At an all staff meeting on Tuesday, college employees expressed ongoing concerns about proposed changes to staff pay, which had been paused and placed “under review until further notice” by the time the meeting began. College President Audrey Bilger began the meeting by addressing the roughly 100 staff present (as estimated by two Quest reporters who attended), saying that she valued all staff at Reed and that “I am truly sorry that this has gone in ways that have been painful for this community.”
President Bilger then turned the meeting over to Vice President of Finance and Treasurer Lynn Valenter, who herself introduced Human Resources Director Heather Quinn-Barron, although Valenter continued to lead the meeting. Valenter reiterated that many faculty had come to last Monday’s faculty meeting prepared to advocate on behalf of staff. Valenter further noted that staff had received an apology email from President Bilger, and said that “you deserved her apology.” Valenter then apologized herself, saying, “Something I learned later in life is that when you apologize, you just need to apologize, and not offer whys and wherefores, so I’m just going to apologize and let that sit for a moment. I apologize.”
The meeting then broke into three parts, during which Valenter gave a brief presentation, read pre-prepared responses to a series of questions staff had submitted in advance, and then took live questions from the audience.
*Note: The Difference Between Staff and Faculty.
Faculty refers to “academic personnel” — typically professors, researchers, or others directly engaged in teaching and learning at a college or university. Staff refers to all employees of the college that are not faculty (think HCC personnel, etc).
Valenter noted that more than 50 questions had been submitted in advance, although some similar questions had been combined, and others simply wouldn’t be answered, either due to time constraints, or because they addressed topics “outside the scope of the compensation project.” Valenter drew attention to the four documents that had been posted to the Reed HR website, and stated that the meeting would attempt to explain “the process of how [these documents] were developed.” (Note: three of these four documents have since been taken down from the HR website, but the Quest has locally saved copies of all four, and references them extensively in Staff Pay Explained.)
For all coverage of the staff pay controversy, see reedquest.org/staffpay.
Valenter then presented a series of five slides, on which the two reporters present were only able to take partial notes. The first slide provided a series of “project goals,” which, among other reasons, stated that the new salary framework was intended to be “transparent, understandable, equitable, legally compliant, and allow for differentiated pay based on experience.” Valenter further stated that the new system would have helped to “evaluate and explain salary determinations” and promoted “internal pay equity.” Finally, Valenter said that the department had wanted to “support requests for salary reviews in a timely manner” and develop “job descriptions” for staff.
This last statement was mentioned again several times throughout the meeting. Valenter stated that, “Previously we [HR] did not keep job descriptions, moving forward all job descriptions will be stored in Payfactors, which is managed by HR.” When questioned by a staff member who had their own copy of a job description from prior years, Valenter stated that such archival job descriptions for longtime employees of the college might help to “inform” HR’s development of new job descriptions, but were not guaranteed to be “a perfect match.” Valenter explained that managers and supervisors would be expected to work with HR to develop job descriptions for their teams, providing input on “essential functions, minimal qualifications, and physical demands.” Another pre-prepared question had asked what support staff supervisors would receive if or when these changes are fully implemented, to which Valenter responded, “I recognize that managers have to do the heavy lifting for these job descriptions, and we appreciate it.” Valenter then stated that she didn’t want to “duck the question,” because it was an important issue, and that HR would be providing further support and training to managers.
Valenter stated that she had been repeatedly asked questions like “why now?” and responded that, “We are responding to a need for the infrastructure to align compensation with essential functions and market rates. We needed to take into account turnover in a competitive market and our desire to include experience in compensation.” Valenter denied any sense that the college did not value staff, or that the proposed changes to the staff pay system had been introduced as “budget cutting or budget savings.” Valenter also directly stated that “there will not be any salary reductions,” but did say that HR “wanted to take experience into account,” and stated that the new system would have allowed for that.
Payfactors appears to be a piece of premium HR software, which has been based in Seattle since it was acquired by its prior competitor, PayScale, in 2019. The company has 600 employees and roughly 10,000 customers.
In her presented slides, Valenter stated that the change from ranges to grades would have “[supported] pay decisions” and “[helped] to assess or reassess staff positions.” Valenter also stated that the proposed system had been based on “higher-education specific survey data” contained in a Payfactors-based database of similar colleges. Speaking on job descriptions, Valenter said that the process of developing and formalizing new job descriptions would have taken 12-18 months and that, once complete, these descriptions would “support grade assignments.”
Valenter spent the middle part of the meeting responding to questions that staff had submitted in advance, appearing to read questions and answers aloud from a printed document on the lecture hall podium. (The Quest requested access to a copy of all or part of this document in order to check our quotes and citations, but Valenter declined.) The first question was: “What does the president mean by pause the job grade changes? Are we reverting to the previous salary ranges until further notice?” Valenter responded that “previous ranges have been eliminated,” but that the new grades will be reviewed further, and that range maximums will not be affected until this further review has taken place.
In response to further questions, Valenter stated that the job list posted on the website is new, but the list of job grades and pay ranges has been removed from the website since they have been placed under further review. Valenter also stated that job positions and descriptions will remain in place. Another staff member had reportedly asked, “HR has said movement in range never changed in the previous system, which is untrue. Staff advance through their ranges through ATB. Employees can increase their earning potential when they move through their range due to merit. Why did this need to be eliminated?” Valenter responded by saying that this process of salary movement has been difficult, since the merit pool has often been small. She further stated that “positions will never decrease in grade.”
Another staff member had asked whether changes to pay grades “stop at the executive level,” and whether higher level administration positions would be reevaluated as well. Valenter responded that the point of the proposed changes was “upward movement,” and further said that sharing statistics on upper level administration positions, which typically contain fewer individuals, would risk violating the privacy of individual employees.*
Higher education institutions are often prohibited by law from sharing private information on individual employees, including generalized statistics granular enough that they could, through manipulation and cross analysis, be tracked down to the level of individuals. The Quest, however, has obtained copies of this data, and has been assured that we have a legal right to analyze and report on it, as we do in Staff Pay Explained.
When asked what other regional colleges HR was using to inform benchmarks, and whether the college was taking cost of living in Portland into account, Valenter responded that, “HR uses multiple surveys and tools that gather salary data from all participating independent colleges, and that data is adjusted to the Portland market.” Valenter stated that HR was also taking experience into account. When staff asked what defined experience, Valenter responded that this constituted relevant internal and external experience in the position, both at Reed and at other institutions. Valenter further stated that assessments of experience will vary depending on the role in question and managers’ insights into a person’s work history, and that “education is factored into positions where specific education requirements exist.”
Valenter stated that the new changes would have applied to incoming positions, citing salary inequities for women and minorities as justification. Valenter explained that, statistically, women and minorities typically negotiate job offers that produce lower starting salaries in colleges.
Valenter emphasized that, for this reason, Reed has long had, and will continue to have, a no salary negotiation statement. The new system, Valenter explained, would take job experience into account, but this was not the same thing as accepting salary negotiation. Newly posted jobs, Valenter said, would be posted with salary ranges, and placement within those ranges would be based on “experience in comparison to internal pools,” such that new hires with less experience would potentially be paid differently than those with more experience.
Valenter also said that there had been a number of questions regarding whether there were “aspects of our compensation structure not in line with Oregon law,” and strongly denied this. “Our current compensation structure is compliant with Oregon law,” Valenter said, and stated that the compensation project’s goal was to give HR the ability to take experience into account in relation to salaries. “We want to have a system,” Valenter said, “we can’t just start taking experience into account. Reed took the most literal way to be compliant with Oregon law. Nothing wrong with that, a lot of institutions do. Now we’re evolving, and feel the need to take experience into account.”
One staff member had apparently submitted a question stating that, prior to 2023, some staff had been reclassified to ensure that they didn’t hit their maximum earning potential in the next couple of years. This staff member wondered what administration proposed to do to preserve earning potential. The goal was still to preserve long term earning potential, Valenter said, specifying that once grades have been “reset” they will continue to be reviewed and evaluated. Valenter claimed that, in previous years, fewer than five employees had gone out of range, and that, under the new system, the number out of range would still be under five. Grades would continue to expand over time to adjust for inflation, Valenter said, but also specified that “the hope” was to increase internal promotions.
Another staff member had reportedly submitted the question: “How will a long-term employee on Reed’s salary be impacted by the new system?” Valenter responded that, “generally,” a long-term employee’s salary would not be impacted. If a long term employee hits the top of their grade, Valenter said, they will now get their ATB (Across the Board) added to their previous salary, even if it’s above their grade.
Finally, a staff member had asked in advance what advice HR had for supervisors and departments who were now dealing with staff members that had been demoralized “as a direct result of this issue.” In response, Valenter said, “We blew it. There’s no easy answer. We hope, I hope, that the Reed community has the empathy to understand that mistakes do get made and can be corrected. … We’re sorry.”
As soon as Valenter finished reading the prepared questions, she opened up the floor to the audience to ask their questions. The first to speak said, “I’ve been here for 11 years, making less money here than I did when I started.” According to the speaker, in an email sent out in February, the staff were notified that the job grades had been changed in January. Additionally, they said, they received a notification from the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA) that the college had changed the retirement benefits program. With these two pieces of information in mind, they asked about any other changes that had been made without notifying the staff in advance.
According to Valenter, the college hasn’t added in any new fees, but has actually made the process more transparent. Another member of the audience chimed in to say that the fees had always been on the plan, but had previously been buried beneath other statements. With the new updates, TIAA is now required to print out the additional fees in the statement.
The next member to speak asked how the process for assessing job experience was determined equitably across so many job positions, and if there was a formula for it.
“There is no formula,” said Valenter. The process involves evaluating a potential candidate’s relevant past experience. “It’s an art, not a science.”
Another staff member asked about ATB (across-the-board) increases, which had been accelerated to be given out in December. The individual, who arrived at Reed after December, learned about these bonuses within their first month of employment, but did not receive one due to their later start date. They asked how long an employee would have to work to be eligible for one, and whether they would be eligible for one in July.
According to Valenter, the increase was not a supplemental. “There is not a provision to give people a raise in July that did not get one in December,” she said. The next increase is scheduled for July 2024. HR Director Heather Quinn-Baron added that they had made a conscious effort to hire people earlier, knowing that the increase had been accelerated. They also made adjustments to open positions in December in order to ensure the increase had been accredited to new hires that were coming through. “Doing something early was not intended to do harm,” said Valenter. They had intended to recognize staff accomplishments by awarding the raise early.
Another audience member asked about job grades, and whether there would be a way to publish grades 11 and up in a manner which would protect individual identities, yet also inform the rest of the staff how higher level executives were paid.
In response to this question, Valenter acknowledged that she didn’t know if there would be a way to publish that data while mitigating the privacy issue. Another member of the audience spoke up, saying that even within the grades that had been published, people were aware of the identities of some of those in the roles that had been published. Additionally, another staff member said, even if they concealed the grades of the higher level positions, some of them would be available on form 990 regardless.
Another staff member asked for more clarification on what exactly was paused, considering the ATB increase would be in the summer.
“What’s being paused is the end points,” said Valenter. “One of the things we heard loud and clear was […] ‘my salary used to go up here, and maybe I was never going to get that, but I felt harmed, like my prospects were limited.’” The college plans to revisit the end points once they set the job descriptions. Additionally, Valenter said, there were some people who were placed in the wrong grade, so there will be some grades that will be changed.
This raised another question. The same speaker asked Valenter why they hadn’t started by collecting job descriptions, if they needed them to place people within the right grades. They also asked why people weren’t flagged if they were so far outside their ranges.
“We thought the data we had from 2019 was enough to get most of the people in the right place,” replied Valenter. They had underestimated the “angst” the new system would cause. “We knew who would be affected, […] but we didn’t recognize or appreciate the impact that for people who weren’t close to the end [of the range], that it would still have an emotional impact. […] We blew it. We don’t have a better explanation.”
The next audience member asked, “I’m just curious, why did it take faculty advocating [for us] to finally get this conversation with you all?” The question was met with applause from the rest of the audience.
Valenter explained that when the changes were first announced, she had asked anyone with concerns to please come to HR, as a “sincere invitation.” According to Valenter, the majority of staff members did not come to HR. Instead, they looked to their long-term faculty peers, who responded and advocated for them. “It wasn’t poorly intentioned,” said Valenter, “but it was poorly executed.”
Another audience member asked why there hadn’t been earlier communication, especially knowing now that the changes had been planned well in advance.
Valenter responded in two parts. “First, our intentions were pure, we didn’t think we were doing harm, we thought we were doing good, so we were all excited to get it out there and have everybody take a look. We blew it.” Additionally, Valenter said, “We thought we were being transparent, because there are a lot more steps. We didn’t realize that by rolling out a less than baked plan we were doing harm.”
The next speaker referred to Valenter’s previous statement about people rarely reaching the top of their salary ranges. “That feels demoralizing in some way,” they said. “Why did we need to have a top salary […] if people weren’t going to reach it anyways?”
“I think part of it was to provide visibility to what jobs would be at a higher range,” said Valenter. “The idea was you’d look and go ‘oh I’m at a 6, and this job is at a 7.’” They wanted to provide clarity to the possible opportunities for salary increases.
With regards to ranges, a staff member asked for clarification on whether those ranges were set by factors including market and comparisons with peers.
Quinn-Baron responded to this question, saying that the ranges were established by industry standards, starting at lower ranges and then increasing as the position increased. Though it might feel bad to never reach the endpoint, the goal was reportedly to promote “internal promotions.” Due to the backlash on the ranges, they are considering implementing wider spreads.
The same staff member also stated that, with inflation in the current market, “to see the top of your spread go down when it feels like it should be going up […] is demoralizing and counterintuitive.” They went on to ask how this issue would continue to unfold, and how the college would ensure it would be a system understandable to the staff, as well as a system that takes into account factors like inflationary pressures.
“It’s really hard to address that question, because the future is hard to predict,” said Quinn-Baron. Once the ranges are set, they plan to look at the positions themselves within the range and evaluate whether or not the position is one in which people want to be promoted, or one in which individuals would want to stay more long-term. This ties range more closely to promotion. “The ranges are not necessarily tied to inflation,” said Quinn-Baron.
The same speaker responded, saying, “The lack of certainty and clarity is part of what makes it hard for many people.”
Another staff member asked, “How commonplace is it for those that we supervise to be making more than we do? I have three out of the four individuals that I supervise making substantially more than I do. I was just curious if that’s commonplace, or if others are feeling that way? I know I’ve been told not to talk about salaries, so I’m using this as a way of sort of asking that question.” According to Valenter, “ it’s not frequent but it’s not uncommon.” Valenter proceeded to offer an example from her own first job out of college, at which she reportedly supervised an experienced engineer who made twice what she did. While that was in the private sector, Valenter said, her experience was that in academia “it’s not frequent but it’s not rare,” adding that it depends on skill sets. “It’s not just one or two people,” Valenter said.
“I think the thing is that we’re all sitting here and we’re all hoping for this to be our forever job,” this same audience member said, “and I think that’s the spirit in which we’re all here, and the question is are we actually going to have look for other opportunities, or want to be here, and I really want to be here.” Valenter then stated that the situation of supervisors being paid less than their supervisees is “extremely common” in the healthcare industry, to which an unidentified staff member in the audience interjected and said, “No it’s not. I’m actually from healthcare. This is my third industry and I’ve never heard of that.” Valenter said something inaudible, and then another unnamed audience member, who identified themselves as a faculty administrative coordinator, spoke up, saying that they were surprised by the previous speaker’s comment. “I do not feel that this makes sense at an institution like Reed,” they said, before continuing that, “There have been a number of incidents that have been increasingly demoralizing. This really felt like we were down, and we were getting kicked,” a statement which prompted widespread applause from the audience. “How do we get back to honoring the honor principle? A lot of us are here because this is an institution that honors honor,” they said, “and this did not feel honorable to me.”
This same audience member continued that, while happy in their own position, they feel they are surrounded by people who “are deeply unhappy and have been actually hurt by this institution.” They continued that, “People just don’t live in the neighborhood like we used to. The phrases I’ve heard lately are race to the bottom — people are less sure about the security of this institution and whether these things are being done for income purposes. I’ve had prospective parents ask me questions about this, and I’ve told them I still think Reed is a great institution, but it’s hard for me to say that.” They concluded by saying that they were currently helping their own children with their college search, so they “know what to look for,” and “this is hard.”
Valenter declined to answer the larger questions posed, saying “I don’t have an answer,” but strongly emphasized that Reed is “in a healthy financial position.” She went over the basics of the college’s funding, explaining that the institution’s budget comes exclusively from income off of the endowment, not the endowment itself, and that “the endowment is generous.”
A faculty member who attended the meeting expressed their support for staff, saying “our staff are fabulous, they’re our friends and our colleagues.” They then expressed concern about HR communication with staff, saying that, “The email that was sent out was opaque, I could not understand it with terms like ‘lump sums.’ I could not make sense of it.” They asked about how HR could change how it interacts with staff, in order to address the great demoralization of staff members all over the college. Valenter responded that HR is considering having more frequent staff meetings, which would possibly be considered an “open forum” for open Q&A and conversation. This, Valenter said, would help to ensure that “we don’t make these missteps again.” Currently, Valenter explained, staff meetings take place only four times a year — compared to the monthly faculty meetings. Valenter did state that staff had been invited to bring their concerns to HR office hours, and said that she had expected more staff to do so.
An unidentified audience member then spoke up, saying that they wanted to frame this issue in light of a larger context. “I have a sense that the deeper thing that is going on is actually that relationship,” they said, and then spoke to “a history of demoralization.” They then asked the audience, “Have you individually felt demoralized? What would you need to feel valued in your position as a staff person?”
Valenter responded that having conversations like this meeting was important, saying they thought it “fair to give people the chance to be heard.” “Maybe there’s some simple things we can do, maybe there’s not,” Valenter said. Valenter then stated, “I also want to say that this group has been remarkably kind,” and noted that the meeting had been “a difficult conversation,” but that staff had “been kind, and I appreciate that.”
At this point, the official runtime of the meeting had expired, but Valenter continued to answer questions. A staff member from the psych department stated that they had been told that the new pay grade structure would have been better for departments with lots of positions, where promotions are possible, but asked, “what about for those of us in positions who don’t have anywhere to promote to? What’s the plan for us?” Valenter responded that she wasn’t sure, since “Reed has an unusual number of people who just want to stay and do their job. … It may be that a conventional pay grade structure just doesn’t work for that.” Valenter suggested that this would be one of the things she and her team would work on during further review of the proposed changes.
Another unidentified audience member asked why staff meetings only happen four times a year, when faculty meetings take place once a month. Valenter responded that “faculty have to specifically approve an awful lot of things” as part of faculty governance, and that these more frequent meetings are necessary to move the college forward. However, she stated that this did not mean there was any reason not to have more staff meetings, before inviting staff to her Tea With the Treasurer session, which is held once a semester. The session provides another time for people to ask clarifying questions about the budget.
“I want to thank you,” Valenter said, “I wish we were here to celebrate something more positive.”