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Derrick Z. Jackson

Pay cuts for university presidents

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / April 5, 2011

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WE WILL never end disparities in education as long as education leaders put personal privilege first. This week’s evidence is the annual release of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s pay survey for public university presidents. Even in the recession, with massive state budget cuts to university systems, which in turn result in jacked-up student fees, presidential pay increased to a median total of $440,487.

Among the 59 presidents above the half-million dollar barrier was outgoing UMass President Jack Wilson. His total compensation went up 6.5 percent, more than the national average, to $581,535. His successor, Robert Caret, was lured from Towson University with a package that starts at the same base salary as Wilson of $425,000, but has built-in raises totaling $50,000 for his first two years. While Wilson had a $45,000 housing allowance, Caret will get a $60,000 allowance, according to the Globe.

This is before any proof of performance and at a time when student fees are sure to soar even more to address the coming $54 million university budget shortfall. Ironically, Caret was hired on the strength of his ability to dramatically slash racial graduation gaps. But, by definition, his pay poses a great challenge to prove he is in touch with the issues of financially stressed students.

The Chronicle wrote that the highest-paid public university presidents “walk a difficult political tightrope. They must at once argue that their state budgets have been cut to the bone and need to be restored, while at the same time acknowledging their rarefied personal financial circumstances in states where layoffs, program closures, and pay reductions have been all too common.’’

A handful of presidents around the nation have made gestures to acknowledge their rarefied status. The most highly compensated public president in the nation, at $1.8 million a year, Gordon Gee of Ohio State, donated about $300,000 of bonus money to scholarships. The president of the University of Missouri declined a $100,000 performance bonus; the president of Washington State University took a $100,000 pay cut; and the president of the University of California took a 10 percent pay cut.

But the larger landscape is one of entitlement, as exemplified by former University of Washington President Mark Emmert, who refused to take a recessionary pay cut even though he was the nation’s second-highest-paid public president. Competitive spending on presidents has reached the level where the University of Central Florida pays its president $800,000. That is $276,000 more than for the president of the flagship University of Florida.

As complex as running a university is, there is no evidence that paying presidents astronomical salaries improves education or access, especially in Massachusetts, where per-student public funding is mired well within the bottom half of states in the nation. It would be refreshing if Caret came into office by announcing to students and faculty that he is in the muck with them.

With most of America living on far less than $425,000, he could easily donate his $50,000 built-in pay raise to scholarships and wait for two years to earn any raises based on actual merit. Or, he could shave his housing allowance back to at least Wilson’s level and donate that to scholarships. Caret seems capable of having a conscience on these matters, saying that being president is “an extremely personal job where you become sort of the living logo of the campus.’’ In a 2009 feature on his success at Towson, the Baltimore Sun quoted professor Richard Vatz as saying that Caret “seems to be a genuinely concerned individual. His motives are always to help the university. His motives are always honest.’’

Caret can put his concern on immediate display when he takes office. A little pay cut for himself could go a long way to helping his new university win the political support it has always needed, but so often failed to get.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.