For Your Health
For Your Health

News from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences

From the Dean: Taking inflation seriously

This past Tuesday we held one of the periodic conversations I have with the SMHS family that we call Java with Josh. This time we again had a terrific turnout, with nearly 80 faculty and staff participating on the virtual videoconference call. Pre-pandemic, we used to hold the discussions in the Grand Forks building and we would get 20 or so attendees. Since we’ve gone to a virtual format, the attendance has grown, and the event is easily accessible to folks on our regional campuses and elsewhere. Accordingly, I’ve decided to continue the virtual format for now. As is typical, I started the event with a quick summary of some of the ongoing school activities and issues, starting with a summary of the current status of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. I also discussed our preparations for the upcoming legislative session that begins in January 2023 and indicated that our budget submission has been uploaded by the North Dakota University System (NDUS) after approval by UND. One of the budget “asks” that has been advanced by the NDUS is a 5%/year (for each year of the biennial budget) salary increase pool. This larger than usual amount is a reflection of the current high level of inflation that UND and SMHS employees (staff and faculty) are facing.

There are three modifications to this so-called merit pool that I hope the legislature considers. The first is to divide the salary increase pool – whatever the size that is eventually approved by the legislature – into two components. The larger component – say, 3% of the proposed 5% pool – might be assigned to a cost of living adjustment (COLA) component that would be given proportionately to all employees (staff and faculty) who have at least satisfactory overall performance. The smaller fraction, perhaps 2% of the 5% total, would go into a merit pool to reward truly meritorious performance. If this were done, it would ensure that every employee with at least acceptable performance would receive a COLA.

The second modification that would be beneficial would be a differential application of the COLA so that employees at the lower end of the wage scale would get a proportionately larger COLA than those earning more. The rationale here is that workers who earn less at baseline are disproportionately negatively impacted by inflation since they have less disposable income than those who get a higher wage.

The last modification, then, would be to ask the legislature to provide additional funding so that the wage increase – again, whatever it is – would be fully funded. As it is now, the legislature only provides funding for salary increases for those salaries that are supported by appropriated dollars. But it turns out that the majority of our employees’ salaries are funded through sources other than appropriated dollars (such as grant or philanthropic funding). As it stands now, the SMHS needs to find other sources to ensure that all employees – regardless of the source of their salary– receive the same opportunity to have a salary increase. It would be preferable if we didn’t have to tap other funding sources to defray what turns out to be an additional expense for the school. By the way, this same dilemma applies to the rest of UND as well.

At this point these suggested modifications are just that – suggested modifications. We will see if we can gain some traction for them as we get into the legislative session. As I’ve said before, stay tuned!

Finally, later today I’ll meet with the medical student Class of 2026 to give each of them the stethoscopes that they were gifted by many of our generous donors. This gathering, the culmination of our very successful Adopt-A-Med Student program, demonstrates how much support we continue to receive from our alumni and friends. This year, more than 60 individual donors gave to the program, via the UND Alumni Association & Foundation (AAF), providing our entering medical students perhaps the most important tool-of-the-trade as they begin their education. Our Adopt-A-PA Student program has been similarly successful, and we’re now exploring expanding the “adopt” concept more generally.

So, thanks to the AAF and each of this year’s donors, many of whom have given to the program for more than 10 years running, for helping us grow a great program. We truly could not do it without you.

Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
Vice President for Health Affairs, UND
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences