September 28, 2000

Ezra at the Bat

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Cornell tends to operate like its mighty clocktower. Since 1865, few routines have struck a level of constancy like Cornell’s.

And as all activity inside Uris Library’s time-keeping icon would cease without its gears, so would the University come to a halt if not for the energy its staff provides.

“Students leave at the end of the semester, and the faculty for the most part leaves at the end of the semester,” said Dennis Stein, employee outreach manager. “It’s the staff that serves as the glue [holding the University together].”

The Cornell staff consists of about 7,900 people, providing the daily functions that enable students and faculty to convene on the Hill and to conduct their everyday lives at school. Performing duties ranging from transportation to housekeeping and from dining to groundskeeping, the staff is literally indispensable — but many argue that the attention Cornell workers receive during regular University operations is hardly indicative of the role they play here.

The lack of staff visibility then becomes particularly troubling to some when considering compensation.

“You pay based on what you value, you value what you know and what you understand, and the staff are easily missed in the comings and goings of the [University],” said Vice President for Human Resources Mary Opperman. “I knew the day I came in that we would have to improve pay,” Opperman said, and to do so this year, “we are probably going to have some hard choices to make.”

For instance, Opperman noted, there is a direct correlation between the salaries and wages paid by the University and student tuition.

Cornell will be pressed to modify its budgetary procedures if it is to bring a major compensation initiative to its staff. But if there are funds available for the initiative in Cornell’s coffers, then University officials say they are prepared to find them.

Just last summer President Hunter R. Rawlings III and Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin announced a long-term program to benefit faculty.

In his announcement, Rawlings said, “Overall faculty salary pools in the endowed units have increased from 3 percent only a few years ago to more than 5 percent last year. Now we must . . . improve our relative position in comparison with our peer institutions.”

Rawlings began this year stressing the need to examine staff compensation as well.

“I think it is a real commitment on the part of the University to recognize the faculty issue,” Opperman said, but “when you solve problems in an institution you can’t do it in fragments of the population.”

“When you are addressing the community, you [must] mention the staff,” said Dawn Darby, Employee Assembly (EA) chair.

Many employee representatives — and staff members themselves — have acknowledged the clear distinctions not just in the functions of faculty, staff and students but in the way that the University perceives them as well. Staff paychecks simply stand to demonstrate the perception of staff’s value, Darby said, as it did for a friend and former colleague of hers. Recently a member of the Cornell staff, Darby’s friend — whose name shall remain anonymous — sought what she believed would be a more appropriate wage for her services.

“She went on-line, and she researched it. Just about every other school was paying more for her services,” Darby said. And so, “she went to MIT.”

Many people take a job at Cornell for reasons other than compensation, Darby said. They may be interested in raising a family here or this may be the only job that they feel comfortable holding, she said.

And “that is the reason why [staff compensation] has been such a back-burner issue,” Darby said.

Now, however, it is time for the University to make a decision for its staff. Cornell is building a strong learning environment for the future upon the work of its professors, and now, Opperman said, the University must ask itself, “What kind of a role do you want staff to play in that community?”

Cautiously optimistic, some employee representatives seek an expanded role in the University for its staff. But for that to happen, changes must be made.

The current academic calendar, a 100-year look at the College of Human Ecology, presents a classic example of staff’s underrepresentation, said Sarah Johnson ’95, EA representative. For each month the calendar depicts a scene from the college’s history, but Johnson noted one peculiarity.

“None of the people in the pictures are identified as staff members,” Johnson said.

Many staff members are also conspicuously absent from the University’s electronic directory.

With millions of dollars pouring into construction, scholarships and research, some Cornell employees are beginning to wonder about their roles in this community.

Dwelling on massive gifts to the University like the two $100 million dollar gifts received in the past two years, Mary Anne Austin, on the dining service staff, wants to know: “Does anyone ever donate money toward dining?”

“Cornell is not known for its dining; it is known for its research [and] its degrees,” Austin said, and though many may disagree about the University dining program’s reputation, Austin’s consternation is not unique.

Charles Pratt, a short order cook, also wonders why the dining unit only gets as much money as is currently allotted for compensating workers.

“Why are we struggling trying to get money when the faculty are getting it automatically?” Pratt wondered aloud.

“In a university where you see such great wealth, it’s very hard to feel like your needs are being met,” Opperman said.

Theories of relativity aside, the question remains: Are the needs of the staff being met?

“They see this faculty package being bandied about,” Stein said, “and the staff is beginning to ask, ‘when are we going to see something ourselves?'”

“The University seems to be saying that students and faculty are our primary concern — and staff are less important,” Stein said. “But my own view is that staff are equally important.”

“So if compensation is on the table for the faculty, then it needs to be on the table for staff as well,” Stein added.

Of late, the University has been making the gradual improvements to staff wages and salaries, Opperman said, as it had been doing with the faculty.

“Over the last five years we put way more into the pay than any of the other local employers,” she said.

But the University, according to Rawlings, will concentrate this year on a staff initiative, which may be more difficult to implement than it was for professors. The reasons, Opperman said, are simple.

“We would have to have fewer [staff members], or you would have to pay $50,000 [tuition,]” she said. “Somebody has to pay that bill.”

For faculty, on the other hand, the University uses different sources of revenue for its compensation, and faculty are more generally classified. Staff fall under various classifications, non-union or union workers (with even smaller categories even within the unionized staff category) and academic non-faculty.

Subject to various compensation standards, some staff members get lost in the process and find their questions unanswered and their concerns unaddressed.

“A lot of times people feel like we get left out in the dark,” said Lindsay Van Berkom, cashier, wondering why some obstacles cannot be removed that seem debilitating or unnecessary to the staff.

For instance, Van
Berkom remains a seasonal worker at Cornell after three years of service, instead of holding a permanent job here.

“I guess it is one of the better jobs around here, but it’s not the best job,” she said. “I am technically terminated in the summer, and they don’t have to bring me back for the fall. So there’s no job security.”

Pointing out the constraints employees face with their current salaries, Van Burkom said, “Basically you could pay your rent. I have a car, but maybe not everyone can [afford] a car.”

Herself the daughter of an employee and hoping to enter the Employee Degree Program to take Cornell classes soon, Van Burkom considered her long-term future with the University.

“If I was here I would love to have my kids go here,” she said.

But Van Burkom noted that she could not gain the benefit that staff members once received, because Cornell used to offer the children of its employees tuition-free classes. Now there is only about a 30 percent discount, she said.

Cornell staff members will be the subject of many administrative discussions this year, and they may capture more of the University’s focus than in years past. At this crucial juncture, as staff remain behind desks and lunch counters, and behind the scenes of the University — as it has for Cornell’s entire history — the staff will learn of its role by one of the most common ways Cornell can substantiate it: compensation.

“It is pretty clear that Mary [Opperman] wants to work with staff salaries and get them increased across the board as was done with the faculty,” Darby said. “I think we can put some momentum behind her, to not only work with the wage issue but the overall picture as well.”

Archived article by Matthew Hirsch