Reexamining the salary database

Elika Roohi/Sun Star Editor-in-Chief
December 4, 2012

The Sun Star salary database project was started in May 2011.  It launched on The Sun Star website at the end of December 2011.  It’s a noble project, but I’m not sure it’s working.

Student organizations are interesting because the leadership changes yearly.  Sometimes there’s a lot of overlap between a Sun Star editor, an ASUAF president, a KSUA general manager and their successor and sometimes there’s none at all.

Because of this lack of consistent leadership, big projects are hard to sustain from year to year, most of the time.  The salary database may be one of those projects.

The database requires that The Sun Star have someone around that understands the way that the database works.  It requires that we get the information for the database into certain formats and understand the coding behind it.  Basically, it’s complicated and there needs to be someone around that can always understand it.  That’s a lot to ask.

The salary database was created to disperse information.  All the information in the salary database is public information, and The Sun Star’s goal was to make that information accessible to the public.  The former Editor-in-Chief Heather Bryant said “all knowledge is worth having,” and true to her convictions, she created the salary database from scratch and made it public.

When the database was launched it created some stir   There were angry letters, appreciative emails and a lot of traffic to the website.  It’s a project that got noticed, and one that I’ve seen linked to and used in a few ways since I’ve taken over the paper.

But the way I’ve most seen it used is basically a party trick.  Students dislike a professor and they want to see how much they make for the work that student doesn’t appreciate.

A journalist’s job is to interpret data.  The database itself is a data dump.  We can see how much Chancellor Brian Rogers’ salary is, but we don’t have any context to it.  For example, Rogers matches the total amount taken in from the sustainability fee each semester from his personal funds.  We don’t get that from a flat number.  We just see a six figure salary and feel disgruntled for being accused of living extravagantly by UA President Pat Gamble while we struggle to pay for textbooks.

The database provides important information.  It should be available and accessible to those who want to know.  It should be easy for curious citizens to compare salaries of male and female professors of the same rank.  Having access to information is the foundation for a well-functioning and honest community.

But is it the Sun Star’s job to provide that service?  It took me a semester to finally pull together an effort to update the database.  I solicited help from others outside the Sun Star that had the skill set to do the work, and I’m not sure a future editor will have those same connections.

The way I see it, as a newspaper we are here to interpret the database not provide it.

For now, the database is updated with the most current information available.  The bugs that prevented certain searches in the database last year are gone, and for another semester, at least, it’s there to peruse when you get out of a particularly worthless class.

Correction 12/4: I said Chancellor Rogers’ matches the Sustainability Fee with his personal funds.  He actually does it from institutional funds that he controls.  However, Rogers says that he makes regular personal contributions to the university, primarily to a scholarship program aimed at financially needy juniors and seniors.

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4 Responses

  1. Here’s my two cents on this one, more as a journo but I was on the editorial team when this database was made. Data-based journalism, to be able to look at a spreadsheet of salaries and see trends, is a big part of holding an organization accountable. Pair that with crowd-sourcing (not to mention promoting ease-of-access for public information), and a paper has a valuable resource. If a paper doesn’t show the public how a resource can be used, most of what you’re going to hear about is “party tricks” unless someone outside the paper starts using journalistic skills with it, asking WHY when they see a number. A database can’t ask, just as press releases can’t give you a well-rounded story. To expect otherwise, it will seem worthless to a journalist — a spreadsheet writes a pretty terrible article.

    As a former editor, though, you guys are taking on a lot of your own projects this year — mobile website, training tons of new people, etc., so I can see that it’s hard to upkeep and it’s great you chose to update the database.

  2. Christopher L. Young says:

    UAF’s CS department is offering a course in databases this spring. Unless you’ve taken CS 311 and CS321 it won’t be available, however, depending on how much work the database needs there might be an opportunity to have a student employee position to maintain it.

  3. Chris Lott says:

    You overstate the case of the difficulty of getting the database up and running. We (UAF eLearning) offered many times to assist and continue providing assistance. It took you an awfully long time to respond at all, and then another significant time to act. It didn’t have to be that way. At all. Particularly given that the entire updating routine takes no more than a few hours.

    This reads like someone casting about for an excuse to discontinue a good project and one that rightly belongs with the student news organization.

    The fact that your reporters don’t choose to make use of the database to write some data-driven stories isn’t a fault in publishing the database. Sunshine is always good, particularly when the information is otherwise obscured and difficult to obtain. It can be used in many ways, shallow and not, but that doesn’t change the value proposition that continuing to make it available provides.

    Students (and those who aren’t students can do what they will, good or bad…the real question is why the Sun Star hasn’t taken advantage of it. After all, it is the student news organization that is supposed to be leading the way. Publishing the database is a feather in your cap–and an easily obtained one at that.

  4. G says:

    I am wondering why the Sun Star has not done any other stories related to the database or any stories from it. I think it is great that the website is out there for the public to see and use. I cant think of a better place to have it and a better organization to have control of it than the Sun Star.

    All things will be used for good and bad regardless of what they are and the kind of precautions you have on them. The fact that the students are looking up professors salary on the database would seem that it is being of some use.

    I am wondering if there are any clubs, classes, other people on campus that were, would be, or are interested in helping out with putting information on the salary database. I’m not sure how often the information would change, but I would tend to thin it would only need to be updated once a year wouldn’t it?

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