‘Grossly underpaid’: Wichita State staff talk issues with compensation


Wren Johnson

Staff members talk about concerns with the market-based compensation initative at the university.

The familiar adage “I don’t get paid enough for this” rings true for many who work at Wichita State, many of whom were told that their pay sits in the lowest range for their position when compared to other campuses and similar jobs.

After Wichita State rolled out a market-based compensation program last summer, hundreds of staff, as well as faculty, learned how their paid position compared to others. In a market-based approach to pay, individuals get compensated similarly to others with alike responsibilities and job titles. 

Though the compensation system applies to both faculty and staff, staff members at the university raised unique concerns about the system.

“When this market-based study came out … your supervisor showed you what the range of your salary was, what the low end and high end was, and what the median was,” Randy Sessions, a Staff Senate senator, said. “The majority of the people on this campus are below the median.”

While Wichita State’s goal behind market-based compensation is to eliminate pay inequities, some staff have said that almost a year after the program officially started, they are still grossly underpaid. 

Sessions, a Tech Support Consultant for the WSU police department, said he’s around $3,000 to $4,000 below the median pay for his position, though he has 37 years of experience.

Denise Gimlin, Staff Senate president, expressed a similar sentiment upon seeing how much she should be paid as manager of graduate operations.

“I was $100 over entry-level (pay) with 17 years of experience (in my current position),” Gimlin said. “That’s not right.”

With 30 years of experience overall, Gimlin estimated she is $20,000 under what she should be paid, based on the market-based scale. 

As of March, Wichita State sits at 86.4% of the median market pay, meaning the university pays its faculty and staff below the mid-range level of other institutions.

Staff members like Sessions and Gimlin noted that with many at the university being paid below market average, it can be difficult to retain employees.

“Why would they come to Wichita State if they could get paid so much more to go to (the) private industry?” Gimlin said.

Sara Rue, Staff Senate senator, said that following the market-based program’s start, many have left the university, seeing that they are not paid adequately. 

“We’ve had a lot of people leave because of it,” Rue said. “They see, ‘Well, I shouldn’t be making this’ and ‘Oh, this company is going to pay me this, so I’m going to take my skills there,’ and we lose individuals who’ve been here for a long time.”

Sessions said he’s seen up close what the rapid turnover looks like during his six years in the police department.

“There are only four police officers (who) have been … in the police department longer than I’ve been there,” he said.

Rue said high turnover contributes to a loss of institutional knowledge.

“You’ve got people who have been with the university for 10, 15, 20 years. They realize they’re grossly underpaid; they leave,” Rue said. “They’re taking all the knowledge that they’ve had in the past 20 years.”

When the university loses employees, it has to offer appealing wages to entice people to work. This can create a deeper divide between old and new employees.

“If we wanted to get the good folks, they had to be offered larger amounts of money, which then got things out of balance again, because we’re hiring in people at a higher rate than the staff that are already doing that job,” Gimlin said

Gimlin said this breeds “contempt” and “resentment.” 

Sessions said part of the problem is that staff sees large amounts of money being spent in areas like the Innovation Campus, and not on employees.

“We see all the money that’s being spent over there, and people don’t understand that it’s completely different from the money … (the university) can give to salaries,” Sessions said. “That’s all private money over there.”

Gimlin and others said the idea of market-based compensation is “great,” and that the larger issue stems from funding. 

“What I wish is that we had that magical pot of gold where we could pay everybody what they should be paid,” Gimlin said. 

Job classifications

When the switch to market-based compensation started, staff were put into different job classifications to help compare their pay to the market. Some staff said certain job classifications were not all-encompassing, but there was little opportunity for correction.

“Our dean … she was sent a spreadsheet that said, ‘This is the classifications we think your positions should be in.’ And that was the only information that we were given other than like a little brief job description,” Gimlin said. “Our response was to either say yes or no, but we had nothing to compare it to.”

Gimlin said her constituents across campus told her “that there wasn’t a lot of knowledge to make those decisions,” and they saw a discrepancy between how their pay aligned with their title.

“I think what ended up happening from what I’m hearing (was) … the staff were under classified,” Gimlin said.

Rue, who works in Ablah Library, expressed a similar sentiment, saying there seemed to be difficulty in balancing work experience and education to determine staff pay.

“In my opinion … it felt sometimes like there was a push to say that a position didn’t require a certain level of expertise in order to try to keep it in a lower pay bracket,” Rue said.

Sessions also noted that HR uses degrees as criteria for pay increases, which can negatively impact long term staff. 

“If my job doesn’t require a degree, why is my experience not being counted instead of a lack of a degree?” Sessions said. “I’ve never had a need to get a degree.” 

Sessions said longevity should be accounted for with staff and their potential pay increases. 

“What HR is telling us is that ‘we have no way to quantify your experience,’” Sessions said. “Sure you do, because I’ve been here 37 years. You know exactly what I’ve done.” 

When asked repeatedly to speak to The Sunflower about market-based compensation, the HR department declined to be interviewed.

Out of the system

Some staff members like Rachel Tuck, assistant coach and office manager of Shocker Rowing, aren’t included in market-based pay. According to Tuck, because her job title includes “coach,” she is opted out of the system. 

“Going into it, (the university is) like, ‘Hey, this is a great first step, but because of how coaches are classified, if you have ‘coach’ in your title, there’s nothing we can do for you,” Tuck said.

Tuck said she thinks that the university had to start somewhere.

“If you never start the process, no one will reap the benefits of it, and I think having marketplace compensation is a great first step,” Tuck said.

Other staff members agreed that it is good for the university to recognize issues with pay and seek a solution.

“I’m very appreciative that the university is considering that there’s a problem and they need to fix it,” Rue said. 

Money on the horizon

The university has committed to providing a percent raise increase this summer for all eligible employees at Wichita State. After saying the raise could potentially be 4-5%, President Rick Muma recently said that the raise will only be 2.5%, due to what the Kansas Legislature allotted. 

Some staff members said that a percent increase could be counterproductive. 

“I’d like for everybody to get raises, of course,” Gimilin said. “However, that doesn’t do anything to adjust the market. In some cases (it) increases the distance between two positions because if you’re paid more, you’re going to get a larger chunk than someone who’s paid less.”

Despite raises being on the horizon, some staff said a percent increase is not enough to keep up with the consistent cost of living increases.

“I want real compensation that’s going to pay for the increase in food prices, the increase in gas prices, the increase in my mortgage payment, and that doesn’t happen,” Sessions said. “I can’t keep up with things if they aren’t willing to make raises along the lines of the cost of living.”

As a public university, Wichita State receives a chunk of its funding from the state, meaning political climates can often determine funding. Tuition makes up a larger part of the university’s budget, and “restricted use” funding — grants, scholarships, parking, etc. — makes up the largest portion.

“Unless something really dramatically changes with funding coming from the state, people aren’t going to be getting paid what they need to in order to be fully compensated,” Rue said.