Higher education officials — from the presidents of each public university to the commissioner of their central governing board — all agree: Mississippi’s faculty and staff are woefully underpaid. 

“If there’s ever a group in the United State of America that deserves our applause, deserves our thanks and appreciation,” it is the faculty, University of Mississippi Chancellor Glenn Boyce said during an impassioned speech at the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees meeting Thursday.

“The essence of our education is the faculty,” said Tom Duff, the billionaire owner of Southern Tire Mart who chairs IHL’s finance committee. “So they need to be fairly compensated.” 

Pay raises have “been an ongoing priority for the board,” Commissioner Alfred Rankins told Mississippi Today.

But despite several years of state-funded pay raises, Mississippi’s faculty and staff continue to make far less than those in other Southern states. An analysis of federal data shows just three institutions — University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University and University of Southern Mississippi — pay their faculty above the average salary in neighboring states of $73,163. 

Faculty also make far less than they used to. Since 2016, the average faculty member in Mississippi has actually seen a nearly $11,000 pay cut due to inflation, according to an analysis of federal data. In fall 2022, the average faculty salary in Mississippi was $68,676. 

Why is that? 

Some reasons that IHL has offered at the Capitol and during its board meeting include: General inflationary pressures on the universities, a rise in health insurance premiums and financial problems plaguing retirement for public employees.

Though it has long been IHL’s goal to bring faculty salaries up to the Southern Regional Education Board average, that has been somewhat out of reach as Rankins told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that other states are raising pay faster than Mississippi. And, coupled with a falling number of high school graduates that means less tuition, Rankins said the universities are staring down a functional budget cut this year if lawmakers provide IHL with level funding.  

Still, the agency does not want to ask for more money than lawmakers will appropriate, and it would be “a large number” to raise faculty salaries to the SREB average in one year, Rankins told the committee.

IHL is asking lawmakers to appropriate $53 million for salaries, enough for a 6.4% incremental raise for faculty, according to IHL’s 2025 legislative funding priorities. 

“Our board structures their request based on revenue collection and what we reasonably think the Legislature will appropriate to our universities given their other priorities,” Rankins said. 

To many faculty at the University of Southern Mississippi, where more than 100 people attended a rally for fair pay Thursday, those other priorities may be the cause of the wage stagnation. A flier distributed at the rally said USM pays faculty $10,000 less than peer institutions. 

In one example, Ole Miss has its eyes this year on a $165 million residence hall, and a $49 million parking garage. Jackson State University and Mississippi Valley State University are also requesting funding for residence halls. 

“The bottom line is that public higher education in Mississippi and everywhere needs robust and sustainable public funding that prioritizes the core academic mission,” Irene Mulvey, the president of the American Association of University Professors, said at the USM rally to cheers of “hear, hear.” 

Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, gives a speech during a pay equity protest at the University of Southern Mississippi’s campus in Hattiesburg, Miss., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

“That means compensation for the faculty,” she added. “The people, without whom, you would not have a university.” 

At the IHL meeting, Rankins, Boyce and Duff all said that investing in dormitories and athletic facilities supports pay raises for faculty, not just because the universities rely on tuition.

“There’s no contradiction because you’re talking about a separate pool of money,” Rankins said. “Salaries come from the general E-and-G appropriations. Capital funds are typically bonded. It’s different funding.” 

Boyce said Ole Miss, where the enrollment cliff is not an issue, needs to fund updated facilities to accommodate its growing enrollment because tuition now makes up about 75% of the university budget. 

It’s IHL’s purview, Boyce added, to come up with a legislative request for faculty raises. Unlike with capital projects, Ole Miss does not enter the session with a specific dollar amount for faculty raises that it will ask lawmakers to fund. The university sets the actual percentage raise that faculty receive after the session. 

“We use almost every penny of what they give us for faculty and staff raises, and that’s why it’s so important to us to gain their support,” Boyce said of lawmakers. “That’s not to say we wouldn’t obviously reach into tuition dollars. It all flows together and works together. It is not a case of one versus another. It’s a case of what the demand is.” 

University of Southern Mississippi faculty, staff, and supporters attend a pay equity protest at the university’s campus in Hattiesburg, Miss., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

In an emailed statement after the IHL meeting, Boyce said Ole Miss has raised nominal employee salaries 11% over the past three years and hopes to provide another raise this summer to “attract and retain high-quality employees.”

“We have been fortunate to experience several years of growth as an institution, in part because we are focused on continuing to improve the student experience and quality of life for our employees,” he said. “We also have to grow enrollment to ensure academic quality and offer new programs, which requires us to build facilities to house and educate more students.”

Duff said IHL’s request is made in collaboration with the university presidents like Boyce. In years past, IHL has told the university presidents they need to give faculty a larger raise, though Duff didn’t specify which year that happened. 

“It is our constant endeavor to make sure they’re paid appropriately,” Duff said of faculty. “To think that we don’t see those salaries is incorrect.” 

Though Duff said that he can’t say the money the state of Mississippi is spending on athletic buildings could not be better spent on faculty salaries, it is a fact that students want better facilities. 

“It’s a great question,” Duff said. “But fortunately or unfortunately, schools cater to the demands of the students and to the demands of the economic reality we’re in.”

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.