Whatever else is strong or weak in University of Utah academic departments, there is a common thread running through some recent, routine evaluations - low faculty pay threatens morale.

The U. periodically assesses its academic departments. Conducted by the U. Graduate Council, the evaluations include an external review committee by faculty from out-of-state universities and an internal review committee with senior U. faculty from other departments.Reviewers looked recently at the molecular biology program and the departments of art; cellular, viral and molecular biology; economics; and mathematics. The reports were released to the U. Board of Trustees Monday.

The board also received follow-up reports on six previously reviewed departments.

The reports are as diverse as the departments. Throughout the reports, the reviewers wrote of such strengths as a solid faculty commitment to students and teaching, high-quality programs and graduate students, and excellent computing facilities.

But low salaries for faculty and teaching assistants were mentioned consistently in reviews.

"Very low salaries, combined with overwork and uncertainty about common objectives, threaten faculty morale; there are already signs of divisiveness and discontent," the reviewers wrote of the art department.

The economics department has faculty salaries and teaching assistant stipends that are low in comparison with university and national norms. The reviewers wrote that this "affects the morale of those present and the effective recruiting both of new faculty and Ph.D. candidates."

The reviewers called the salaries for full professors in the math department "dismal," noting that department has lost several key faculty.

Although the reviewers didn't single out low salaries in the report on the department of cellular, viral and molecular biology, they did point out that all 10 faculty members are either funded individually with research grants or with multiple grants.

The reviewers were concerned about this over-reliance on "soft-money funding . . . While paradoxically a sign of department health and competitiveness, the large percentage of operating funds from external sources places the department in a precarious position should external sources disappear."

In the cellular, viral and molecular biology department and the combined molecular biology program, which is operated by five departments, the $9,000 annual stipend for graduate students is too low compared to other institutions with similar programs, the reviewers said.

However, the U. administration recently increased those stipends to $12,000.

U. President Chase N. Peterson said the reviews are honest, accurate looks at the departments. No department escapes review. "None are a whitewash," he said of the reviews.

The reports show "what higher education is doing and how well we are doing it," Peterson said.

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After more than 20 years, the Institutional Council no longer governs the University of Utah.

The University of Utah and the eight other public colleges and universities in Utah now answer to boards of trustees. On Monday, the old members of the U. Institutional Council operated officially - for the first time - as the U. Board of Trustees.

The name change came with the 1991 Utah Legislature. Besides mandating the new name, a newly passed law also clarifies the relationship of the bodies that govern the institutions and the state Board of Regents - the ultimate authority in the state's system of higher education.

Vicki Varela, assistant to the commissioner of higher education for media relations, said the term trustee is more familiar in higher education circles and makes the boards' roles more easily understood by educators elsewhere. "When institutional council members went to national conferences, they would always have to explain their roles," she said.