Unlike our usual blogs, today’s missive is not exactly international in its focus. Rather it addresses a uniquely US phenomenon—salaries for university presidents that are out of control. Outside of the US, salaries for faculty and administrators at public universities are often defined by a civil service salary scale. It is difficult to know what presidents of universities in the private sector outside of the US earn, particularly when they are “owners” of their university, common in the case of developing economies. But I will venture to guess that even where presidents own their institution, that their annual income does not begin to approach the top US salaries revealed this week. FORTY-TWO college presidents in the US earn total compensation above $1 million (four of these receive BASE PAY more than $1 million); six of the 42 are earning more than $2 million. This is truly shocking to the rest of the world and not nearly shocking enough to us in the United States.
The salaries reported are scandalous at many levels. The fact that higher education should be yet another example of the skewed distribution of wealth in the United States is shameful. The concentration of funds into the compensation of a single person on a university campus when so many programs are facing stagnant or decreasing budgets is irrational. And to make this situation even more appalling, consider the pathetic remuneration of adjunct faculty, the general shift from tenure to renewable contracts, regular tuition increases unrelated to cost of living, the increased reliance on loans to fund undergraduates, etc., etc. How can we possibly justify extreme salaries at the top in light of all the rationalization taking place within institutions at all levels?
I do not for a moment doubt the colossal responsibility assumed by college presidents today or the complexity of the challenges they face, but the salary differentials between the university president and the rest of the administrative and academic staff are hard to justify. There are enormous challenges confronting everyone. Could the trials faced by college presidents possibly be worth compensation that is 30 times more than that of a tenured professor? 50 times more than that of an assistant professor or mid-level administrator? Like Wall Street we seem to have deluded ourselves into believing that huge salaries are required to attract talent and succumbed to a kind of “arms race” that only escalates up. All perspective has been lost.
I believe that a university education is one of the best investments an individual can make, but the allocation of institutional resources is out of whack. As elsewhere in the US economy, financial burdens are concentrated where they are least easily borne and rewards are heaped at the top beyond reason. It’s time to reset the scale.