A decision Thursday by University of Memphis president M. David Rudd to turn down a $131,000 raise is drawing praise and a challenge to make a $15-an-hour minimum wage a reality for campus employees.

“This is the right thing for the president to be doing, but the fact that he has not had any public forum to address any outstanding income inequity and resource issues at the University of Memphis is something to note,” said Jayanni Webster, West Tennessee organizer for United Campus Workers.

“University of Tennessee Health Science has done it. Methodist (Le Bonheur Healthcare) has done it. The county has done it,” Webster said about other entities that have either set $15 minimums or have plans in place.

M. David Rudd, University of Memphis President.

“The economic and moral, social case has already been made. We’re just waiting on people who have the power to change people’s lives,” she said.

Rudd announced his decision in an email to faculty, staff and students Thursday morning: “After considerable thought, I have decided not to accept a salary increase this year. I appreciate the thoughtfulness, support and offer from our Board of Trustees, but ultimately believe it in the best interest of the institution to forgo any salary increase at this time.”

Webster said she believes public pressure may have influenced Rudd’s decision. “A planned student protest was going to take place on Friday asking for Rudd to refute his approved raise by the board of trustees. We know the media was making inquiries into the raise and the larger compensation package he was getting. Our members have been speaking out. …

“As a public institution, we should be concerned when one person is making a half a million dollars of public money” and others make poverty wages, Webster said.

About 330 campus workers, including custodians, are paid less than $15 an hour, according to Webster. Minimum wage at U of M was raised on Sept. 1 from $10.60 an hour to $11.11 an hour.

On Sept. 4, the university’s board of trustees unanimously approved a contract for Rudd raising his base salary to $525,000. That’s almost $131,000 more than the $394,075 he currently earns, according to the university’s salary database. The three-year contract, which the board could extend to five years, also includes a $125,000 annual retention incentive, a yearly performance bonus up to 50 percent of his base pay, a $5,000 administrative allowance, longevity pay, a housing stipend, car allowance and a monthly phone allowance.

The email M. David Rudd sent Thursday announcing his decision to turn down a salary increase.

The raise was to go into effect on Oct. 1, after approval by the executive committee.

Tre Black, co-chairman of Young Democratic Socialists, organized the protest against the raise. “Why is it that we can let campus workers who have a job go hungry, be unable to pay for their medical bills or health insurance and put food on the table? These are basic issues.”

There are other campus issues that need to be addressed, so the protest, set for 1:30 to 4 p.m. Friday in front of the University Center, will go on, he said in a Facebook post. The group also is demanding the university increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all campus workers and freeze tuition, administrative fees and housing/meal plan costs, said Black, a freshman majoring in political science and whose organization is affiliated with the Memphis-Midsouth Democratic Socialists of America.

Rudd did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The union fight for higher wages at the U of M has gone on for more than seven years. In December 2018, the faculty and staff Senates passed a joint resolution asking the university to develop timelines to raise the minimum to $15 an hour.

But in July, the stakes were raised when Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris vetoed a $1 million grant for the Michael Rose Natatorium, citing the university’s need to increase wages. Harris said in a letter to commissioners that the university should present a timeline for the raise in order for him to support the grant.

Rudd responded to Harris, saying the U of M had “a plan” to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour, according to The Commercial Appeal.

Raaj Kurapati, chief financial officer for the university, said at the time it would cost about $2 million to immediately raise wages from $10.60 to $15 an hour, and an additional $2 million for other related costs, including the resulting raises required for other employees, according to The Commercial Appeal. “Our plan is to incrementally increase the hourly wage for our lowest paid employees to $15 over the course of the next 4 to 5 years,” Kurapati said.

However, a tweet from Rudd contradicted Kurapati’s timeline: He tweeted shortly after that he planned to make the increases incrementally over the next two years. The County Commission later voted to override Harris’s veto.

Webster said the union has seen no such plan to raise wages, though next year’s budget discussions have begun.

“We keep continuing to get excuses. Two years is a long way for people who can’t make ends meet. We would like a good-faith effort toward presenting a plan.

A salary study of university presidents at comparable institutions put Rudd’s base salary “below market median at the 31st percentile of the comparison institutions,” said a report by Sibson Consulting, the firm hired by the university.

“Our members believe their salary and wages are not comparable to other universities and are confused about why the board of trustees would look at one person’s compensation versus all employees,” Webster said. “We believe a leader should say, ‘I want all of my employees to be on par with peer institutions and not limit it to himself.”

Employees currently earning less than $15 an hour are disproportionately black and female, according to an analysis by university math professor Máté Wierdl, who used public salary data to make a series of conclusions about the effect of a minimum wage increase.

Of 2,585 full-time employees, 334 earn less than $15 an hour. And of those 334, 62.5 percent are female and 76 percent are black, according to the analysis.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project and Community Change.