A great number of Americans have not felt the benefits of the economic recovery, but in 2012, the number of private university presidents receiving over $1 million in compensation increased by one, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
For context, the President of the United States makes less than half that—$400,000.
Why should the CEO of a small institution receive a base salary greater than that of the President of the United States? This is an affront over which American taxpayers should be thoroughly riled. Though the report considered only private colleges—making it tempting to brush off their spendthrift ways as institutional, rather than public, problems—all of these schools are accredited and so receive taxpayer money in the form of federal student loans. Some receive so much that it would be reasonable to question their status as “private” entities. How do colleges and universities defend this spending?
The argument for so highly compensating college presidents (and other administrators) boils down to a concern about prestige. ACTA’s report Education or Reputation? A Look at America’s Top-Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges outlines the ways in which private liberal arts colleges chase reputation at the expense of student success. Wrapped up in this concern for name and notoriety is a desire to attract “big names” to executive positions with huge salaries.
But consider the example of Mitch Daniels at Purdue. Despite asking for less compensation than he was offered, he’s far from a no-name presidential pick and has already proven his worth time and again. Raymond Burse at Kentucky State University asked for a similar cut. Both prove that talented administrators don’t take their jobs based on compensation alone.
On a deeper level, however, these salaries undermine morale on campus. The message sent by administrative compensation at eight or ten times that received by faculty is a clear one: instruction doesn’t matter and neither do instructors. Rather, such salaries proclaim, what matters is institutional prestige, the name and fame of the president and the school, and reputation-building investments that provide little for students. If you wonder what deteriorating campus morale might look like, check out the student protests currently plaguing the University of California system as it raises tuition in the midst of administrative salary hikes.
Some colleges, thankfully, are catching on. ACTA covered a plan for a presidential pay cap at St. Mary’s College earlier this year. We thought St. Mary’s professor Sandy Ganzell hit the nail on the head with regard to this issue. She said they wanted a president who: “would be attracted because of the pay plan, which is rooted in the notion of an academic community and in a belief that higher education represents a call to service, not the pursuit of top salary and privileges.”
University leaders must realize that they have the power to rein in presidential pay, through pay-caps and hiring decisions, and make the tough decisions that—despite varying from the norm—will help maintain a sense that a campus is a community of learning rather than the presidential palace.