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Can this Small College in Maryland Pass the Fairest Wage Policy in US Academia?

An initiative developed by staff, students, and faculty would tie the earnings of the school's highest-paid employees to those of the lowest.

Photo Credit: Chris Parypa Photography via


Editor's note: The author of this piece has worked as an organizer for the 10-to-1 wage ratio campaign at St. Mary's College.

On Sunday, November 24, Swiss voters rejected an initiative that would have capped executive pay at 12 times that of their companies' lowest-paid employees.

Although the initiative failed, discomfort with high executive pay remains.

Some companies in the United States have tried to address the problem with a salary cap similar to the Swiss initiative. The Ben & Jerry's ice cream company used to have a 5-to-1 salary ratio. Later it was expanded to 17-to-1, before transnational food company Unilever purchased Ben & Jerry's and made its salary structure a secret.

Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition demanding that Congress cap the salaries of corporate CEOs, which can be up to 500 times what their companies' lowest paid-employees receive.

At St. Mary's College, a small school in southern Maryland, faculty, staff, and students have launched a wage ratio proposal of their own. For them, the magic ratio is 10-to-1.

While the lowest paid staff at St. Mary's make $24,500 per year, the highest paid employee, the president, makes over $300,000. Furthermore, according to faculty calculations, most employees are seeing their income lose value over time. Campaigners say if the school truly valued social responsibility, respect, and community maintenance, as it claims to do on its website, the wage structure would be different.

St. Mary's is not the only college with a living wage campaign. Others include Johns Hopkins University, Miami University, and the University of Virginia. Some campaigns, including those at Swarthmore and Harvard, have resulted in higher wages for the lowest paid workers on campus—as did the original incarnation of one at St. Mary's.

That campaign, now known as "St. Mary's Wages, the St. Mary's Way," began in 2002 when staff passed a unanimous resolution to institute a living wage on campus. By 2004, the lowest salary on campus had risen from $15,700 to $20,000. In 2006, frustrated by stalled salary negotiations and what they saw as the poor treatment of the lowest-paid workers on campus, 13 students participated in a 147-hour sit-in at the office of then-president Jane Margaret O'Brien. The occupying students included one former and four current senators from the Student Government Association.

Current students still cite the sit-in as a major turning point in staff and student negotiating power. Afterwards, management went into negotiations with the staff union and agreed to increase the salaries of the lowest-paid staff at St. Mary's to $24,500. Then the living wage campaign was quiet until fall of 2011, when, spurred by staff testimony about financial difficulties, students and a few faculty members launched the 10-to-1 initiative.

The 10-to-1 wage plan would cap the salary of the highest-paid full-time college employee at 10 times that of the lowest-paid ones, and the salaries of the remaining employees would be spread out incrementally between the two. By capping high-level administrative pay, the authors say, the school will eventually save money and be able to rein in tuition hikes.

The campaign gained momentum in 2011 when students learned that high-level administrators earned raises during a statewide wage freeze. Most college employees went without raises that year, but a loophole allowed staff deemed "essential" by the state of Maryland—including the president and members of his cabinet—to earn thousands of dollars in bonuses.

In response, students organized multiple forums, crowded into meetings of the Board of Trustees, marched across campus, and rallied in front of the president's office. Spurred in part by frustrations with the administration, faculty made moves to propel the 10-to-1 proposal through formal channels. The plan was officially launched in September 2013, along with a website detailing the campaign's history.

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