Gov. Chris Gregoire and other political leaders decried a recent agreement giving Western Washington University professors XX pay raises amid a tough economy.

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Gov. Chris Gregoire and other political leaders say recently negotiated pay raises for Western Washington University professors send the wrong message in tough economic times.

In a harshly worded letter to Western President Bruce Shepard, the governor criticized the university’s decision to raise salaries 5.25 percent this school year and 4.25 percent each of the following two years in addition to boosting department-chair stipends 15 percent.

The move comes as tuition is set to jump 16 percent this fall in response to state budget cuts.

“Your agreement seems to ignore the shared sacrifice that other state employees in general government and institutions of higher education have made during the Great Recession,” Gregoire wrote in the two-page letter, noting a pay freeze for other government employees and predicting Western’s move “will hurt current and future efforts to protect and increase funding for public higher education.” In a blog-post response, Shepard explained the raises came after administrators cut programs, including little-used classes and concentrations. Officials agreed to increase salaries because they believed it would help them retain and recruit quality professors.

But the governor wrote that she and lawmakers “never intended significant salary increases for faculty employees at the same time” as tuition hikes.

Randy Hodgins, a spokesman for the University of Washington, said he and others were surprised Western was even allowed to do it. UW professors last received a raise in 2008, Hodgins said, adding that the university used its tuition increases to bolster financial-aid offerings and expand “gateway courses” into popular majors.

At Western, in Bellingham, professors have historically been paid less than their counterparts around the state and country, said university spokesman Steve Swan. Addressing that was necessary to “preserve the core of the excellence of Western,” he said.

“We’re in a talent-based industry in which there is nationwide competition for faculty,” he said.

The only four-year university in the state with lower professor salaries, The Evergreen State College, recently agreed to pay raises — but they won’t take effect until 2013.

The Western raises, which will cost about $3 million this year — about 1 percent of the university’s $256 million budget — were the result of six-month contract negotiations completed last month, said Steven Garfinkle, a history professor and president of the United Faculty of Western Washington. Western is one of four state universities with a unionized faculty, along with Evergreen and Central and Eastern Washington universities.

Gregoire found out about the raises only recently, after the university approved them, said Marty Brown, her budget director.

But everybody deserves a raise

Brown said just about everybody in state government can make the case that they deserve a raise.

Western’s action “seems tone-deaf to me after that huge fight in the Legislature to keep them from getting cut, and then they give big raises and raise tuition to the max,” he said, referring to a spring Legislative session that ended after two special sessions.

In the end, funding for higher education was not cut, as many feared it would be.

But that “doesn’t mean that we can suddenly fund people who deserve to have their salaries increased,” said Ed Murray, chairman of the state Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Murray, D-Seattle, said he’s concerned that Western’s move will make it harder for lawmakers to argue higher education is inadequately funded.

“They deserve the increases, as do people at the University of Washington and Washington State University and everyplace else,” Murray said. “But deserving and our ability to pay for it are still two different things.”

Ross Hunter, chairman of the state House Ways and Means Committee, also agreed with the governor’s complaint.

“The concern here is legit,” said Hunter, D-Medina. “You have a 5 percent raise for one group of people. Nobody else in the state is getting a 5 percent raise.”

Other staff at Western are unlikely to get the same type of pay raises, Hunter said. Raises for classified staff at the universities have to be approved by the Legislature, while faculty negotiate directly with the university administration.

Low ranking on pay comparisons

Despite the criticism, Western officials said Tuesday they think they did the right thing.

“Certainly we respect Gov. Gregoire’s reaction to the contract, but Western is proud of what it’s achieved in this contract as it enables us to maintain the quality of excellence of Western Washington University,” said Swan, the university spokesman.

Swan and other university officials pointed to several recent studies showing how Western fares in compensation. One, from the International Journal of Management and Marketing Research, placed Western 480th out of 574 similar universities in its cost-of-living-adjusted salary ranking, he said. That was fifth out of the state’s six public four-year institutions, ahead of only Evergreen.

Another study, by The Chronicle of Higher Education, placed the average salary for an associate professor at Western at about $65,400 — slightly less than the average salary of a high-school teacher in the Bellingham School District, Swan said. Full professors at Western make an average of $81,700 and assistant professors an average of $55,300, according to The Chronicle.

Department-chair stipends, for administrative expenses, range from $4,400 to $8,800, depending on department size, Swan said.

Swan also cited broad support from students for Western’s approach.

Ethan Glemaker, the student-body president, wrote in an email he was “willing to make small sacrifices in terms of paying a slightly steeper tuition cost if it means I will be getting the premier education that Western has always — and will always — offer.”

Garfinkle, the union president, said that was the point of the raises: improving education as tuition is increasing.

“At a time when we’re asking students to pay more, we can’t offer them less,” he said. “We shouldn’t ask them to pay more and get less.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

Comparing salaries
How Washington state public universities rank on a list of 574 U.S. universities in average professor salary, adjusted for cost of living
School Rank
Washington State University 165
University of Washington 179
Central Washington University 429
Eastern Washington University 446
Western Washington University 480
The Evergreen State College 514

Source: International Journal of Management and Marketing Research, as cited by Western Washington University President Bruce

Shepard in a blog post.