constant change,” he said.

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