Raymond Burse hasn't held a minimum-wage job since his high school and college years, when he worked side jobs on golf courses and paving crews. Yet this summer, the interim president at Kentucky State University made a large gesture to his school's lowest-paid employees. Burse announced that he would take a 25 percent salary cut to boost their wages.
The 24 school employees making less than $10.25 an hour, who mostly serve as custodial staff, groundskeepers and lower-end clerical workers, will see their pay rise to that new baseline. Some had been making as little as $7.25, the current federal minimum. Burse, who assumed the role of interim president in June, says he asked the school's chief financial officer how much such an increase would cost. The amount: $90,125.
"I figured it was easier for me to forgo that amount, rather than adding an additional burden on the institution," Burse says. "I had been thinking about it almost since the day they started talking to me about being interim president."
Burse announced his decision to take the funds out of his salary in a board meeting at the end of July, and the school ratified his employment contract on the spot — decreasing it from $349,869 to $259,744. He has pledged to take further salary cuts any time new minimum-wage employees are hired on his watch, to bring their hourly rate to $10.25.
This isn't Burse's first time leading KSU. He served as president from 1982 to 1989, before joining a law firm in Louisville, Ken., and then becoming a vice president and general counsel at GE. He will hold the school's interim leadership role for at least a year, or longer if they need more time to find a permanent replacement.
Burse describes himself as someone who believes in raising wages, and who also has high expectations and demands for his staff. "I thought that if I'm going to ask them to really be committed and give this institution their all, I should be doing something in return," Burse says. "I thought it was important."
Earlier this year, the Kentucky House passed a bill to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 by July 2016, but the bill failed to pass the state's Senate. There have been a few recent instances of colleges boosting their minimum wage on campus, such as at Hampton University in Virginia, where the president made a personal donation to increase workers' salaries. Yet at most organizations that have made news for their decisions to increase pay, like IKEA and GAP, the funding isn't tied to deductions in leaders' salaries.
"I didn’t have any examples of it having been done out there and I didn’t do it to be an example to anyone else," Burse says. "I did it to do right by the employees here."