By Craig Chamberlain In academic reputation, the UI is ranked among the top schools in the nation. But without a significant increase in its faculty salaries during the next few years, more than half needed from state appropriations, the state's premier public institution of higher education may not remain among the nation's elite, administrators say. "Only four or five states ever reached the very top level of higher educational leadership with their public universities, and Illinois is one of them," noted UI Chancellor Michael Aiken. "What's very hard to convey to the public is how hard it is to get there and how the quality can just evaporate." Provost Larry Faulkner made the case for a salary catch-up program in a presentation July 13 before the UI Board of Trustees. "The bottom line is that unless we close a salary gap between this campus and our peers within the next few years, the quality of this institution is at issue," Faulkner said. UI faculty salaries lag about 10 percent below the average - and rank near the bottom - among a comparison group of 21 peer institutions, Faulkner said. The gap developed over more than a decade, but grew faster between fiscal years 1990 and 1994. During that four-year period, the campus could finance only modest salary increases, and only then through internal reallocation, tuition increases and a reduction in faculty numbers, he said. Fiscal year 1995 appropriations provided a small gain against the peer group, and 1996 will allow the campus to hold its ground, but the large salary gap remains. The issue is being addressed now because the board will be asked in September, as part of the annual state appropriation process, to approve a fiscal year 1997 university budget. The proposed budget then will be sent to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, which will make recommendations to Gov. Jim Edgar. As of fiscal year 1994, the UI ranked next to last in salaries for full professors among 21 institutions defined as the school's peer group by the Illinois Board of Higher Education. In an October 1994 IBHE report, average salaries for all UI faculty were shown to be about 10 percent below the peer group's median. Among the 11 campuses identified with the Big Ten, UI salaries for full professors have dropped from third in 1980 to seventh in 1994. For full professors within the College of Engineering, often ranked among the nation's three best engineering schools, the drop was from first to eighth in the Big Ten in the same period. Salaries for associate and assistant professors have decreased similarly. Although the problem has grown more severe in recent years, the salary gap began to widen in the early 1980s. Salary growth for full professors at the UI was the weakest in its peer comparison group, in both percentage and dollar terms, over the 14 years beginning in fiscal year 1980. The same was true over the nine years beginning in 1985 and the four years beginning in 1990 - provided that three California campuses affected by early retirement are excluded from the comparison. The same also was true among the 11 schools in the Big Ten: the UI was last in salary growth for full professors in all three periods. These statistics have been compiled by the campus since the release of the IBHE report last fall. The main source was public information collected annually by the American Association of University Professors. Faulkner also pointed out that without additional money for salaries, academic departments must continue to reduce faculty size to keep salaries competitive. Since 1987, the campus has lost 170 faculty positions, almost 100 of those in the last two years, he said.