It's a familiar Washington story: an entrenched leader faces accusations of misappropriation of funds; charges and countercharges fly. This isn’t a partisan Capital feud, but the tale of American University President Ben Ladner and the university’s Board of Trustees.
The controversy erupted with an anonymous letter to The Washington Post charging that President Ladner misused university funds to hire a personal chef and executive assistant for the first lady, imbibe hundred-dollar bottles of wine to court donors and buy holiday gifts for the kids, among other extravagances.
Although I have been in education 25 years and also am a college president, I know neither Ladner nor members of his board. Rather, as with most of us in academe, I have observed the unfolding scandal through news reports and the various Web-writers blasting various players in this tragedy.
What a shame to see American mired in such scandal. The university has worked very hard to improve its standing in the past decade, for which the board and chief executive are to be complimented, along with the faculty, staff and graduates.
And we should also recall that AU’s troubles aren’t the first of their kind to arise in higher education. A decade earlier, Adelphi University was assailed as a monument to bad management when the president of the Long Island institution filled the board with cronies who awarded him a fat salary package and paid for a $1.2 million Manhattan apartment for his use. This was at the time that Adelphi’s marketing campaign "Harvard: the Adelphi of Massachusetts," evoked titters from administrators at other universities and as the institution’s enrollment, financial stability and faculty morale were plummeting. The situation deteriorated to such a point that the New York Board of Regents interceded and removed all but one of the board members. Subsequently, a new president was hired.
A few years later, the board and administration of Boston University were directed by the Massachusetts attorney general to change its governance structure and board composition following the revelation that a large percentage of the trustees were also contractors and vendors for the school. In addition, BU lost many millions of dollars investing in a company in which the president had a particular interest. I’m sure many of my colleagues recall how that same president had served on -- and was removed from -- Adelphi’s board.
I know of other small institutions riddled with similar conflicts: The chairman of one school’s board also served as its legal counsel (for a substantial hourly fee), as chairman of the executive compensation committee and as executor of the president’s estate. Talk about conflict of interest!
All these examples illustrate the importance of good governance in higher education. The situation at AU, in particular, demonstrates how the lack of role clarification for both boards and their presidents is a prescription for disaster. Trustees, increasingly volunteer leaders from business and industry, should know that they have both a legal and fiduciary responsibility for the organization. The president manages on a daily basis, subject to the authority granted him by the board; he should bear in mind that it is not part of a divine right of kings, but rather is delegated. While the partnership between trustees and presidents is clear and the expectation of civility and respect implicit, good trustees and good presidents understand the lines of authority and see that those borders are not crossed.
Yet, many of us leading institutions of higher education know isn’t easy to observe that line of separation: Trustees are held accountable to a high standard. Yet they are volunteers (at least most of them) and often have to rely on the administration, primarily the chief executive officer, for information and data upon which to make important decisions. This line becomes further blurred by the fact that trustees and presidents move in similar social circles and can end up becoming friends. Combine those conditions with the fact that many trustees come from business, where lavish executive pay packages and rich perks are customary; it is only natural that they would want the chief executive of "their" university, particularly if she or he is a personal friend, to enjoy the lifestyle of a CEO.
But, I would argue that while universities have many of the attributes of “for-profit” enterprises, they are different fundamentally.
Universities do not measure their success on returns to shareholders, but rather on value for stakeholders -- parents paying high tuition, faculty and staff members who do the heavy lifting of the institution, and, students -- the ultimate "customers." Presidents of universities are not engaged in making widgets, creating new technology or producing consumable products or services. We are engaged in something even more special -- the creation of knowledge, the transmission of that knowledge and (hopefully) the creation of educated, aware and engaged members of civil society.
For that there should be just compensation, but it is one of several factors that need to be considered in hiring and retaining a good chief executive. Those individuals who pursue higher education careers merely for the financial compensation are missing the more meaningful reward.
Besides maintaining a social distance from his trustees, a college president can avail himself of other common-sense remedies to avoid future cases like American University. The most obvious of these are standards issued by the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities. Those guidelines are clear, rigorous and constitute “best practices” in board governance that ensure that trustees and presidents uphold the highest possible ethical standards. For example, compensation should be reviewed and approved by all members of the board, not just one or two members. In the case of American, news reports hold that the President’s controversial spending arose from provisions of a second contract that some trustees had never seen -- clearly not a desirable management model for any enterprise.
It is critical that all the board and its president share an absolute understanding about the presidential contract and the expectations, rights and responsibilities for the president and the presidential spouse. In the case of American University, the compensation for the president is simply out of line with the average compensation and terms for college presidents: the National Association of College and University Business Officers offers ample benchmark data that can serve as a reality check.
A president’s contract should be reviewed annually -- and not just by the chairman of the board or other “insiders” but by a group of trustees. An experienced chief financial officer (in many of the cases I’ve cited, where was he or she?) should be hired and be a fiscal gatekeeper, without fear of retaliation. And an annual independent audit should be conducted.
For example, at my institution, when the auditors present their report, the chief financial officer leaves the meeting so the board can critique his work. Then, I also leave the room so the trustees and auditors can freely discuss executive fiscal responsibility in confidence.
Congress passed Sarbanes-Oxley to restrict certain business practices to avert even the appearance of conflict of interest. Higher education, which is becoming costlier and increasingly harder for middle-class families to afford, must maintain standards that are just as strict, if not even more so.
Whether President Ladner misused his office for personal gain remains to be seen. But as an educator, one thing I do know about the AU case: The faculty, staff, alumni and ultimately the students of American University are those suffering the most from this unfortunate and avoidable controversy.
Roy J. Nirschel
Roy J. Nirschel is president of Roger Williams University.
The University of California Board Regents recently created a compensation committee to increase their oversight of university compensation practices and will introduce a yearly review of the system president’s performance. The regents also added an independent compliance officer to assure their compensation policies are followed and will add several new positions in the president’s office to address management shortcomings. These changes are designed to end excessive and secretive compensation practices recently revealed by the press.
Will these efforts bring administrative compensation more in line with the university’s compensation of top professors as suggested by the Academic Senate? Or will they simply provide a method for administrators to convince California legislators that higher administrative compensations are justified so that UC “can compete for the best people?”
The Regents’ compensation committee should, first and foremost, appreciate that top UC administrators already receive generous compensation packages. While some UC professors receive handsome offers from other universities, no UC campus chancellor has ever left for a comparable job at another university. Indeed, UC’s administrative generosity distorts salaries elsewhere.
When in 2004 Marye Anne Foxe received a $92,000 raise to induce her to leave the chancellorship of North Carolina State University to take the same position at the University of California at San Diego, North Carolina newspapers editors ridiculed “California dreamin" for provoking an “ugly” trend toward unjustified administrative salary increases in North Carolina. Editors noted that prior to Foxe moving to San Diego, salaries at San Diego and North Carolina State were comparable, with San Diego paying its chancellor $280,700, only $32,700 a year more than Fox was making in North Carolina. They also noted “all the interest generated when one of the [North Carolina] chancellors’ jobs comes open,” asserting that North Carolina chancellors’ salaries and generous perks already were the envy of most state and private sector employees.
North Carolina editors also denounced UC for paying MRC Greenwood, second-in-command of the 10-campus UC system, $100,000 more a year than her immediate predecessor. And all this was before the press’ revelation that UC administrators paid Foxe an additional $248,000 -- without informing the regents -- to forego her North Carolina sabbatical, making Foxe one of the highest-paid chancellors in the nation.
Trustees of the 16-campus North Carolina system reacted, somewhat predictably, with raises “to get our chancellors up to market.” North Carolina editors lamented that politically connected legislators "seem so eager to help higher-paid (and politically connected) state employees [i.e., university administrators] while they go on the cheap when it comes to the rank and file.” Mindful of a political backlash, in October 2005, North Carolina trustees capped the salary of incoming president Erskine Bowles at $425,000. When this failed to quell the political pressure, Bowles promised to return $125,000 as a donation to student aid programs.
Elsewhere in the country, concerns over administrators’ compensation permeate higher education. In testimony before the California Senate Education Committee hearing on UC compensation, David Longanecker, a national expert on university compensation, opined that "American higher education by and large has lost its way. We are spending an awful lot on executive compensation compared with what we used to spend."
Both at UC and across the nation, top education administrators are being paid increasingly high salaries without any evidence of higher-quality services. At UC this results, first, from questionable practices that paid certain top administrators more than the market price for the job. The second reason applies across the nation as well as to UC and stems from trustee’s condoning of executive searches that artificially restrict the supply of eligible top education administrators.
Since 1981, UC Regents have delegated the authority to select the campus chancellors to the university president. The president presents one name to the board for an up-or-down vote. The same is true for the salary of each proposed chancellor. For starters, the regents should revoke these delegations and assume responsibility for selecting the chancellors and setting their salaries. At a minimum, the regents should demand that the president offer at least three viable candidates for each vacancy and then negotiate the salary of the one chosen with the help of independent advisors rather than the president’s office. The president’s staff has a self-interest in high compensation, since typically yearly incomes are tied to the top administrators.
Going forward, the compensation committee should recognize that it is in the president’s interest to seek high administrative salaries and to bring aboard people disposed to support excessively high administrative salaries and compensation packages. In nominating chancellors and other executives, the president is selecting his team. Higher salaries buy the president the loyalty of these administrators as well as justification for keeping his own salary and total compensation package high. But do they buy anything for the taxpayers and students?
At the same time, there are existing practices that artificially inflate administrative salaries and deserve reform. While many university presidents leave the room when administrators’ salaries are considered, no UC President since 1995 has done so. As a result, trustees and auditors are less willing to discuss executive fiscal responsibility freely. And the UC president, besides advocating salary hikes for himself and his colleagues, could identify his detractors in the open-ballot regents’ meetings and punish them, for example, by not appointing them to various advisory committees.
Although the University of California is a public institution, meetings of special committees to advise the president regarding the selection of campus chancellors and other top administrators are held in secret, facilitating artificial restrictions on the number and types of candidates under consideration. Furthermore, for each administrative search, the president retains a search firm whose consultants’ fee is tied to the size of the nominees’ total compensation package, an arrangement that undermines efforts to rein in compensation.
Also, regents are typically asked to vote to accept or reject the president’s top personnel proposal in a telephone conference, in my experience a difficult context in which to organize resistance to a nomination or salary proposal.
Furthermore, UC administrators continually engage Mercer Human Resource Consulting to benchmark UC compensations with those of comparable universities. Mercer regularly finds that average salaries of administrators, while understandably somewhat higher than those at other public universities, are substantially below those of private universities. Although Mercer notes that UC pay is comparable when retirement and other benefits are factored in, the impression left with their readers is that UC administrators are underpaid. This suggestion ignores the possibility that private university administrators generally face more stringent oversight and therefore job pressures than those in public universities -- not to mention the fact that private funds, not taxpayer funds, are being used.
Indeed, Mercer’s results consistently ignore and discount the fact that UC administrators are public employees. The university's Academic Council found Mercer’s methodology flawed and in need of revision: In particular, “it is biased too heavily toward the private sector,” said Stanton Glantz, chairman of the faculty senate’s committee on planning and budget, adding that “there are plenty of people in California government who are running agencies that are larger and more complex than the University of California who are not getting ridiculously astronomical salaries."
The Academic Council also observes that the salaries of top administrators in Mercer’s report are not performance-based. “At least at the highest levels, [senior management group] salaries are based primarily on membership in administrative categories.” The council recommends that periodic performance reviews be introduced to the salary-setting process for top UC administrators.
Mercer’s procedure is flawed in other ways. Mercer does not report dollar values of the various non-monetary perquisites provided administrators. Nor does Mercer account for administrators’ gifts back to their universities, thus frequently overstating the net salary paid the administrator. Top-ranked University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, for example, on paper makes $724,604, but in fact nets far less since she periodically donates her performance bonuses included in that sum to university programs, in 2003 pledging $500,000.
Year after year, the biggest flaw regarding the Mercer executive compensation report is that UC administrators regularly hire Mercer to create it. In continuing to hire Mercer, administrators are buying results that they like. In sharp contrast, regents periodically change their outside financial auditors to ensure a fresh, critical look at the university’s overall finances.
UC President Robert Dynes has publicly acknowledged that his executives promoted high administrative compensations by applying existing policy inconsistently, favoring top administrators, and failing to disclose fully compensation information to the Regents. Rules put in place after a similar 1992 scandal required that the regents approve executive compensation packages. To address these nevertheless recurrent management failures, the regents recently established an independent compliance officer -- reporting solely to the board -- to assure that compensation practices are consonant with board policies and an ombudsman to speed the University’s response to information requests. They also will restructure the president’s office and are considering adding a chief operating officer and a chief financial officer. Addressing the president’s deficiencies by adding still another layer of employees to that bureaucracy hardly seems a serious attempt to ensure it will follow correct employment practices.
Even if the new Compensation Committee comes to acknowledge and correct the high-administrative-salary bias in the pre-existing UC salary-setting process, the problem of excessive high-level administrative salaries is largely a reflection of a different, probably greater, national problem resulting from trustees’ acceptance of artificial restrictions on the supply of eligible top education administrators.
For top administrators to have placated the regents and similar boards of trustees across the country, the supply of ostensibly qualified candidates for their universities’ top administrative positions must have been somehow artificially restricted. Otherwise, the above-described, high-salary regime could not have persisted because the excess supply of qualified candidates at the higher salaries would have put downward pressure on salaries.
Ever-spiraling salaries have in part resulted from trustees’ irresponsible acceptance of a convenient belief -- perpetuated by top administrators and their hired consultants -- that the only people qualified to head universities are those who have "gone through the chairs," that is, people who have previously served in similar positions elsewhere or come from the higher education establishment. It is hardly surprising that among U.S. doctoral universities, presidential salaries rose an average 81 percent while faculty salaries rose only 47 percent between 1993 and 2003. Moreover, as top administrators from the post-World War II baby boom era retire, selection of new presidents from the existing and limited pool of itinerant college presidents and other top administrators will potentially provoke even more intense bidding wars.
Nevertheless, an enormous supply of willing and able, administratively-oriented, professors -- such as existing deans, vice chancellors, vice provosts and chairs of professional schools and large departments -- as well as term-limited politicians and similarly suitable outsiders, would provide essentially the same services at much lower salaries.
The growing salary gap between university administrators and faculty (and staff) will likely become more divisive. Selecting from a small, virtually revolving pool of candidates who have previously led similar academic institutions demoralizes deans and other academic middle managers who have no realistic expectation of rising through the ranks of their institutions. An exemplary social science dean I know is returning to full-time teaching after having participated in innumerable administrative searches as “the token white male.” Narrow selection criteria also risk promoting leaders who will not mesh with their campus cultures. Universities are being disserved when the selection process disadvantages the large and growing number of middle-level university administrators, term-limited politicians, and others who would be excellent higher education executives and willing to serve at much lower salaries than are currently paid.
Berkeley provides a market check. Berkeley recently became the first UC campus to designate a chief administrative and financial officer to oversee its nonacademic functions. The former banker’s base salary is $260,000, with no relocation or housing support, and a standard 5 percent severance ($13,000). Berkeley’s Chancellor Robert Birgineau (whose compensation package is somehow more than twice as generous) opined that the three suitable candidates who came forward at the advertised $250,000 salary did so because “they love Berkeley.” Sorry, chancellor, that’s the market rate -- when the search process is open, not larded up with unnecessary requirements. The other two qualified candidates would be more than suitable to perform similar tasks in the nearby UC president’s office at much lower than current rates there.
UC’s current compensation debacle is largely a replay of UC’s early-1990s, “golden handshakes” problems. Subsequent policies to fix these problems were either waived, ignored or circumvented by administrators. Had the regents used independent advisors they likely would have questioned the market-justification for the large proposed salary increases for administrators and certainly would have discovered the discrepancies between regent compensation policies and their implementation.
Nevertheless, the regents’ addition of an independent compliance officer will at best solve only what is probably a relatively small part of the compensation problem. Even if this officer corrects the internal problem of improper executive overpayments within UC, the larger problem of continually escalating salaries and perks would remain. A more important change would add independent advisors to inform the regents about available alternative administrative personnel and other compensation issues. While the regents and the president can be presumed knowledgeable about suitable outsiders, a couple of experienced, full-time, taxpayer-sensitive, UC professors who are painfully aware of qualified, underemployed administrative talent within the university would suffice. Recognition of the above problems at UC may not inspire boards of trustees everywhere to reclaim their authority over the hiring of top administrators. It should, however, inspire trustees to broaden significantly their board’s qualifying criteria for top administrators, as well as to insist that recommended compensation packages be demonstrably in line with the candidates’ options in the marketplace. To eliminate the current excessive salaries of top administrators and executives will require that boards of trustees and directors both hire advisors to expose overpayment fraud and recruit independent, full-time advisors from the ordinary, experienced, non-administrative employees of the organization to inform them about available alternative administrative personnel.
Velma Montoya, a Ph.D. economist, is a consultant and writer about higher education. She was a member of the University of California Board of Regents from 1994 to 2005 and represented the board on the California Postsecondary Education Commission.
When Paul W. Barrows announced in November that he was stepping down from his administrative position at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he cited "changing family circumstances" and said he would use his eligible leave time while preparing for a career change. The university press release included praise for Barrows for his work as vice chancellor for student affairs.
John D. Wiley, the chancellor, praised Barrows for his "thoughtful leadership."