DEI Expert Dr. Sandra Miles Answers Your Salary Questions

Dr. Miles joined Academic Impressions in 2022 having served as a leader and administrator in higher education for two decades. She has served as a subject-matter expert for Academic Impressions, facilitating trainings and workshops in higher-ed. Her passion is making DEI concepts resonate for individuals from all walks of life.

Salary conversations are difficult for job seekers and employers alike. Higher ed employers often rely on total compensation to attract new hires, so not posting a salary gets applicants in the door allowing them to upsell benefits. Meanwhile, jobs that do not disclose a salary range work to the detriment of historically marginally job seekers, like women and people of color. Both job seekers and employers struggle on either side of these conversations, but there are best practices you can employ. Below Dr. Miles has answer some of your questions about salaries in higher ed.

I have been in my position as an Assistant Director the last 6 years and I have only had to supervise students. Now we are adding a Coordinator under me as a direct report which also means I have to supervise a full time person and students now. They mentioned there would be a pay increase but didn’t mention how much yet. Wondering if I should wait to see what they offer or go ahead and give them the number I am thinking based on what I know they gave a current Assistant Director?

This is such a great question and these types of informal to formal changes happen very often in higher ed. My first suggestion would be to make sure that the number you are considering is a reflection of your job duties, not a reflection of what someone else is earning. The likelihood that you and your colleague are doing the exact same job (even if you have the exact same title) is pretty slim. So it could be that you should make more than your colleague if your job requires or you have more experience, technical expertise, longer days, night and weekend work, meetings with senior leaders, project management, etc. However, if it is the case that your colleague has the more demanding job/experience then it could explain why they have the more desirable pay. I do encourage that you arrive at the conversation prepared to discuss the salary regardless of who brings it up first. It never hurts to negotiate. For example, if you are offered $20k, you could respond with “I know that this offer is not being made lightly and in an effort to advocate for myself and the value of my work, I ask that you respectfully consider that the contribution I intend to make in this role is worth $25k”. If a firm number feels too intimidating then I’d suggest a range that you are comfortable with and, whether you counter with a number or a range, the reasons why your job deserves that level of pay (without regard for what anyone else is making). If you have the information available to you, you can start your research with salary comparisons. The job title is an easy starting place, but the number you settle on should reflect your belief in the value of the work being done. Good luck!

I’m a finalist for a position that I am really excited about but the salary range doesn’t meet my expectations. What are other benefits I could negotiate to make up for the salary deficit?

First – be sure that your salary expectations are based on the cost of living in the area as opposed to a hard and fast number. If you’ve already utilized a cost of living calculator and the is still an issue then fringe benefits can be a great way to extend the salary being offered. Depending on the level of your position, there are a number of benefits that would decrease your personal spending. Consider negotiating any of the following: a campus meal plan/campus “bucks”; remote work days; a personal laptop, printer, or other technology; reimbursement for all or part of your cell phone bill; a vehicle/mileage reimbursement/access to a campus vehicle as appropriate; and no cost or low cost campus housing for yourself and your family. The list could go on and on but it, like the salary, should be reflective of your expected job duties. With the exception of the remote work day, all of the examples I offered help to make you more accessible to students, faculty and staff and that makes you more effective in your role. 

When institutions post a range like 65K-85K, is it possible to negotiate beyond the 85K that is posted?

Anything is possible for those who believe, so definitely negotiate for yourself if the salary is truly below your expectations. That being said, generally the ranges that are posted are created based on the available budget for the position, so making the case for more salary may require some flexibility. For example, rather than ask for an additional $10k now, you could ask for a guaranteed $10k raise (not bonus) after your first year if you hit certain metrics. That way, you’re showing that you’re flexible and, more importantly, you’re giving them a chance to put the money in the budget. Just make sure you get that included in your signed offer letter!

I work at a public institution that publishes salaries and there are obvious gender gaps within some departments. There are also departments that have more funding so their administrative staff tend to earn more than staff doing the same work smaller departments. How do you create or even begin the conversation to get salary equity among staff?

There is no easy way to have this conversation. Fair or not, when people take on the role of advocate (either for themselves or others) in salary discussions, they end up with a target on their back. That said, these are really important conversations that need to be had, so my advice is pretty straightforward. If you do not believe your supervisor can or is willing to successfully advocate for pay: Step 1 – schedule a meeting with HR. Step 2 – Inform (don’t ask) your supervisor that you have scheduled a meeting with HR to discuss a “private personnel matter” (that way you aren’t going behind their back but you’re still maintaining your privacy). Step 3 – Meet with HR and share the evidence of pay discrepancy and then request a “pay equity assessment”. Step 4 – wait to receive the results. If the evidence clearly shows discrimination, then based on the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, your institution would be legally obligated to make equity adjustments.

Higher ed administrators will often cite “market forces” for differences in pay across disciplines (e.g., a women’s studies professor will be paid lower than an economics professor). But we know that the market is grounded in racist and sexist forces. How can we convince higher ed administrators that we need to pay faculty equally regardless of discipline?

Wow… this is such a big question and I don’t think any answer I offer will be universally accepted as feasible or acceptable, but I’ll do my best and start with this – it is possible for multiple things to be true at the same time. To answer this question it is important to acknowledge at least three truths. 1. Market forces are a capitalistic reality that any person living in our society must contend with whether they are fair or not. For example, in an environment where technology can make or break a company, the person who is able to teach you how to use or build said technology will be in higher demand than someone who is teaching a skill that feels less vital, has a higher number of people who are already in possession of that skill, or a much lower number of people who desire that skill.  2. The market, like most systems in our society, is absolutely shaped by various degrees of implicit or explicit bias. This was made very evident during the pandemic when occupations that would ordinarily pass the vital/high demand test were exposed as being severely underpaid. Positions like K-12 teachers, delivery drivers, residence life staff, etc. were abandoned for safer and higher paying jobs despite our societal and institutional need for labor in those areas. Those positions were also overwhelmingly filled with women, people of color, and those who were younger. 3. The market is not fixed. For a very long time, those who pursued careers in diversity, equity, and inclusion, were some of the lowest paid within their respective salary bracket at an institution. A VP for DEI, for example would earn far less than a VP for Advancement or Academic Affairs due to “market forces”. However, in the last two years with the seemingly sudden boom in this area, DEI has witnessed more positions being created, budgets being allocated, and higher salaries being offered than ever before. That is a direct reflection of a shift in the market.

With all of that in mind, my answer to the question will likely be unpopular but, I don’t believe we should convince higher ed administrators to pay faculty equally regardless of the discipline. That type of decision could bankrupt a campus in a day. And before you say “all you have to do is divide the full amount of faculty salaries by the number of faculty”, let me remind you that this would only work if you always have the exact same number of faculty members or if the budget always increases when new faculty are hired. The solution being you either come up with a never ending funding source, you fire a faculty member every time you hire one, or reduce the pay of all faculty equally every time you hire a new faculty member. The only way it wouldn’t bankrupt most institutions would be if said administrators decided to take the salary of the lowest paid faculty and make that the universal salary. So then you wouldn’t bankrupt the institution in one day, you’d drain it of highly sought after talent in two. Now before I get slapped with the badge of elitism, I want to clarify that I am not a proponent of income inequality and do not subscribe to whatever formula has created our market reality, I simply acknowledge that it is a very complicated reality.

Instead of sweeping decisions that unfortunately do not match the budget capacity of most campuses, I think, instead, if we are going to appeal to senior administrators, we should convince them to be more transparent about their values. If we say we value faculty contributions to education, then the budget should reflect that. If we say we value students, then the budget should reflect that. If we say we value diversity, then the budget should reflect that. Upon review of the budget if we see that the resources do not reflect our values then we state a more accurate set of values or we embark on the slow process of realignment. Developing a budget that matches stated values takes a lot more time, a lot more energy, a lot more professional and emotional investment, a lot more compromise, and is a lot more work, but in my opinion it will also get us a lot closer to true equity in the long run. We might even uncover that, in addition to faculty in certain disciplines, there are staff members in certain departments who are also falling victim to the racism, sexism, ageism, and ableism that is embedded in the market. This type of work brings everyone to the table in meaningful ways and helps senior administrators understand how their leadership and decision making could actually be working against their stated values in real time. So I said all that to say, we need to do the work.

Dr. Sandra Miles
Head of Practice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Sandra joined Academic Impressions in 2022 having served as a leader and administrator in higher education for two decades. She has served as a subject-matter expert for Academic Impressions, facilitating trainings and workshops in higher-ed. Her passion is making DEI concepts resonate for individuals from all walks of life. Read her press release here.