Retreat Fights

August 4, 2011

When he joins the faculty at Rutgers University in the fall of 2014, Richard L. McCormick will be the highest-paid faculty member on campus, a rather unusual claim to fame for a history professor.

The pay won't be based on his academic record or years as a faculty member, as it would be for other professors. McCormick's salary, which will be $335,000, is the result of a contract he signed when he became president of the university about 10 years ago.

That contract guaranteed that McCormick would make "no less" than the highest-paid faculty member on campus, who happens to be another recent administrative departure, Norman Samuels, the former Rutgers-Newark provost who now earns $320,000 a year as a political science professor. So while faculty members with "Professor II" titles, the highest rank at Rutgers, make an average of $175,229 a year, McCormick will make almost double that -- a fact that has made some on campus unhappy.

And Rutgers isn't the only such case. A string of recent senior administrative departures at research universities has raised questions about the structure of such retreat compensation agreements, often called "golden parachutes," including large salaries, extended time off, light workloads, and the right to tenure. While the necessity of these deals is the major question at a lot of institutions, they also raise philosophical concerns, such as why a traditional faculty position -- often viewed as a fairly well-paying and flexible job by the public -- just isn't good enough for former administrators.

"It seems like the surest and best way to a good salary is by becoming an administrator, even a failed former administrator,” said Terrel Gallaway, an economics professor and chairman of the Faculty Senate at Missouri State University, which in the last two years has seen the departure of two presidents, both with large compensation packages for their post-presidency jobs. "There’s a sense that you can’t be as financially successful just by being an excellent teacher or researcher.”

In addition, faculty members and staff say it is hypocritical to award such compensation packages, like the large presidential salaries that also often make headlines, at a time when administrators are asking every corner of the university to make sacrifices.

Retreat packages have been common in higher education for decades, because senior administrators used to come primarily from the academic ranks, where most had tenured positions to which they wanted to return when their time in administration ended. The issue that has gotten faculty members so riled up in recent controversies has been what they view as excessive pay -- typically more than most faculty members on campus -- as well as perks that the average faculty member does not enjoy.

The deals vary widely in structure, though most presidential contracts have some retreat clause. Most private universities strike different deals with each president, while some states have across-the-board rules for public institutions. In Florida, presidents who return to the faculty are entitled to 75 percent of their presidential pay, which typically would still be much more than a faculty member's salary. In Georgia, former presidents' pay is decreased over the course of a few years until it is brought in line with what faculty members in their new departments make.

Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington lawyer who specializes in presidential contracts, said these packages, like large administrative salaries, are often part of the deal that boards have to make to bring in qualified candidates. He also sees the compensation as a reward for doing a very difficult job for an extended period of time. "It is very much a recruiting tool," Cotton said. "It's a board's way of telling a potential president, 'We know that you’re going to be working 24-7, we know that this is a difficult and stressful job, we know that you’re going to get burned out, and we're telling you that we care enough about you that when your job is finished, assuming you do a good job and that you want to return to teaching and research when you're done, that we're going to take care of you.' "

Proponents also argue that retreat clauses, and particularly the job security that a tenured position provides, could give a president the courage to stand up to governing boards and politicians on questions of academic freedom and university values.

Opponents of the deals say they aren't fair or transparent and can often be abused. When pay is backloaded and serves as a reward for the time spent as president, Gallaway said, taxpayers can't easily comprehend how much the university is paying administrators.

At Missouri State, where Gallaway works, retreat deals have attracted the attention not only of faculty members, but also the state auditor's office. The most recent president, James D. Cofer, stepped down in August after only one year in service to a $165,000 salary, including a year of paid leave. His predecessor, Mike Nietzel, who stepped down at the end of the 2009-10 academic year, received a $160,000 salary for a year in which he took a semester sabbatical and taught only one class in the spring -- before leaving his faculty post. The average salary for a full professor at Missouri State is about $76,500. "We don’t know if they’re going to get that inflated salary for one year of service or five years of service," Gallaway said. "And we don't know if it's going to be five years of good service or five years of crappy service."

The provost's office and Faculty Senate at Missouri State have now formed a committee to explore problems with post-administrative assignment, including their pay and workloads. Gallaway said some faculty members believe that former administrators are being placed in high-paying jobs with little demand on their time. They are also beginning to question whether granting tenure to administrators who come from outside the university is a good idea.

Back when many presidents came from the academic ranks of the institution, most had been granted tenure before entering administration and many viewed the service in the administration building as a temporary assignment from which they would return. But at a time when many presidents spend their careers as administrators instead of academics, and many come from different institutions or outside the academy, the case for granting tenure upon completion of a president's term in office becomes murkier.

Gallaway and others also argue that such retreat deals represent misplaced priorities. That has been the claim of the faculty union at the University of Vermont, where the president, Daniel M. Fogel, stepped down from his position. His contract entitles him to a year off at his presidential salary, about $410,000 a year, and a position in the English department, where he will make about $195,000 a year -- a salary that is about $80,000 higher than the next-highest-paid professor in the English department. In addition, Vermont's board agreed to grant him an extra five months off at his presidential salary.

“I don’t see how the preparation as a president helps prepare people to teach British literature,” said David Shiman, a education professor and faculty union president at the University of Vermont.

Shiman said that while Fogel is a fine scholar who did a good job as president of the university, the two aren't overlapping fields. He said he'd be understand it if an engineer from a company like IBM came to the university and his experience in the corporate world counted toward his salary. But he doesn't see the connection between administrative experience and teaching and research. “It doesn’t justify to me counting those years," he said.

The faculty union, as well as several other university unions, are in the middle of contract negotiations with administrators, and Shiman said deals like Fogel's belie claims that administrators have no money to give raises to faculty and staff.

The state's Democratic governor, Peter Shumlin, has also weighed in on the retreat package, saying it doesn't reflect the nonprofit nature of the university. “Whenever you have expenses at a university that look more like corporate America than the academic America that we used to know, I think you have a challenge,” he said.

The Board of Trustees has defended the deal. A spokesman for the university said the pay was “in recognition of [Fogel’s] legacy, personal circumstances and consideration for work he may do at the discretion of the interim president.”

While parachute deals often generate some bad publicity when officials step down, rarely is the backlash anything more than words. That was not the case in 2009, when North Carolina State University revoked a compensation deal for its former provost, Larry Nielsen. Nielsen stepped down amid a scandal over the appointment of the former governor’s wife to a high-paying position at the university. Nielsen’s compensation package -- struck by a chancellor, James Oblinger, who was also caught up in the scandal -- would have granted Nielsen three years of provost-level pay.

Instead, Nielsen received six months at his provost salary before before his pay dropped to one more in line with what other professors in his department received.

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