Taking Raises, and Taking Heat

After several college presidents declined bonuses in light of the economic downturn, criticism has begun to mount against those who kept the money.

February 17, 2009

College presidents who declined raises and bonuses this year may have lost money, but they gained goodwill and political capital. As might be expected, the opposite appears true for those who clung to their often generous rewards even as budgets were slashed.

At George Mason University, President Alan Merten is still taking heat for a $108,000 bonus he took eight months ago that pushed his annual compensation over a half-million dollars. Most members of the university’s Faculty Senate only learned of the bonus in October, and they quickly raised objections. The Senate passed a resolution in November, urging Merten to give the money to financial aid in a spirit of “solidarity and shared sacrifice.”

Merten isn’t the only university chief under fire for taking more money while many colleges in the country are resorting to furloughs, layoffs and salary freezes. Presidents in Ohio and Pennsylvania are also taking criticism, and there’s sure to be a new round of scrutiny when many presidents are eligible for raises in July, which is the start of the fiscal year for many colleges.That scrutiny is only heightened because other presidents across the country continue to skip raises and cut salaries, drawing further attention to those who don't follow the populist trend.

In the wake of the George Mason Senate resolution, which passed by a 25-5 vote, Merten has only given a curt response.

“I have received the November 19 resolution of the Faculty Senate,” he wrote in a December e-mail to a Senate member, offering no further thoughts.

But the Senate is not backing down. Unsatisfied with Merten’s equally terse response to yet another e-mail in January, the Senate is now forming a delegation to formally meet with the president to discuss the matter.

While Merten didn’t turn down his bonus, it’s unclear whether he may have actually contributed some of the money to the university’s foundation, which does not have to disclose donors’ names. Suzanne Slayden, chair of the Faculty Senate, said it’s commonly believed that Merten contributes to the university without making a show of it.

“He’s not authorizing his chief of staff or anybody who might know to point out what he gives, but he’s a stubborn man,” said Slayden, a professor of chemistry.

Dan Walsch , press secretary at George Mason, said “We’re not confirming or denying what he’s done with his money.”

“The decision he has made or makes to give part of his salary back to the university … is totally his – his [decision] to make and no one else’s,” Walsch said. “Because that’s a personal decision it's something he doesn’t want to discuss.”

Somewhat ironically, Merten’s $108,000 bonus came with a sting – even before faculty balked. Merten was actually eligible for a $120,000 performance bonus, but the Board of Visitors reduced that amount by $12,000. Ernst Volgenau, the board’s rector, told the Faculty Senate in October that the board cut the bonus by 10 percent because of “concerns about certain things such as fundraising,” according to the minutes of the meeting.

Even with a smaller bonus, Merten is a well paid president. With his bonus included, he now makes more than $500,000, in addition to other perks like a car and residence. Merten was also eligible for a base pay increase of $21,000 or 5 percent, but the board voted in December to defer the salary increase. The board’s minutes do not indicate a reason for deferring the raise or say when it might be given, and Volgenau did not respond to an interview request. Walsch called the delayed raise “a personnel matter” and would not elaborate.

David Kuebrich, Faculty Senate secretary at George Mason, said he’s part of a “faction” of faculty who are increasingly concerned about the president’s pay, particularly in an environment where budgets are being cut and faculty don’t expect raises.

“Maybe it would have been better to have not passed the resolution, but gone to speak to him; maybe now he feels like he has to dig in his heels or something,” Kuebrich conceded. “But anyway, I think some presidents have provided important symbolic leadership during these times, and I don’t think he is.”

Unrest in Ohio

Taking pay hikes in the current economic crisis could be particularly perilous for presidents who are already vulnerable politically. Ohio University faculty and students, some of whom have criticized Roderick McDavis’ leadership for years, are still simmering over an $85,000 salary increase the president received in June. As recently as Jan. 25, the university’s Student Senate took up a resolution that would have asked McDavis to give the money back to the university. The resolution was voted down 22-15, but it demonstrated just how raw emotions have become over presidential pay in states that face real economic challenges.

In an outside review of the president, a consultant from the Association of Governing Boards described the pay raise as a driver of ongoing controversy.

"Several faculty and staff — whatever their attitude toward the president’s performance — mentioned certain flashpoints that served to convert latent discontent into no confidence votes and negative statements," wrote Terry MacTaggart, a senior fellow at the AGB. "Why couldn’t the board have raised his pay by the same percentages as they have pledged to improve faculty compensation, several asked."

Sergio Lopez-Permouth , president of Faculty Senate, said McDavis' raise only heightened criticism of a person who “has not been our most popular president by any stretch of the imagination.” While the raise was awarded eight months ago, Lopez said McDavis should have made a symbolic gesture as the economy started to decline rapidly.

“There were plenty of opportunities for the president to say now that we know what’s happening with the economy he will lead by example,” Lopez said.

Faculty and staff at Ohio were provided raises from a 3 percent raise pool this fiscal year, and an additional $1.2 million pool was used to pay raises for full-time tenure-track faculty. With the state facing a $7 billion budget deficit, however, faculty don’t view raises as likely in the coming year.

McDavis’ “equity adjustment,” as it was labeled, brought his salary to $380,000. The university’s Board of Trustees provided the increase after a committee found that McDavis was the lowest paid among eight “peer public universities” in Ohio, excluding Ohio State University, a university spokesperson said. He is now the fourth-highest paid among that cohort.

Governor Critical in Pennsylvania

Presidents in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education were also criticized when reports surfaced in November that 13 university chiefs had collectively been given $121,000 in raises. While the raises were actually awarded in April, November news stories provoked response from the highest levels of the state.

“I think large raises at a time like this are absolutely inappropriate,” Gov. Ed Rendell said.

The raises were actually awarded to all non-union state employees, but the presidents took the brunt of the criticism.

“The raises the presidents got were basically last year’s raises, [but] they were announced in the fall which was bad timing,” said Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the Pennsylvania system.

While the raises were small compared to what some other university presidents have received, they still provoked a negative response given the economic downturn. Steve Hicks, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, said the presidents missed an opportunity to demonstrate that they were sharing in the pain.

“We were disappointed,” he said. “The flip side for us is they’re talking about wanting us to give [money] back now. Here they took a raise when they had the chance not to.”


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