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Former president Wilson not overpaid, UMass board says

By Mary Carmichael and Todd Wallack
Globe Staff / January 12, 2012
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A University of Massachusetts committee meeting to determine whether the system is overpaying former president Jack Wilson concluded yesterday that his current salary is appropriate, and some members also said that chancellors at the respective colleges are underpaid.

The committee convened in response to a Globe report that Wilson is receiving his presidential pay of $425,000 while on sabbatical this year. Wilson’s final contract also sets a limit for his salary as a professor at UMass Lowell starting next summer that is much higher than a previously negotiated limit. None of those arrangements were discussed or approved by the full UMass board of trustees.

Committee members said yesterday the higher limit was an inadvertent error. Wilson has agreed to accept the lower limit instead. State Secretary of Education Paul Reville said at the meeting that the change should be formalized in writing.

Otherwise, committee members said, they did not see any need for altering Wilson’s deal.

“In my view, all these arrangements are perfectly within the scope of what is standard and typical within the higher education world,’’ said the chairman, John DiBiaggio, former president of Tufts University. “I would say they’re particularly appropriate for someone who served with as much distinction and enjoyed the success that Jack did during his tenure.’’

James Karam, chairman of the UMass board, added that sabbaticals and high pay can attract and keep good leaders and are used for that purpose by other universities.

But not everyone at UMass agreed with the panel’s decision.

“Every citizen of Massachusetts should be outraged,’’ said Greg DeLaurier, an adjunct professor at UMass Lowell. “At a time when the top nine administrators at UMass Lowell already pull down roughly $3 million [combined] in salary and benefits while adjuncts struggle to make a living on $14,000 a year and students work one or more jobs to pay ever-increasing tuition and fees, the committee shows an arrogant disregard for real needs and inequities.’’

The committee’s decision hinged largely on a report prepared by Raymond Cotton, a higher education consultant at the law firm Mintz Levin. Cotton has worked for UMass before. He drafted Wilson’s 2007 employment contract on a pro bono basis, and his business partner, Stephen Tocco, was the chairman of the UMass board at the time.

At yesterday’s meeting, Cotton - speaking by phone from Washington, D.C. - presented data from UMass and 16 other state university systems for comparison.

Eleven of the 16 systems grant their presidents sabbaticals of a year or longer. Of those systems, eight fund the sabbaticals at rates equal to presidential pay, as UMass does.

“For a long-serving president, it’s absolutely typical to be granted a 12-month sabbatical,’’ Cotton said in an interview after the meeting. “The level of compensation these individuals usually get is their last presidential salary.’’

Cotton’s report also examines salaries college presidents are paid when they return to faculty positions. The rates vary enormously, but often equal that of the highest-paid professor on campus.

Cotton’s list of schools includes many large state institutions, but does not fully overlap with the standard list of UMass’s peer institutions. He said he chose schools based on his own expert opinion, focusing on those he considered similar to UMass in size and budget.

A dozen state systems and universities contacted by the Globe have a wider range of practices than those in Cotton’s report. For instance, the University of Illinois has no policy on sabbaticals for outgoing presidents, though its last president who returned to the faculty did take a semester’s leave, at a professor’s pay.

Although no UMass committee member disapproved of Wilson’s pay, one, Reville, raised a point of concern regarding the way it was determined.

“I think a number of us were caught by surprise by this recent controversy,’’ he said. “By statute, it’s the board that’s charged with setting compensation. So if we do it by delegating authority to the chair, that loop ought to be closed by the chair getting back to the board as a whole and letting us know what’s been negotiated.’’

Trustee Ruben King-Shaw echoed that sentiment, then raised a different issue, the pay of the system’s individual chancellors. He said he considered it far too low, referring to a report UMass commissioned in 2010, which found that the chancellors make less than counterparts at peer institutions.

The report lists the salary range of $240,000 for UMass Boston’s leader to $490,000 for the head of UMass Medical School in Worcester.

“Frankly, we need to have a full action item on the agenda to address the way-below-market salaries,’’ King-Shaw said. “I don’t see how that’s sustainable.’’

To murmurs of agreement from the other members, Karam added, “We’re competing in the real world.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com.

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