The Tao of Universities & Fair Labor Standards Act

The Tao Te Ching suggests that it is sometimes necessary to learn to see the events in our world backwards, inside out and upside down.

Universities have just such an opportunity for a creative response to the new salary thresholds for the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations, known as the overtime or the white collar exemptions. These rules are scheduled for official release in May or early summer 2016 and are predicted to more than double the base compensation of eligible employees on campuses from $23,660 to $50,440.

College leaders can view these regulations as punitive and destructive and/or view them as a path to equity and economic justice. In reality, it is a both/and scenario in which the pain to comply is deep and the need to bear it is equally so.

The way in which leaders respond will influence morale and productivity on campuses. The best recommendations of the day are to think like the Tao suggests and prepare early and well.

Commitment to a living wage is difficult to debate, particularly for those faculty members and students who invest so deeply in the system of higher education in order to work in it. The average cost of a Masters degree in 2015 was between $30,000 and $120,000 depending on the type of institution.

For those university employees who make less than $50,440, this major adjustment in base wage represents extraordinary progress in an uncertain job market and in university towns where housing and other costs of living often skyrocket.

Why is the base adjustment so high? The 2015 poverty guideline is $24,450 for a family of four.

At the most basic level, the salary threshold for exempt employees should meet or exceed the poverty guideline. These employees often work more than 40 hours meaning they may fall below the poverty guideline when actual hourly wage is calculated.

Like the rest of America, colleges and universities have not adjusted the minimum wage trajectory quickly enough to keep pace with the cost of living. The salary threshold for campus payrolls has needed an overhaul for years, so the amount of correction needed to bring equity is huge.

Colleges and many of the associations advocating for them, have created a substantial list of concerns about the new regulations, summarized as: Too high. Too much. Too litigious.

There is truth in each of these assessments and this change was announced in 2014 and is inevitable. Now it is time to turn to the work of compliance and to communicate the positive outcomes for employees and institutions.

Universities may now have to cut programs, positions and hours. Alternatively, they may re-prioritize investments or both. These are very tough decisions, but not unlike the ones that must be made about bringing diversity and equity to faculty rosters and student populations. Student activists have raised these concerns to a crisis of conscience for our nation and the steady drum beat for change will not abate.

The ways in which all of these types of choices are made and communicated will demand the best of Chancellors, Presidents and Boards and perhaps, a bit of the Tao in the process.

As it acts in the world, the Tao is like the bending of a bow...it adjusts excess and deficiency so that there is a perfect balance. It takes from what is too much and gives to what isn't enough.