Salary Offsets


This case discusses issues surrounding the misuse of grant funds by academic institutions.


Carolyn is a mechanical engineering (ME) professor at a prestigious university. She has received a three-year research award to develop prosthetic limb technology. The $250,000 grant is awarded by a government institution and funds supplies, equipment, professional travel, salary offset and graduate student support.

Carolyn's 30 percent salary offset amounts to 0.3 full-time equivalents and is intended to reduce her teaching load by 30 percent per year so that she can devote more of her time to research. As is standard practice, the ME department pools the salary offsets of each professor in the department and is supposed to hire the appropriate number of adjunct faculty based on the accumulated total of full-time equivalents. However, these monies typically go into a nondesignated departmental fund that is used not only to pay for adjunct faculty, but also for teaching assistants (TAs), staff, scholarship awards and general operating costs. Naturally, there are other sources of income for this fund, such as tuition, donations and endowment income. Because the salary offsets are deposited in this nondesignated fund, the resulting number of full-time equivalents often gets "lost" as the money from the different sources gets pooled in the fund.

For the 2000-01 academic year, Wilhelm, the department chair, hired 6 full-time adjunct teachers to reduce the class load of his faculty members as well as 20 TAs to assist with all of the ME classes. Money from this departmental fund also was awarded to four scholarship recipients and paid the salaries of the 12 staff administrators. For this academic period, Carolyn taught five classes, one more than is required for full professors. She had assistance from one TA in two of those classes. Consequently, she was unable to allocate the expected time to her research that her salary offset afforded her. This scenario was true for several other ME faculty members and has been a chronic problem in the eyes of these professors.

Disturbed by the fact that she was teaching more than the normal course load, Carolyn surveyed the ME faculty to determine the number of full-time equivalents being contributed to the departmental fund by their salary offsets. She learned that her colleagues' grants contributed a combined 12 full-time equivalents. Carolyn also discovered that the number of adjunct faculty in other departments at her university fell short of the number allocated by their salary offsets.

Discussion Questions

  1. Should federal grant money that funds a reduction in class load for a professor be used solely for this purpose?
  2. What are some administrative solutions to ensuring that money from salary offsets is allocated to hiring the proper number of adjunct faculty?
  3. What can be done to rectify the imbalance in the teaching load of the ME faculty?
  4. Since the three principal responsibilities of a faculty member are service, teaching and scholarship, should faculty members also receive a reduction in their expected service contributions upon receiving a salary offset from a grant?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 6, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2002.

. . Salary Offsets. Online Ethics Center. DOI:

The purpose of this case is to highlight the issues surrounding the misuse of grant funds by academic institutions. The misuse in this case causes an unfair teaching burden on the research professor that is intended to be alleviated by this particular line item in her grant.

Federal funding agencies vary in terms of providing salary offsets: The National Science Foundation does not; the National Institutes of Health does. Salary offsets are generally larger for medical center personnel than for university faculty. It is generally assumed that faculty members in medical schools are expected to bring in all of their salary via offset. Offsets for medical school faculty are usually spread over two to four different grants, and they can total 50 percent or more of salary while being "unnoticed" by accounting departments. Considering that physicians have other obligations besides teaching and research, the large percentage of salary offset is something of an ethical conflict; without it, however, most medical schools would struggle financially.

The usual offset for university research is roughly 25 percent. The 25 percent figure, if anything, somewhat underestimates faculty members' research load, but the funding agency applies subtle pressure to keep this figure low. Another point to consider is that university faculty can bring in summer salary from a grant, which actually contributes more money into a professor's annual salary. Summer salary goes some distance toward normalizing university and medical school research costs since medical schools do not offer summer salaries. Medical school faculty members are on a twelve-month contract; university professors' contracts cover a nine- to ten-month period. The rule of thumb at some universities is that professors can budget for a month of summer salary for each 10 percent of offset their grants contribute.

Carolyn finds herself in a familiar professional situation as a university professor, bringing in adequate funding for her research yet overloaded in terms of teaching responsibility. The department appears to be taking advantage of Carolyn's work ethic by assigning her more classes than the required load while not hiring a sufficient number of adjunct faculty members. In such a situation, the department is misusing the grant funds to support interests that are outside the grant's scope. Consequently, the professor labors excessively for the benefit of the department, not the grant project. Moreover, the research to be explored by the grant is not receiving adequate time and energy. In this case, the public funds that contribute to the governmental grant are sustaining a private university's special interests. Herein lies the ethical dilemma. The case focuses on the injustice of spending money for purposes other than those for which it was allocated.

Administratively, tracking the source and amount of each professor's salary offset would require time and paper work. Maintaining the current system is more beneficial for the administration since it need not be concerned with tabulating this income. If the faculty were to become more adamant about the inconsistency between their work load and their salary offsets, they could demand that their teaching and research responsibilities match their funding income. The department would then: 1) need to train someone to handle the accounting of salary offsets; 2) be required to hire and train more adjunct faculty members, and 3) lose income that supports some other ME interests.

Although changing the present system would "pain" the administration, it is the just action to take. After all, the administration has an ethical responsibility to treat its faculty fairly and to respect their time expenditures. University departments' policies and practices related to salary offsets should be examined from an ethical perspective.


  • National Institutes of Health web site:
  • National Science Foundation web site: awards.htm.
  • Vesilind, P. Aarne. So You Want to Be a College Professor? Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, Inc., 2000, pp. 103-111.

Note: Most of the figures offered in this commentary were obtained from personal conversations with faculty members at my university.

Presumably the federal grant awarded to Carolyn specifies that a certain percentage of her time will be devoted to research. Without such assurances, the granting agency has no basis for making the award. The grant specifies a certain amount of money that can be used to support Carolyn's research time by buying out some of her teaching time. However, if Carolyn is not afforded time off from some of her teaching in order to do research, the terms of the grant are not being met.

Precisely how the department may expend the money it receives in compensation for relieving Carolyn from some of her teaching responsibilities typically is not specified by the terms of the grant. Hiring adjunct faculty or TAs to replace her in the classroom is certainly an acceptable practice. It is less clear whether using remaining money for student scholarships or staff administrators is permissible . The range of acceptable expenditures is limited, however. Making a down payment on a departmental sailboat, for example, is clearly out-of-bounds.

In any case, if it turns out that Carolyn does not received a reduced teaching load in order to pursue the grant project, the terms of the grant are not being met. Not only Carolyn, but the federal agency as well are being shortchanged. This situation is big trouble for Wilhelm if it becomes known either to the federal agency or his institution's office of research and grants. Of course, in determining whether Carolyn has a reduced teaching load, it is important to know what a normal teaching load is for full professors. This standard may or may not be well defined in an academic institution. Even those institutions with faculty collective bargaining may not have a clear definition of what a "normal" teaching load is. Student advising, supervision of theses, university service, and any number of other activities are typically counted toward meeting a faculty member's required "full time equivalent." Also, how one's teaching load is determined is a function not only of the number of classes one teaches, but also class size, the number of TAs for the class, and the number of credit hours of the class.

What is clear is that a simple averaging of the number of classes taught by faculty members in a given department is not a reliable way of determining the normal course load from which a grant Abuy out" is to be subtracted. If, despite her research grant, Carolyn is teaching more courses than the number usually taught by full professors, she may well wonder whether she is getting the amount of released time from teaching to which she and the federal granting agency are entitled. Given the apparent discrepancies Carolyn has discovered in her survey of her departmental colleagues, Wilhelm had better have a good system of accounting ready to hand. If he does, to minimize further misunderstandings among his colleagues, it would be desirable for him to share this information with them. If he does not, there is trouble ahead. If there is a record of misuse of federal funds, there is both legal and ethical trouble. However, the situation also raises basic ethical issues regarding fair and equitable treatment of colleagues and the provision of ample opportunities for them to pursue their responsibilities as both researchers and teachers.

Author: Michael S. Pritchard, Western Michigan University.